“You gain knowledge through suffering. And on the other end of suffering is a world that very few have ever seen — it’s a beautiful world because that’s where you find yourself.”— David Goggins
If anybody knows about suffering, it’s David Goggins. After all, he didn’t get called ‘the hardest man alive’ for nothing. But it’s not just him who talks about callousing the mind. Research almost any high-performer and you will hear them mention suffering as being an essential part of the path to greatness.
Tim Ferris: “I’m not the strongest or fastest, but I’m really good at suffering.”
Robin Sharma: “The great ones all understand that suffering is the price for greatness. How do we become braver? We do the things we don’t feel like doing but will know will have the payoff.”
Bedros Keuilian: “You have to go through the suffering. You have to be hungry enough to deal with the pain and come out the other side with some scars because scar tissue is infinitely more resilient than regular tissue.”
Here’s the thing: When people think of what they ultimately want out of their lives, they often think of happiness. Fewer people mention fulfillment.
But there’s an important distinction between the two. Many things bring me happiness, like my warm, cozy bed, chocolate cake or dancing in a nightclub — but none of those things give me any sense of fulfillment.
Fulfillment is often borne of suffering in the name of something that deeply matters to you. Nobody achieves anything great because they’re happy and comfortable. Every step along the journey to getting great at something is emotionally treacherous. It’s the pain that mastery demands.
The good news is that, just like you would build muscle in the gym through progressive overload, you can train your ‘mental toughness’ muscle. It’s simple in theory, really: You just have to do a lot of hard shit over and over again. Past the point of boredom (which is its own kind of suffering); past the point of fatigue; past the point of comfort and safety.
But just as you wouldn’t walk into a gym and immediately attempt to deadlift 300 pounds, it’s probably a smarter idea to start small at first and gradually build up grit. Once we commit to small acts of suffering and follow through, we begin to build momentum and trust in ourselves that we’ll be able to take on challenging tasks that are necessary for greatness. That’s really what’s at the core of confidence: belief in our ability to figure things out.
Self-integrity is the ultimate game-changer in high performance — and it requires some level of suffering.
Here are six simple little habits to build into your daily routine that will suck in the moment but ultimately strengthen your mental muscles.
1. Build Bright Lines
Tom Bilyeu, motivational speaker and co-founder of Quest Nutrition, talks about a time in his life when he would lie in bed for hours on end after waking up. What he eventually did to cure his laziness was establish what he calls a “bright line” — a rule for himself that he absolutely must follow.
“Bright lines are absolutely non-negotiable. If you can’t sustain any bright lines in your life, you need to develop that ability immediately. They are the secret sauce to really making things happen in your life.” — Tom Bilyeu
So his bright line for getting out of bed is this: He puts on a timer for 10 minutes when he wakes up and that’s how long he has to move his ass. He doesn’t negotiate with himself; he doesn’t cut himself slack — he just gets out of bed.
I believe how we start our mornings is critical because it sets the tone for how the rest of the day is going to go. The earlier you start doing hard things, the easier it gets to keep doing them. So the perfect time to start acting on your bright lines is in your morning routine. This has definitely been a game-changer for me.
Tom’s 10-minute rule is a good one to start out with. Another similar option is to place your phone all the way across the room before you go to bed so that when it goes off in the morning, you have no choice but to immediately get up. It’s not pleasant but it does mean your very first action in the morning is one that exercises your mental toughness muscle. You start your day already feeling like a badass.
From there, it gets easier to act on other bright lines that are specific to your own goals and values. For example, one of my bright lines is that I must find at least an hour in the day to practice playing the guitar. No if, ands, or buts. I also have another similar bright line for doing my vocal practice.
Bright lines are powerful in two ways:
1. They make it much more likely that you’ll achieve consistent results.
2. They enable you to build up your mental resilience.
Start incorporating them and you’ll see your self-discipline and willpower grow exponentially over time. This keeps you in a positive habit loop which means you’ll want to keep making purposeful action towards your goals.
2. Implement Rewards And Punishments
So you may be thinking, “But so what if Tom Bilyeu doesn’t get out of bed in 10 minutes or less? It’s not like anybody’s actually standing over him, forcing him to do it. There aren’t any real consequences if he doesn’t follow through.”
Well, that’s where rewards and punishments come in.
“Pain + Reflection = Progress” — Ray Dalio
It’s important to have compassion for yourself and be your own number one supporter along your journey. That’s the kind of headspace you should be in the majority of the time. But if we really want to maximize our output and level up, we’ve also got to develop enough self-awareness to admit to ourselves where we’re falling short or making mistakes.
Self-imposed punishment is a technique that might make some people freak out when first hearing about it. But there’s a key caveat: It has to be effective, not destructive. That’s where most people go wrong.
When it comes down to it, self-integrity is about doing something when you say you’re going to do it, even when it’s hard or painful or boring. It’s irrelevant whether or not anybody is watching — you are.
So we’ve got to reflect on our performance and emotionally reward or punish ourselves accordingly in a way that is conducive to our growth and not a hindrance to it.
For example, if I decide my reward is getting to watch an episode of my favorite TV show, I might dedicate an hour before bed to it and that’ll be my way of praising myself for my hard work during the day. But if I slacked off and was lazy and unfocused, and wasted an hour scrolling through social media, I’ll use that blocked-off time to get some productive work done instead. That’s how we can go about implementing effective punishments that still move us closer to our goals while at the same time building our mental toughness.
“The reason that I think that people need to do this is because that’s how you shape your behavior. Like water can create the Grand Canyon over time, or you can take a polishing rock and shape stones, you can shape your personality. You can certainly shape your identity and shape your behaviors if you learn how to reward and punish yourself.”
— Tom Bilyeu
We have to take full responsibility for our personal development. Utilizing rewards and punishments is an extremely powerful strategy for doing that.
3. Use the 5 Second Rule
If you know the name Mel Robbins, which you likely do, then you also know about the 5 second rule. This is what The Rule states:
“The moment you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must push yourself to move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it.”
This is pretty simple. So simple it sounds too good to be true, right? But there’s a scientific reason why it works.
The 5 second rule is a metacognition tool, which essentially means it’s a way to ‘hack’ your brain and beat it at its own game.
Most of the time, the average person lives his or her life on autopilot. A majority of our automatic habits revolve around comfort and ease; our brains are designed by evolution to keep us away from uncertainty or difficulty. But in the modern world, this actually ends up harming us by preventing us from taking action and progressing. When we let this be the default mode of operation, over time the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain responsible for decision making and working towards goals — weakens in its functioning.
By counting down from five, you jolt your brain out of autopilot mode. Then, when you tie it to an action that you execute, you activate the prefrontal cortex. And the more you do it, the easier it becomes to keep doing it, thanks to the principle of momentum. In science, the activation energy needed to start a reaction is a whole lot higher than the amount needed to sustain it. It’s the same mechanism in science as it is in human psychology. Once you’re moving towards a goal, it’s easier to keep moving.
“When we hesitate, we hold ourselves back. Our brains think that something is wrong and trigger fear. We need to move past that hesitation and fear. The Rule pushes us beyond hesitation — straight to action.” — Mel Robbins
Our fears can actually be useful guideposts for where we need to go in order to experience true growth and progress. As counterintuitive as it feels, sometimes we have to move towards them — the 5 second rule is a simple way of starting to do that.
4. Do High-Intensity Exercise
There are two ways to get to the mind: either through the mind itself (which can be extremely difficult at times) or through the body. Regular exercise is a way to train the mind through the body.
I started weightlifting three years ago and I can honestly say it has built my mental strength in a way that few other things have. Weightlifting, and sport in general, requires extraordinary amounts of mental control. How you use and respond to your inner voice in such a challenging environment plays a huge role in the results you get, as well as how you ultimately feel about yourself.
In order to be successful, we have to have discipline. Regular exercise is the ultimate test of discipline. Gaining mastery in any field demands being consistent with a whole host of difficult tasks that you’re not going to feel like doing.
“High performance requires not minding how you feel.” — Steven Kotler
Thankfully, discipline can be trained. The gym is the perfect playground to start. It’s where you come face to face with yourself; it’s where you’re asked to dig down to find the strength and grit to push through and do another rep when your whole body is screaming for you to stop. The more you show up, the more credibility you gain with yourself and the more readily you’re able to take on difficult tasks in other areas of your life. You start believing in your own ability to overcome challenges.
“You’re at the gym. You’re curling. Rep 8 and your body goes: ‘Stop. It hurts.’ If you stop, you get the emotion; you don’t get the progress. Where the pain starts is also where the work starts.” — Vusi Thembakwayo
5. Delay Gratification
The need for instant gratification is something that I have struggled with all my life. As an extremely impatient person, I sometimes find it difficult to accept that, more often than not, we have to wait for the things in life that are really worthwhile.
To train myself to begin to come to terms with this fact, I started playing little games with myself to delay gratification, even if for as short a time as 10 minutes. I make myself wait just a little bit longer than I normally would before starting an activity that I’m really looking forward to. Sometimes, this happens to be eating.
Psychologist Paul Losoff recommends: “Tolerating an extra five-to-10 minutes of hunger builds patience. You can accept that it’s okay to wait, to be hungry — you know you’re going to eat. But rather than rushing in to fix it, you sit with it. This ups your tolerance for being uncomfortable. If you’re able to do that, you’ll be able to tolerate more difficult challenges.”
It’s just like the extra 2–3 reps in the gym. It’s another micro-habit that’s easy to implement into your daily routine that’s going to strengthen the mental toughness muscle. The more you practice it, the more you start to align yourself with the fact that, as badly as you may want something, it may not be possible to have it right now. And you’re still going to be okay.
6. Sit With Uncomfortable Feelings
Following on from the last point, sometimes instant gratification comes in the form of acting out on highly charged emotions or impulses. But how many times have we reacted quickly and instantly regretted it the second we went back to our neutral selves?
Learning to sit with strong, uncomfortable feelings such as anger, jealousy, or fear, and observe them without acting on them, is such a powerful way to build discipline and willpower.
This is where meditation might really come in handy for some people.
In situations where you’d normally react to a disruptive emotion, co-founder of Rebel Human Resilience Jenny Arrington recommends pulling your attention in towards your body and the physical sensation of the emotion. She says to let the thoughts flow by and just hone in on any physical feelings for a few minutes.
“It may sound strange but this is a practice used both in somatic-based psychology and in ancient yogic practices. You’ll be surprised at how much insight you get from this and you will probably prevent yourself from doing the harming habit that you usually do to ignore your feelings.”
Besides building mental toughness, she says this practice will “improve your relationships, help heal old traumas, allow you to break free of bad habits, and get you to your next level of personal development.” It not only builds your own patience but also your ability to be patient with other people.
Former Navy Seal Mark Divine has this saying: “Embrace the suck.”
If we want to achieve extraordinary results in our lives, we’ve got to cultivate discipline, self-awareness, integrity, grit, and patience. In other words, we’ve got to get mentally tough.
What it essentially comes down to is doing things that are uncomfortable every single day. Just like any muscle, the more you don’t use it, the more it atrophies.
To summarize, some habits you could start incorporating into your day to build more mental resilience are:
– Establishing bright lines for yourself
– Implementing rewards and punishments
– Utilizing Mel Robbins’ 5 Second Rule
– Exercising regularly
– Delaying gratification
– Learning to sit with difficult emotions
Try some of these out and see how they work for you. And remember:
Discomfort is growth in wolf’s clothing.