How to develop mental toughness
This is one of those posts that I feel weird writing, because who am I to talk about mental toughness? I’m a private-school-educated guy who grew up in the suburbs of a sleepy Southern town, not a veteran, not an athlete or anything like that. But I speak to some of my friends who read my monthly recaps and they occasionally ask how I motivate myself to do any of it. I never really know how to answer that question. “I don’t know, man, I guess I just do it…”
I’m a growing fan of Jocko Willink’s work after listening to his interview on the Tim Ferriss show and reading Extreme Ownership, which discusses his approach to leadership. In his first episode of the Jocko Podcast, Jocko gets asked the question I’m tackling here: “how do you develop mental toughness?” Jocko’s a Navy SEAL who fought in Iraq, a jiu-jitsu practitioner, surfer, etc., etc. The dude’s hardcore. And he doesn’t really know how to answer this question, because he’s always been mentally tough. He doesn’t think about not being mentally tough.
I am not Jocko. I try to wake up early every weekday morning, but at least one day every week I oversleep and I can’t bring myself to keep up the discipline into the weekend. I downloaded Civilization V and struggle to stay away from it for more than a day or so. I get nervous about talking to new people. I really like Twitter and have a nervous tic that causes me to obsessively check it.
Still, I think that mental toughness is more of a choice I make every day than it is something I am or am not. When I successfully wake up at 5:30 and hit the ground for the gym, I am doing a mentally tough thing. When I tell myself “one more SICP course video, no Civ5 yet,” I am doing a mentally tough thing. When I tell myself “no Twitter, write the mental toughness post,” I am doing a mentally tough thing. Conversely, when I oversleep my alarm, I am doing a mentally weak thing. When I try to say “it’s not my fault that I overslept,” it’s an even weaker thing.
But mental toughness here is something I practice, not something I am or am not. That is critical to how to tackle it. It’s not a question of something I am or am not, it’s a response to a particular choice that I get to make multiple times a day. I can wake up early in the morning, work out, bust my chops at work, and then totally break down on something that I wanted to get done that night. Or I can oversleep and eat junk food throughout the day but still toughen myself up at lunchtime and finish the day on a high note.
I find that there are a few things that help me maintain that mental toughness:
- I wake up early and go to the gym before work. If I do this, I go into the office with all the endorphin highs of working out and I leave the office without an obligation to squeeze in a workout after work. That’s an immensely helpful situation to be in. When you start your day off like this, doing something that’s important to you, you’ve set the tone for the entire day. For me, that’s working out. For you, it might be the 500 words challenge or cooking yourself a gourmet meal to take into work that day. Just start the day off on your own terms rather than stressed out and sprinting to the office.
- I meditate. This is an on and off thing for me, mostly based on available time and how I’m choosing to use it, but I always find that a ten-minute meditative practice helps with my mental toughness for the entire rest of the day afterward.
- I avoid overconsumption of alcohol and caffeine. The alcohol part should be a no-brainer. Even if you’re just a little foggy from the night before, you’re having to expend mental energy just to grind through the day. The caffeine is a little counter-intuitive, but I’ve found that reducing myself to a single cup of tea does more for my mental toughness than clinging to my pot of coffee. Sure, I’m more energetic on the multiple cups of coffee, but that doesn’t mean I’m able to mentally buckle down.
What works for you? I know there are a lot of people out there with more highly developed strategies than mine for practicing mental toughness, and I’d love to hear about them.