When the Going Gets Tough….

Your journey through your work and your life is much like a roller-coaster ride, with surprising and vertiginous ups and downs that are often beyond your control.

One thing you can control, however, is your reaction to them.

That’s why it’s important you cultivate and strengthen your mental toughness, which is the personality characteristic that helps you survive – and sometimes even thrive – when the going gets tough.

Here are some tips and techniques to help you prepare to laugh in the face of dire situations:

Prioritize and Focus

Difficult situations are rarely one-dimensional. For example, it’s not just that the funding you were depending on to solve a problem disappears, it’s that the problem suddenly demands even more funding than you anticipated, while alternative funding sources have dried up, and so on and so on.

One of the foundations of mental toughness, therefore, is the ability to dissect a difficult situation into its separate elements, and then prioritize them so you can focus your energies on putting out the worst fires first.

But that’s not enough. Since life is not scripted like an action movie, the various elements of your problem don’t graciously wait their turn to attack you, conveniently letting you deal with higher priority concerns one at a time. In many situations, they come at you in bunches.

So prioritizing and focusing often requires that you take only one or two quick actions against each problem element before turning your attention to the next, and the next, and the next.

These techniques may not result in your immediately fixing the dire situation. But – compared with freezing and doing nothing, or making ineffectual efforts to solve the whole problem at once – a strategy of prioritizing and focusing allows you to take your best shot at knocking the dire situation down to size.

Take a Positive Attitude

Dire situations by their nature can be scary, depressing, and demotivating. Giving in to these negative thoughts and feelings, however, tends to slow and weaken your problem-solving responses.

That’s why trying hard to maintain a “glass half full” attitude is a key element of mental toughness.

A positive attitude develops best when you:

  • Persevere in your efforts to solve the problem,
  • Throw open the boundaries of your search for possible remedies, and
  • Take pride in whatever progress you are able to produce.

Even when the prospects seem bleak and the looming consequences could prove highly undesirable, a positive attitude supports you in making your best efforts over the long haul.

Perform Better Under Stress

It’s no surprise that dire situations tend to generate stress. It’s rare you’ll find anyone who can relax when the stuff is hitting the fan. So a major component of mental toughness is the ability to perform at a high level even when your adrenaline, cortisol, and other “stress hormones” are generating extreme tension, anxiety, nervousness, and/or frustration.

You can improve your performance under stress two main ways:

  1. Learn to relax. By training yourself to relax at will – for example, through meditation or conscious relaxation techniques – you become more adept at combatting and reducing your automatic stress reaction when it hits you.
  2. Learn to perform under stress. One way is to consciously put yourself in gradually more stressful situations – for example, by trying to meet shorter and shorter deadlines, or by testing yourself against better and better opponents. As this induced feeling of stress becomes more familiar, the unwanted stress of dire circumstances will degrade your performance far less, and perhaps even improve it.

Purposeful Preparation

One of the major differences between those who perform well in dire circumstances and those who don’t is the level of preparation they bring to the situation. Accordingly, you can strengthen your mental toughness by making sure you’re prepared for difficult situations.

A small class of dire situations – like automobile accidents, earthquakes, fires, floods, and hurricanes – are infrequent, but statistically likely. Preparing generally for occurrences like these will help you respond appropriately when they strike.

A larger class of dire situations – like customers who cancel contracts, job termination, and other reversals of fortune – depend more on the specifics of your work and your life. Fortunately, they tend to strike only after a set of warning signals have given you time to prepare.

The mindset to prepare for dire circumstances pays off directly, because adequate preparation allows you to acquire helpful resources, practice important skills, develop useful plans, and feel more comfortable responding to the upcoming situation.

What’s more, developing a habit of thorough and detailed preparation enables you to generally strengthen your skills, knowledge, and abilities in ways that enhance your mental toughness even when situations turn dire with little or no warning.

One other result of cultivating mental toughness, I have found, is that the tougher you feel, the less you need to exercise your toughness. Just as skilled martial artists rarely get into random, unscheduled fights, mentally tough people seem to avoid many of the dire circumstances that can overwhelm anyone more fragile.

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