Four Ways to Build Grit

Not everything that is hard is worthwhile, but everything that is worthwhile is hard.

We know that to achieve great things we need to get uncomfortable. There will be moments when we feel like we have to suffer physically, mentally or emotionally to push through a barrier in order to achieve something worthwhile. This could be a physical endeavour like a marathon, triathlon or even that next tough workout that is on the program. Or it could be something different – making more sales calls, executing a project under time pressure, or being consistent as a leader.

Some people seem to do it easily: They keep persevering, they stay on track, they work through those hard moments and come out on top. But for others it’s a foreign concept – they tend to give up at the first sign of adversity. But there are some skills that we can all learn to make us better at being ‘Gritty.’

If you want to improve your skills in this area, or if you’re a leader that would like to help others do the same, then here are four skills to practice that enable us to suffer through adversity.

1. Chunk it Down to Micro Goals.
This is a great strategy for when we need to keep doing something that is physically, mentally or emotionally taxing. We know that short term goals are better motivators than long term goals. A smaller, sooner reward (e.g. sleeping in or checking social media) usually seems more attractive than a later reward (being healthier or getting that project started). So, the accepted wisdom is to have short term goals when you are working toward something big. For instance, if you’ve got a 12-month goal, then break it down into quarterly goals or even monthly targets. But at the peak of suffering – whether you are running an ultra-marathon or you are at day 50 of 100 in that new system roll-out at work – we need even smaller targets to keep going.

These micro goals are as short as you can possibly make them. The ultimate micro goal for a runner is “one foot in front of the other.” Navy seals, during their infamous “hell week” – seven days of non-stop physical and mental torture – are well known for saying to themselves “just get to lunchtime” as they suffer through hours of pain.

2. Replace the Underlying Need
This is the best strategy for when you are prone to acting out emotionally. You’ve just had a terrible day at work, and you want to grab some junk food on the way home instead of taking a healthy option. Or you are frustrated with someone and start writing a snarky email. In these moments a great strategy is to understand why you are about to do what you’re going to do and then work out a way to replace that need with something else.

So, you’ve had a bad day at work, you’re frustrated, stressed and possibly a little disappointed. Why do you want to grab that take out? Maybe because you couldn’t be bothered cooking, but also because you want to feel better. Remember, humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. You’re feeling bad and you’d like to feel better – and food is an antidote for that. But here’s the question: what else would make you feel better, that might be more productive? You could go for a walk, hang out with some friends or maybe even start searching for other jobs. If you find yourself writing that inflammatory email, then maybe you are really just looking for an outlet, or to just feel heard – what else can you do to get the same result that might not have the reputation-destroying consequences of the email?

Pro tip: pretty much everything non-productive thing we do emotionally is because we want to feel better. So, having a readily available list of things that make you feel better is a great idea.

3. Make the Long Term, Short Term

Immediate consequences are more impactful than long term consequences. Immediate rewards are more impactful than long-term rewards. Knowing, this, we can find ways to bring long term rewards or consequences into the present. The reason cigarette packets have horrific pictures of cancer-damaged organs is so that we bring a long-term consequence (lung cancer for example) into the present. When you wake up and don’t feel like pulling on those trainers and going to the gym, you can think about how great you will feel afterwards to bring that reward closer. Or alternatively, if you’re about to procrastinate on and assignment, you can think about how you might feel massively stressed closer to the deadline if you don’t get started. Sure, right now it feels nice to procrastinate, but you know you’ll regret it later on (because you always do). Thinking about these things before making the decision helps us to make better decisions. 

4. Revisit Your Why or Self Narrative:

Revisiting your ‘why’ in times of struggle is self-explanatory. What is often more effective though is revisiting your self-narrative. 

Your self-narrative is the story you tell yourself about yourself. Having a positive self-narrative is key to maintaining motivation when things get tough. Here’s my favourite self-narrative: “I’m a machine.” This simple story, or some form of it, is used by many high performers that I work with. It is usually not true at the time they adopt it, but it becomes true as they select the behaviours that get them closer being that person. 

Imagine you are ready to give up on some challenging situation and your usual self-narrative is “I’m not good at this.” What do you think happens next? You stop. You have this story, and your actions fulfil the story. But what if you took control of the story? If you were ready to give up and you played the story that says: “I’m a machine,” then you influence your behaviours in a very different way. And as we take the actions more and more, our self-narrative gets reinforced. We become by doing. If I wake up at five a.m. for 100 days in a row and go to the gym, am I lazy? Probably not. I’m a machine. Other examples of great self-narratives are: “I can do anything I put my mind to,” “I’m more capable than I think,” and “I am a person who [fill in the blank]” Again, this should be aspirational. You may not be that person now, but constantly revisiting this self-narrative leads to acting in accordance with it, which leads to becoming the story.

These strategies are really simple, but amazingly effective. But – they take practice. The more we use them, the better we get and the more able we are to push through those barriers. If you’re a leader, then these are the conversations and tips that you can give your people as they confront adversity and, like any skill, follow up to see how they went and what they can improve in the future.

** Tony Wilson is a Workplace Performance Expert focussed on helping leaders build the environment for high performance. His insights into performance science and it's application in the workplace will make you re-think the way that you approach leadership, culture change, high performance and productivity. Tony has an MBA and a BSc majoring in physiology and combines the two for a different perspective. He is also the author of Jack and the Team that Couldn't See and delivers workshops and keynote presentations around the globe.

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