Yeah really. This wouldn’t be much of a post on mental toughness if you didn’t have to work a bit to get through it!
Before you think about that for too long, let me ask you a simple question.
Have you ever quit on anything only to regret it later?
I sure have. And you likely have too.
You and I both know what quitting looks, feels and sounds like, right?
Good. I’m glad you agree because knowing what quitting looks like is an important part of mental toughness.
Yessiree. Keep reading to find out why.
But before you do, let me ask you another question
Have you ever pushed yourself to your absolute limits physically, mentally, and emotionally and felt like you couldn’t go any further?
On this one I’m guessing the answer is also yes, at least for most people reading this post. My guess is that the lazier amongst us stopped dead in their tracks when they read the title of this article.
Whether you’ve given birth, run a marathon, or you’ve shown up daily to have your butt kicked by the WOD – anything you’ve done that has brought you to the limit qualifies.
And when you were in that place, that uncomfortable, painful place of smacking into your limits, did you wish you had just a little bit more in the tank?
Again, I’m guessing the answer is yes.
And that’s what this article is all about: consider these your tools to use when sh*t hits the fan and you’re gassed, in pain, and staring your quit in the face.
The following list is not exhaustive (pun intended) but should be a good kickstart if you’re looking for techniques you can apply to better control yourself and push through tough situations.
Alright, let’s get to it.
#1. Take Control Your Breathing
Using breath work for recovery, state control, & emotional control is a technique that’s been taught and practiced around the world for eons.
Former Navy Seal Mark Divine teaches his students “box breathing”. It works like this: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breathe for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold your breathe at the end of your exhale for 4 seconds, inhale for 4 seconds etc. Repeat for 5-10 minutes.
This is an excellent practice to cultivate daily to increase awareness and insight and to deal with ongoing stress. If time or circumstance doesn’t allow for an extended session, simply take deep breathes purposefully to regain your composure when you’re in the thick of it.
#2. Train Extreme to Prepare for Extreme
Use extreme physical workouts to push yourself physically and mentally to build toughness, grit, and resiliency. This is probably one of the more obvious tips on the list but if you’re looking to build mental toughness, you need to regularly do tough things! Past wins build future belief in self.
#3. Know Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing
Knowing your “why” – the deep reason (as opposed to surface level reasons) you’re doing something is a technique for avoiding quitting. When you get to the point of failure, when you think you cannot go any further, recall your reasons for doing the task at hand in the first place.
A helpful exercise is to ask “why” 6 times. Ask yourself why you’re doing something, then question your answer. Repeat the process 6 times to try to uncover your deepest, truest reasons for taking on a big challenge. Then keep your reasons in mind when the going gets tough.
#4. Just Note Gone
Tim Ferriss, in his new book “Tools of Titans” recounts a lesson he learned from a Buddhist monk. The practice is to pause and note when something is over. For example: pain.
When a rep during a tough workout passes, take a second to note that. When an obstacle or challenge has been passed, note that too. Part of the idea with this mindfulness technique is to cultivate the understanding that every difficulty passes in time which can help you when shit is hitting the fan in the moment.
#5. Visualize Your Best Self (A.k.a: The “Other You” Exercise)
To date I’ve never read about this anywhere so for the time being I’ll take credit for this one. The “Other You” exercise is a mental preparation exercise where you visualize your ideal self either beside you doing the activity you’re doing, or talking to you or encouraging you onwards.
See your ideal self the way you want to be, without any of your weaknesses. This visualization can give you energy and confidence.
Former Navy Seal and ultramarathon athlete David Goggins talks about his alter ego “Goggins”, being a character he created in his mind who was far more powerful then he felt himself. He would then attempt to become “Goggins” during extreme races like the Badwater 100. (For the record, I heard this after I stumbled upon the method on my own.)
#6. Take Your Focus Off of Yourself
When you are at your lowest point or have hit a wall or feel stuck in a rut, focus on those around you.
Find a way to encourage someone or help a teammate or someone else in your life out. Focusing on others is as simple as it is powerful and an often overlooked mental toughness tool.
#7. Set and Achieve Micro Goals
The harder something gets, the more you need to think about just completing the next micro step towards finishing it. If you’re running, tell yourself you’ll keep running until the next telephone pole. If you’re doing a workout, focus on finishing the next rep. Get through the next 60 seconds, and so on.
The bigger the goal or the longer the time frame, the more you can break it down into tiny steps you can take and get done right now.
#8. Be in Present Moment
One of the reasons a great many people run long distances or do extreme workouts is because hard, intense physical effort shuts off the mind from chattering.
When the going gets tough, Navy Seals use a term called “embracing the suck”. When you are really feeling it, when it’s tough as hell, that’s when you need to embrace the present moment. Double down, push through, and relish whatever it is that you’re doing. Push off thoughts of tomorrow or even the next hour or two. Face what’s in front of you right now. Dig deep.
#9. Use A Power Mantra
“Feeling good, looking good, oughta be in Hollywood” is what former Navy Seal Mark Divine said to himself when toughing it out through BUDS training.
Jordan Romero, the youngest person ever to summit Everest, used a similar technique on some of his toughest climbs while completing the 7 Summits.
Find something you can say to yourself, a song you can sing, or something you repeat over and over when the going gets tough to keep your mind from freaking out or causing you to quit. Here’s one you can use: “I’m tough, I’m strong, I can do this all day long!”
#10. Follow The 60% Rule
In “Living With a Seal” Jesse Itzler recounts how Navy Seal David Goggins taught him that when he felt like he had nothing left, he likely still had another 40% left in the “tank”. The point is that we often feel like quitting far, far before our minds and bodies actually need to stop. Remember this and push on.
#11. Keep Going Until Your Second Wind, Then Keep on Going
On the CIVILIAN STRONG podcast, entrepreneur and father of 7, Ed O’keefe shared a story of one of his darkest moments during the 52 hour civilian hell week called “Kokoro Camp” – something Ed voluntarily signed up for.
24+ hours into the event Ed started puking uncontrollably. Quitting was never an option in his mind so he pressed on. What surprised him was that just a short while later his body rebounded and he got a second wind over 24 hours into the event.
So remember that your body can bounce back no matter what you’ve put it through, keep pushing on until you get that next wind, it might be right around the corner.
#12. Remember: You Know What Quitting Looks Like Already
On the Ed O’keefe Show, former Navy Seal David Goggins said that one of the things he remembers when he’s doing something incredibly tough is that he already knows what it looks like to quit.
He’s quit before and so have you and I. We already know what that looks like and feels like. So keep pushing forward because change, satisfaction, and reward all come after you finish what you started.
#13. Your Before, During and After Drivers
Know what’s driving you, know why you’re there in the present moment, and know what you have to look forward to.
This was an insight I gained by interviewing ultramarathon runner Paul Romero. Paul said that when running the Tahoe 200 mile ultramarathon, he wanted the satisfaction of winning the event – that was his before driver. During the race he had a lot of people behind him, pursuing him. He’s competitive so that competition in the moment drove him to run faster. And his after was the reward of rest, being with friends, enjoying the victory ceremonies and other comforts. His before, during, and after motivators were clearly in mind all 200 miles of the race.
#14. Shift Into Mental Toughness Gear
On a 2 week long hunting trip in the North Eastern Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, drastically out of shape, I discovered for myself the idea of “mental gears”.
Finding myself hiking for up to 10 km a day up into the mountains, I realized that I needed to leave my city mindset behind and switch into a new mental gear. The state I entered was one of completing the challenges at hand no matter what. The gear I shifted into consisted of forgetting about what was going on back in the real world, and totally accepting that every day for the next two weeks would be grueling hard work.
When you find yourself in a medium to long term event, you need to accept that it’s going to be hard. Then switch into a new, lower mental gear, just like riding a bike. Then grind it out moment by moment until you’re done.
#15. Use Pain as a Motivating Force
This is one that may be tough to understand but ultramarathon runner Paul Romero, on the CIVILIAN STRONG podcast, discusses how he’s able to use pain to motivate him to press on when he’s in the thick of it.
Could you do the same?
#16. Use a Jingle
On the Team Never Quit podcast, Jordan Romero, the youngest person ever to summit Mount Everest, spoke about how he sang a jingle in his mind when the going got tough on the mountain. Try using your favorite song next time things get tough. Just keep moving and repeating it in your mind as you put one foot in front of the other.
#17. Use Visualizations For Energy & Power
Entrepreneur, Crossfit athlete, father of 7, and Kokoro Camp grad Ed Okeefe uses a visualization for when he enters “the pain cave”.
When Ed starts to hit his physical and mental barriers, he visualizes powerful animals around him that represent different aspects of his life. He then draws energy from those animal visualizations. Lions, wolves, bears – all are powerful creatures and even thinking about them can give you energy when you need it most.
#18. Remember: It Could Always be Worse
Whatever your predicament, remember that it could be worse. This ties closely to “knowing what quitting looks like”.
If you know it could be worse and if you know what quitting looks like, then use that knowledge to keep pushing forward. Feel a sense of relief (if possible) that the situation isn’t any harder or more difficult than it already is.
What Tips Would You Add?
Leave your tips in the comments section.