Volatility. Uncertainty. Stress. Burnout. Social unrest. Climate volatility. Market volatility. COVID Wave #4 (or 5 or 22?). Such headlines have gripped us for the past 13 months, creating high levels of stress and anxiety that pervade our work and our home lives. As a result, many of us resort to our three basic survival instincts:
- Fight: Push yourself (and your team) as hard as you can. Such efforts can have positive results in the immediate term, but success attenuates as time wears on. We cannot keep up the intensity day after day. Our mental game suffers: by pushing ourselves too hard, we exhaust our energy and effort and miss opportunities for much-needed rest for our bodies and brains. An example of this fight response came from a CEO, who recently said to me, “I don’t understand why everyone hasn’t been working from the office this whole time. Just get off your butts and get to work!” While this might project toughness, it fails to reflect empathy for the protracted anxiety her team might be experiencing. This can build resentment and disengagement, both death knells for the mental toughness needed to sustain high performance over time.
- Flight: On the opposite end of the threat response continuum: retreat! Put on your comfy PJs for two weeks straight, grip tightly to your hot beverage (with or without accompanying libatory element), and bask in the popular #staycozy mantra by binge-watching Netflix and TikTok videos. Great for a momentary recharge, but it is not effective for long-term health or success. Our mental game here is under-utilized: we don’t set challenging enough goals that grow our mental toughness. As flow guru Steven Kotler might say, we don’t have enough pressure to create flow. When “taking a break” starts to overpower pushing ourselves, we forget what it takes to work at the top of our game. For example, some senior managers I spoke with a few months ago were struggling with team performance. They felt they needed better results from their teams, but they didn’t want to be insensitive to their #WFH challenges. Without clear direction or accountability, team members were left with little pressure to push themselves to be their best.
- Freeze: Last and truly least: Remain in a constant state of anxiety, exacerbated by doomscrolling, Twitter voyeurism, and Zoom calls with friends talking about how awful things are. While talking things out helps mental processing, if the talking is not linked to specific actions, it becomes “admiring the problem.” Such behaviors keep us in a constant state of fear and anxiety, without any sense of agency or control. Of the three, the “freeze” state can be the most physically and mentally detrimental: prolonged elevations of the stress hormone cortisol can lead to a host of health issues, such as obesity, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Legendary psychologist Martin Seligman found in his early research that helplessness can give rise to hopelessness, which is a factor in depression. Many leaders inadvertently find themselves in this place at present, overwhelmed by the ambiguity of the future state yet wanting desperately to move away from the current state. It can be challenging to build mental toughness when the external environment seems to be slamming you into the rocks of uncertainty every few minutes.
Each threat response is as old as homo sapiens (OK, the PJs may be cozier now than millions of years ago). Our brains and bodies prepare for a life-and-death decision: choose wrong, and you may not live to tell about it. The problem is, the current source of our anxiety is not sudden, immediate, and over; it is entrenched, protracted, and generalized. For example, “I could be exposed to COVID” is not as threatening as “I have COVID.” Similarly, the threat of “How will I manage my kids’ hybrid school schedule when I return to the office?” is not the same as “I don’t have a job.” In a future filled with uncertainty, how can we build mental toughness to help us thrive despite protracted stressors?
What is Mental Toughness? Guicciardi et al. (2015) define mental toughness as “…A personal capacity to produce consistently high levels of subjective (e.g., personal goals or strivings) or objective performance (e.g., sales, race time, GPA) despite everyday challenges and stressors as well as significant adversities.” Further, “[It] can be defined as a state-like psychological resource that is purposeful, flexible, and efficient in nature for the enactment and maintenance of goal-directed pursuits.” The research on mental toughness transcends both age and environments (work, school, sports).
Let’s break this down a bit. Personal capacity means it lies within each of us. State-like means it is changeable and learnable. In other words, mental toughness is something we each can build, but we can and must do it for ourselves. Here are four strategies to help you build mental toughness and escape the fight/flight/freeze doom spiral.
- Develop Your Personal Control Systems. Martin Seligman’s pioneering research on learned helplessness showed that animals learned to be helpless when they thought they could not escape a negative stimulus. However, 50 years later. Seligmans’s research discovered that it isn’t what we learn but what we don’t learn that breeds helplessness – and that’s control. By building mechanisms to increase our control, we can escape the frozen feeling that might keep us trapped in negative cycles.
Try these strategies to take control. Let’s say that since #WFH started in earnest during March 2020, you’ve struggled to balance your time between work and home activities:
- Pick a small, meaningful, discrete activity that you can take control over. Perhaps it’s setting a set time to stop work activities every day. Or maybe it’s giving yourself a specific block of quiet time for your most important work activities every day.
- Commit to it. Put it on the calendar. Move obstacles that could prevent you from doing it. Whatever that time was used for before, move it somewhere else.
- Do it first. If this something critical to your success, then put it at the top of the day. Make sure nothing else can get in its way. Flow guru Stephen Kotler gets up every day at 4 am to write for four hours. He goes from bed to laptop to avoid all other distractions.
By setting up these routines, you elude the aversive feeling frozen, ineffective, or out of control. This is the first step toward mental toughness.
- Build discipline. Taking control may feel easy. We’ve all set goals, committed to them, and put them on the calendar. And yet, sometimes, we still don’t have the mental toughness to hang on to them. Why? Because there’s not enough discipline when we “just don’t wanna.”
We tend to think of discipline as something harsh, punitive, and to be avoided. But what if we saw discipline instead as a liberating force that allows that brings stickiness to control? Think of discipline as an intentional and consistent commitment to action. The challenging part is consistency. It’s easy to commit to something for a few days, but a year? Or five years? That’s tough. What is the key ingredient to being an Olympic athlete or concert cellist? Discipline. A book author? Discipline. But discipline is not just for über-performers. Ask anyone who has ever lost weight in a controlled and steady way, and they will tell you one of the keys to success was discipline.
Here is an excellent example of building discipline on a team: I talked to a CEO, Armaan, a few weeks ago about how difficult it is to have time for personal connection during virtual team meetings. I suggested that Armaan take the first ten minutes of each executive team call to have members connect and share on a personal level. While the idea went well for the first few calls, the energy started to wane. Some people began showing up to the call late, and there was some grousing about “wasting time.” However, Armaan remained resolute, reminding people that this was the only time they were getting all week to connect personally. And remarkably, after a few more calls, they began looking forward to it, which was evident by the banter and engagement. By establishing a discipline to preserve relationships, the team re-engaged in a way they had not done since pre-pandemic days.
How to cultivate discipline at that moment when we “just don’t wanna”:
- STOP. Give yourself one full minute to NOT DECIDE ANYTHING. Just feel the feeling of NOT wanting to do that thing. Tell yourself that it is OK not to want to do it.
- Remember why you committed to it in the first place. Is it for your work priorities? Your team? Your family? Your health? Is it to be “the best” at something? Sit with that feeling, that urgency, that motivation.
- Imagine yourself completing that task. Visualize yourself on the other side of it and how good it is going to feel.
- Then, do it!
- When you are done, acknowledge your success. Perhaps keep a journal or log of how many days in a row you’ve been able to do that thing; you will soon find it hard to let go of your ‘streak.’ This is how apps like Duolingo and Peloton have garnered millions of users.
The fun little secret about discipline is that it permits you to do something just for you. For example, if you commit to walking at lunch every day, rain or shine, and making that your only focus, you get to escape all of the other pressures of the world. For that time, you owe no one anything. This can become an addictive element of any discipline, bringing you back, again and again, to even the toughest of tasks (like running 11 miles in 10 degrees!).
- Embrace your discomfort. In Tim Ferriss’ blog, entrepreneur and American Apparel founder (and Stoicism advocate) Ryan Holiday writes: “Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. But if you can not just anticipate but practice misfortune, then chance loses its ability to disrupt your life.” Part of what creates significant anxiety for most of us is that we live incredibly comfortable lives. However remote, the threat of that comfort being disrupted pushes us into our threat states of fight/flight/freeze.
When we push ourselves intentionally into discomfort to reach a higher goal, we open up a new realm of possibilities. Hence why we all intuitively understand the phrase, “no pain, no gain.” Now, I’m not advocating for 10-minute ice baths every day, but there are ways we mere mortals can change our mindset around intentional discomfort. For example, I have a client, Claudia, who was having difficulty working from home. Every day it seemed a battle to get the kids to settle down and the family in its rightful places to allow her the mental space to get focused work done (sound familiar)? After trying several schedule adjustments, reward behaviors and incentives, and exasperated pleading, Claudia and her partner agreed that she would go to bed at 9:00 each evening and get up at 4:30 AM to give herself dedicated time to work on her most important tasks. Her partner and the kids were instructed to leave her undisturbed until 6:30 AM. At first, she was a bit intimidated by the whole idea, and she wrestled with going to bed early and getting up “before God,” as she said. After a few weeks, Claudia got into the routine and found herself amazed at her productivity. “It feels like I got 50% of my time back!” she told me. Not only has this helped her productivity, but it also unleashed new creativity: she’s been sneaking in a few minutes each day in that window to reflect and write poetry. She built mental toughness by embracing the initial discomfort, which allowed her to reach a new level of what’s possible. She is now so committed to her “in the zone time” that she is trying to find the earliest possible time to get up without compromising sleep or too much family time.
How can you get comfortable being a bit more uncomfortable?
- Improve a habit. Where have you settled into a routine that might not be helping you? Do you reach for your phone first thing when your eyes open and check the news? Turning it off and putting it in another room may be uncomfortable (they still make alarm clocks, you know), but that discomfort might help you to make the shift to a healthier mindset when you first wake up.
- Do/have/desire less. In American culture, we often confuse busyness and having stuff with importance. Yet, in his HBR article on Essentialism, Greg McKeown highlights that doing more, owning more, and wanting more can bring us further from the clarity we all seek. An easy example: Is it easier to decide what to wear tomorrow when you have more clothes in your closet or less? Where can you do or want less? Perhaps you could empower your team members more, which will give great talent to shine. Wanting less professional recognition may free up time for our families. Dedicating time away from our devices can provide room for creativity and bigger thinking.
- Give yourself away. Some modern stoics believe that living without a home or possessions for a time can neutralize the threat of discomfort. But serving those in need is a less extreme way of developing mental toughness: It is challenging for our brains to manage the cognitive dissonance of “woe is me” while experiencing, “wow, I’ve got it good.” I think of it as the upside of downward social comparison. Volunteering has such a positive impact on our mental processes that it has been associated with better mental and physical health. For example, I work with a leader named Jake. In the early days of COID, his team was distressed and anxious. Last Fall, Jake suggested that anyone living in the area join him and his family at a local grocery store parking lot one Saturday morning to (safely) help load donated groceries into the cars of those in need. The first time, only one other person from the team came. Two weeks later, three colleagues showed up, and then seven a few weeks after that. People regularly remarked that they didn’t realize how many people were in such need. He heard several people talk about how grateful they were to have so much. The impact impacted the team at work, too: there was noticeably less anxiety and stress in their meetings. Team members were making more time for one another. And their work improved. Giving time to those in need helped the team recognize that their anxieties were manageable, moving them further along the continuum of mental toughness.
How can you build mental toughness through service?
- Find the right opportunity. For many of us, doing anything face-to-face still seems unsafe. But there are plenty of opportunities to give of your time and talent in virtual ways. Resources like Volunteer Match or the United Way can be a great way to get started. Even a few hours a month can give your brain the cognitive reframing it needs to pull you out of hopelessness and into empowerment.
- Make it about you, not your money. Giving your financial treasure away is a fantastic way to serve those less fortunate. But the mental benefits of service are strongest when you interact with an actual human, not a donation page. Find a way to work directly with someone in need; perhaps help elders in your community get set up with vaccination appointments. Or be a virtual mentor for a middle school student from an economically disadvantaged part of town. When we receive gratitude from others, we are more likely to experience a sense of agency and control, which reduces anxiety and related cortisol levels. No number of zeros in a Venmo payment can replicate that.
We face many unknowns in the days ahead, but one thing is for sure: volatility, uncertainty, and instability will continue. By choosing to build your mental toughness, you can create control, agency, and optimism amid the ambiguity. Now get out of those PJs and make your future great!