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The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life

The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a good athlete? Or a good leader? Or a good parent? Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail? What makes the difference?

Usually we answer these questions by talking about the talent of top performers. He must be the smartest scientist in the lab. She’s faster than everyone else on the team. He is a brilliant business strategist. But I think we all know there is more to the story than that.

In fact, when you start looking into it, your talent and your intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. The research studies that I have found say that intelligence only accounts for 30% of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end.

What makes a bigger impact than talent or intelligence? Mental toughness.

Research is starting to reveal that your mental toughness — or “grit” as they call it — plays a more important role than anything else for achieving your goals in health, business, and life. That’s good news because you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, but you can do a lot to develop mental toughness.

Why is mental toughness so important? And how can you develop more of it?

Mental Toughness and The United States Military

Each year, approximately 1,300 cadets join the entering class at the United States Military Academy, West Point. During their first summer on campus, cadets are required to complete a series of brutal tests. This summer initiation program is known internally as “Beast Barracks.”

In the words of researchers who have studied West Point cadets, “Beast Barracks is deliberately engineered to test the very limits of cadets’ physical, emotional, and mental capacities.”

You might imagine that the cadets who successfully complete Beast Barracks are bigger, stronger, or more intelligent than their peers. But Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found something different when she began tracking the cadets.

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Duckworth studies achievement, and more specifically, how your mental toughness, perseverance, and passion impact your ability to achieve goals. At West Point, she tracked a total of 2,441 cadets spread across two entering classes. She recorded their high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score (which reflects participation in extracurricular activities), Physical Aptitude Exam (a standardized physical exercise evaluation), and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals).

Here’s what she found out…

It wasn’t strength or smarts or leadership potential that accurately predicted whether or not a cadet would finish Beast Barracks. Instead, it was grit — the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals — that made the difference.

In fact, cadets who were one standard deviation higher on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to finish Beast Barracks than their peers. It was mental toughness that predicted whether or not a cadet would be successful, not their talent, intelligence, or genetics.

When Is Mental Toughness Useful?

Duckworth’s research has revealed the importance of mental toughness in a variety of fields.

In addition to the West Point study, she discovered that…

  • When comparing two people who are the same age but have different levels of education, grit (and not intelligence) more accurately predicts which one will be better educated.
  • Competitors in the National Spelling Bee outperform their peers not because of IQ, but because of their grit and commitment to more consistent practice.

And it’s not just education where mental toughness and grit are useful. Duckworth and her colleagues heard similar stories when they started interviewing top performers in all fields…

Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.
—Angela Duckworth

You have probably seen evidence of this in your own experiences. Remember your friend who squandered their talent? How about that person on your team who squeezed the most out of their potential? Have you known someone who was set on accomplishing a goal, no matter how long it took?

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You can read the whole research study here, but this is the bottom line:

In every area of life — from your education to your work to your health — it is your amount of grit, mental toughness, and perseverance predicts your level of success more than any other factor we can find.

In other words, talent is overrated.

What Makes Someone Mentally Tough?

It’s great to talk about mental toughness, grit, and perseverance … but what do those things actually look like in the real world?

In a word, toughness and grit equal consistency.

Mentally tough leaders are more consistent than their peers. They have a clear goal that they work towards each day. They don’t let short–term profits, negative feedback, or hectic schedules prevent them from continuing the march towards their vision. They make a habit of building up the people around them — not just once, but over and over and over again.

Mentally tough artists, writers, and employees deliver on a more consistent basis than most. They work on a schedule, not just when they feel motivated. They approach their work like a pro, not an amateur. They do the most important thing first and don’t shirk responsibilities.

The good news is that grit and perseverance can become your defining traits, regardless of the talent you were born with. You can become more consistent. You can develop superhuman levels of mental toughness.

How?

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In my experience, these 3 strategies work well in the real world…

1. Define what mental toughness means for you.

For the West Point army cadets being mentally tough meant finishing an entire summer of Beast Barracks.

For you, it might be…

  • going one month without missing a workout
  • going one week without eating processed or packaged food
  • delivering your work ahead of schedule for two days in a row
  • meditating every morning this week
  • grinding out one extra rep on each set at the gym today
  • calling one friend to catch up every Saturday this month
  • spending one hour doing something creative every evening this week

Whatever it is, be clear about what you’re going after. Mental toughness is an abstract quality, but in the real world it’s tied to concrete actions. You can’t magically think your way to becoming mentally tough, you prove it to yourself by doing something in real life.

Which brings me to my second point…

2. Mental toughness is built through small physical wins.

So often we think that mental toughness is about how we respond to extreme situations. How did you perform in the championship game? Can you keep your life together while grieving the death of a family member? Did you bounce back after your business went bankrupt?

There’s no doubt that extreme situations test our courage, perseverance, and mental toughness … but what about everyday circumstances?Mental toughness is like a muscle. It needs to be worked to grow and develop. If you haven’t pushed yourself in thousands of small ways, of course you’ll wilt when things get really difficult.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to create when it would be easier to consume. Choose to ask the extra question when it would be easier to accept. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have enough guts to get in the ring and do battle with life.

Mental toughness is built through small wins. It’s the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle.” We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.

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3. Mental toughness is about your habits, not your motivation.

Motivation is fickle. Willpower comes and goes.

Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again.

Mentally tough people don’t have to be more courageous, more talented, or more intelligent — just more consistent. Mentally tough people develop systems that help them focus on the important stuff regardless of how many obstacles life puts in front of them. It’s their habits that form the foundation of their mental beliefs and ultimately set them apart. Here are the basic steps for building a new habit and links to further information on doing each step.

  1. Start by building your identity.
  2. Focus on small behaviors, not life–changing transformations.
  3. Develop a routine that gets you going regardless of how motivated you feel.
  4. Stick to the schedule and forget about the results.
  5. When you slip up, get back on track as quickly as possible.

Mental toughness comes down to your habits. It’s about doing the things you know you’re supposed to do on a more consistent basis. It’s about your dedication to daily practice and your ability to stick to a schedule.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

References:
1. Thanks to my good friend Bryan for writing about toughness and sparking my interest on the topic.

Featured photo credit: Dawolf via flickr.com

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Published on January 16, 2019

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

We’re all busy, but sometimes we go through periods where the work piles up and it seems like it might never end.

You might have such a heavy workload that it feels too intimidating to even start.

You may have said yes to some or too many projects, and now you’re afraid you won’t be able to deliver.

That’s when you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and start looking at what’s working and what’s not working.

Here’re 13 strategies you can use to get out from under your overwhelming workload:

1. Acknowledge You Can’t Do It All

Many of us have a tendency to think we can do more than we actually can. We take on more and more projects and responsibility and wear numerous hats.

We all have the opportunity to have and take on more work than we can reasonably expect to get done. Unfortunately, our workload is not static. Even now, while you are reading this article, I’m guessing that your inbox is filling up with fresh new tasks.

To make real, effective progress, you have to have both the courage and resourcefulness to say, “This is not working”. Acknowledge that you can’t do it all and look for better solutions.

At any given time in your life, there are likely many things that aren’t going according to plan. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself and those around you about what’s not working for you, both personally and professionally.

The more you exercise your ability to tell the truth about what’s working and what’s not working, the faster you’ll make progress.

2. Focus on Your Unique Strengths

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a leader or working as part of a team, every individual has unique strengths they can bring to the table.

The challenge is that many people end up doing things that they’re simply not very good at.

In the pursuit of reaching your goals or delivering a project, people end up doing everything themselves or taking on things that don’t play to their unique strengths. This can result in frustration, overwhelm and overwork.

It can mean projects taking a lot longer to complete because of knowledge gaps, or simply not utilizing the unique strengths of other people you work with.

It is often not about how to complete this project more effectively but who can help deliver this project.

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So, what are your unique strengths that will ensure your workload is delivered more effectively? Here’re some questions to help you reflect:

  • Are you a great strategist?
  • Are you an effective planner?
  • Is Project Management your strength?
  • Is communication and bringing people together your strength?
  • Are you the ideas person?
  • Is Implementation your strength?

Think about how you can bring the biggest value to your work and the projects you undertake.

3. Use the Strengths of Your Team

One of the simplest ways to manage your workload effectively is to free up your time so you bring your highest level of energy, focus and strengths to each project.

Delegation or better teamwork is the solution.

Everyone has unique strengths. It’s essential to think teamwork rather than working in isolation to ensure projects can be completed effectively. Besides, every time you give away a task or project that doesn’t play to your unique strengths, you open up an opportunity to do something you’re more talented at. This will empower both yourself and those around you.

Rather than taking on all the responsibilities yourself, look at who you can work with to deliver the best results possible.

4. Take Time for Planning

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. – Abraham Lincoln

One hour of effective planning could save hours of time. Rather than just rushing in and getting started on projects, take the time to map everything in.

You can take the time to think about:

  • What’s the purpose of the project?
  • How Important is it?
  • When does it need to be delivered by?
  • What is the best result and worst result for this project?
  • What are the KPIs?
  • What does the project plan and key milestones look like?
  • Who is working on this project?
  • What is everyone’s responsibilities?
  • What tolerances can I add in?
  • What are the review stages?
  • What are the challenges we may face and the solutions for these challenges?

Having absolute clarity on the project, the project deliverables and the result you want can save a lot of time. It also gets you clear on the priorities and timelines, so you can block out the required amount of time to focus and concentrate.

5. Focus on Priorities

Not everything is a priority, although it can often feel, in the moment, that it is.

Whatever you’re working on, there is always the Most Urgent, Important or Most Valuable projects or tasks.

One tool you can use to maximize your productivity and focus on your biggest priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix. This strategic tool for taking action on the things that matter most is simple. You separate your actions based on four possibilities:

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
  2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
  3. Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

James Clear has a great description on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix: How to be More Productive By Using the Eisenhower Box

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    The method I use with my coaching clients is to ask them to lay out their Top Five priorities for the day. Then to start with the most important priority first. At the end of the day, you review performance against these priorities.

    If you didn’t get everything accomplished, start the next day with your number one priority.

    If you are given additional task/projects during the day, then you will need to gauge their importance V the other priorities.

    6. Take Time Out

    To stay on top of a heavy workload, it’s important to take time out to rest and recuperate.

    If your energy levels are high and your mind and body is refreshed and alert, you are in more of a peak state to handle a heavy workload.

    Take time out of your day to go for a walk or get some exercise in. Leave early when possible and spend time with people who give you a lot of energy.

    In the background, it’s essential to get a good night’s sleep and eat healthily to sharpen the mind.

    Take a look at this article learn about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

    7. Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance

    Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be tough. The balance we all crave is very different from one another.

    I’ve written before about 13 Work Life Balance Tips for a Happy and Productive Life. Working longer and harder doesn’t mean achieving more, especially if you have no time to spend with the people that matter most. The quality of who you are as a person, the relationships you have, the time you spend in work, deciding on what matters most is completely within your control.

    Work-life balance is about finding peace within yourself to be fully present, wherever you are, whether that be in the office or at home, right now. It’s about choosing what matters most and creating your own balanced life.

    If you feel there is not enough balance, then it may be time to make a change.

    8. Stop Multitasking

    Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain simply can’t work effectively by doing more than one thing at a time—at least more than one thing that requires focused attention.

    So get your list of priorities (see earlier point), do the most important thing first, then move to the next item and work down your list.

    When you split your focus over a multitude of different areas, you can’t consistently deliver a high performance. You won’t be fully present on the one task or project at hand.

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    If you allocate blocked time and create firm boundaries for specific activities and commitments, you won’t feel so overwhelmed or overworked with everything you have to do.

    9. Work in Blocks of Time

    To keep your energy up to produce your best results it’s essential to take regular breaks.

    I use the 60-60-30 method myself and teach it to my coaching clients.

    Work on a project for a sustained period of 50 minutes.

    Then take a 10-minute break. This could be taking a walk, having a healthy snack or just having a conversation with someone.

    Then continue to work on the project for a further 50 minutes.

    Then take another 10-minute break.

    Then take a complete 30-minute break to unplug from the work. This could be time for a proper lunch, a quick bit of exercise, reading or having a walk.

    By simply taking some time out, your energy levels stay up, the quality of your work improves and you reduce the risk of becoming burned out.

    10. Get Rid of Distractions

    Make an estimation on how many times you are distracted during an average working day. Now take that number and multiply it by 25. According to Gloria Mark in her study on The Cost of Interrupted Work, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after interruption.[1]

    “Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood and lower productivity.”

    Distractions don’t just take up your time during the distraction, they can derail your mental progress and focus for almost 25 minutes. So, if you are distracted 5 times per day, you could be losing almost 2 hours every day of productive work and almost 10 hours every week.

    If you have an important project to work on, find a space where you won’t be distracted, or try doing this.

    11. Commit Focused Time to Smaller Tasks

    You know sometimes, you need to simply tackle these tasks and take action on them. But there’s always something more pressing.

    Small tasks can often get in the way of your most important projects. They sit there on your daily To Do list but are often forgotten about because of more important priorities or because they hold no interest for you. But they take up mental energy. They clutter your mind.

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    Commit to spending a specific period of time completing all the small tasks you have on your To Do list. It will give you peace of mind and the space to focus more on your bigger priorities.

    12. Take a Time Audit

    Do you know exactly where your time is going each day? Are you spending too long on certain projects and tasks to the detriment of bigger opportunities?

    Spend a bit of time to analyze where you are spending your time. This insight will amaze you and give you the clarity to start adjusting where you focus your time and on what projects.

    You can start by taking a piece of paper and creating three columns:

    Column A is Priority Work. Column B is Good Work. Column C is low value work or stuff.

    Each day, write down the project or task and the time spent on each. Allocate that time to one of the columns.

    At the end of the week, record the total time spent in each column.

    If you are spending far too much time on certain types of work, look to change things so your focused time is in Column B and C.

    13. Protect Your Confidence

    It is essential to protect our confidence to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed, stressed and lose belief.

    When you have confidence as a daily resource, you are in a better position to problem solve, learn quicker, respond to anything, adjust to anything, and achieve your biggest opportunities.

    Confidence gives you the ability to transform fear into focused and relaxed thinking, communication, and action. This is key to put your mind into a productive state.

    When confidence is high, you can clearly see the possibilities at hand and create strategies to take advantage of them, or to solve the challenges you face each day.

    Final Words

    A heavy workload can be tough to deal with and can cause stress, burnout and ongoing frustration.

    The key is to tackle it head on, rather than let it go on and compound the long-term effects. Hopefully, you can take action on at least one of these tips.

    If it gets too much, and negatively affects your physical and mental health, it may be time to talk to someone. Instead of dealing with it alone and staying unhappier, resentful and getting to a point where you simply can’t cope, you have to make a change for your own sanity.

    Featured photo credit: Hannah Wei via unsplash.com

    Reference

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