Friday, June 14, 2013

The Mental Strength Bar

In this lesson, I wanted to talk about the mental strength bar. If you have read any of my past work, you'll be somewhat familiar with the term but might not be sure exactly what I am talking about. In my work, I don't do physically demanding work. I work with paper and computers. Most of it is not hard work, it's just a decision of whether or not I will do it. So when I look at what I have to do, it's a test of mental strength. Will I do it - not can I. When you break it down, it's really easy work and it's a mental decision.

As an example, right now, I need to send an email to someone that includes a letter I've drafted for them to print out on their letterhead and sign. It's not really a physically demanding task but I have to open another computer to do it securely and I just haven't done it yet. Often people look at this delay as procrastination. But really what it is is that the task I am trying to do is tougher than my will power to do it. I call this mental strength.

You'll recognize people who have a lot of mental strength if you work with them. You ask for something you need done, you get it back. Just like you'll recognize people who have a low amount of mental strength. Have you done that yet, oops, I haven't sorry.

Chances are you recognize yourself in both the people above. I know I do. Mental strength comes and goes just like physical strength. If you don't train physically, you get weaker and if you don't condition yourself to get things done, you also get weaker just mentally.

Physical strength is easy to measure. You go to the gym, pick up some weight and see if you can lift it. Mental strength isn't quite as easy to measure. But mental strength is as important in life as physical strength.

I measure mental strength in the number of tasks that you can complete in a day. To gain mental strength, you have to add more tasks to make yourself stronger. Unlike the gym, where it's easy to measure our physical strength, it's a lot tougher to measure our mental strength because we have no idea how many tasks we are doing (and often they are the wrong tasks).

So to deal with this problem, you and I will use two tools. The first is the checklist where we break down exactly the tasks we know we want and need to do ahead of time. The second is by putting the mental strength bar on the list where we encounter a problem getting past the task on that list.

I've started doing this to show you exactly how it is done. Visit My Black Belt Project Checklist to see how I am breaking down my day and you will also see on the list somewhere my mental strength bar which might look like this:

  • Pick up iPhone

  • Clear alerts

  • Update apps

  • Empty text messages

  • Empty inbox


  • Process email action folder

So step one was that I had to first pre-think out what the tasks were that I wanted to do. I talk about how to do that more in how to visualize the perfect day.

This gives me a list of things that if I did everything perfectly and if I did them all from start to finish would comprise the perfect day.

But the problem as you and I know is that we only get so far down the list before we get side tracked and you just somehow don't manage to get that perfect day complete like you set out to do. Where you get sidetracked is how mentally strong you are.

In my example above, you'll see that I could get all the way through emptying my inbox but I couldn't get my email action folder processed. That's why I put the bar between the two. My goal is to get mentally strong enough to push my mental strength bar all the way down the list.

I call this process getting to Black Belt because it's the truest sign of mastery. Once you have refined your checklist and got it in the best order, the fewest steps and can complete it quickly, then you pre-planned everything you wanted to do AND DID IT then you made it Black Belt.

Again then, just to restate, my mental strength would be all of the tasks I did that were above the bar. To compare it to physical strength, those tasks might be 50 pounds. But if you added one more pound (or one more task) I might not be able to lift it (or do it in terms of mental strength).

When assessing mental strength, I think it's important to start with the bar at the top of your list to make success easy to achieve. I wouldn't put it way down the list, then figure out that you can't do it. So what I want you to do is think like this.

If you went to the gym to work out, you might be able to lift 100 pounds. You might only be able to lift 50 pounds. Whatever that number is might be the max you could lift. But if you haven't worked out in a while, you are going to risk getting hurt or exhaust yourself so that you just wouldn't go to the gym any more.

To prevent that, I want you to think in terms of progressive resistance. What this means is that you start small and as you are strong enough, you add more weight. We start with every light weight and then we increase it when we know we can do so without risking injury or frustration.

In terms of our list, I want you to imagine that each task (if you have broken it down to it's smallest step) on your list is one pound. And if you have to, just start with one pound and put your mental strength bar right there so it's so easy to do that one task that it almost seems stupid to put it there. Once you know you can do that one task without fail, then you raise the bar to two tasks (two pounds).

And you just repeat the process once you know how many tasks you can do, add a little more over time. You always have permission to do more tasks but the day is always successful if you complete all of the tasks up to your mental strength bar.

Before you know it, you'll be completing your whole list.

And that's the concept of the mental strength bar.

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Michael Kuhn

Black Belt Project: Build Mental Strength