Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed? If so, you are not alone. I am often asked how to cope when you are feeling really vulnerable, but you have to be strong.

The answer, according to the highly regarded scientist Angela Duckworth, is to develop mental strength, which she calls “grit”. She has found that mental strength is what differentiates people who persist and achieve long-term excellence, as opposed to those who start off well, but lose enthusiasm and give up.

Also, she has found that mental strength is the best predictor of success in school, the military and corporate sales, rather than intelligence or even luck (more here).

Would you like to develop your mental strength? If so, there are five powerful exercises, based on Angela Duckworth’s research, which I have found to be very helpful. These exercises will help you persevere and keep motivated when dealing with big issues like unwelcome change and stress at work or home, or even sticking to a diet, a financial budget or a study plan (more here).

1.       Set yourself small goals

Coping with life’s difficulties almost always requires you to do something or to change something. “Aiming for the stars” or “setting audacious goals” is great in a motivational speech, but I have found people often feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of all that they need to do.

Action to take: set yourself small goals which will move you toward your overall objective. For example, in trying to live a healthy lifestyle by sticking to a diet, the most effective way is to set yourself easily attainable goals, such as cutting out sugar in your coffee in the first week, and only the following week add cutting out sweet deserts.

2.       Keep perspective by restructuring your thoughts

During difficult times, your thoughts may become exaggeratedly negative, such as: “I am so stupid!” and “This will never come right!” Left unchecked, you can become sucked into increasingly negative and depressed thinking.

Action to take: use three powerful restructuring questions to move your focus to become more realistically optimistic (more here):

  1. How can I accept this?
  2. What can I learn from this?
  3. Is there an opportunity?

For example, if you don’t stick to your diet, and you mentally beat yourself up, you could restructure your thoughts using these questions: “I’ve broken my diet, but then so do many other people who are ultimately successful. I need to be more careful with what I eat when I party with friends. I will ask my best friend to help me stick to my diet the next time we go out.”

3.       Establish a routine of what you will do and when

An important part of mental strength is being consistent in your behaviour. A schedule or routine of what you will do and when will help you.

Action to take: plan your schedule of what you will do and when. In order to stick to a diet for example, and to minimise the temptation of buying inappropriate fast food, you could plan your week’s meals and purchase the ingredients in advance.

4.       Prepare for obstacles and setbacks

You will encounter obstacles and setbacks, but they will only be a problem if you are thrown by them.

Action to take: think of all the obstacles and setbacks that you might encounter, and then plan what you will do to deal with them. Use “if/then” statements, such as:

  • If I’m invited out for a meal with friends, then I will make sure that they all know about my diet.
  • If I’m tempted to give up the diet, then I will ask my best friend to remind me of the health benefits.
5.       Practice acting with mental strength

Being mentally strong requires practice, practice and more practice! It’s a matter of doing small things over and over which adds up to being consistently mentally strong.

Action to take: decide what you need to do that will help you and who can assist you, as you practice being mentally strong. For example, every day review what you ate, keep a diary of your success, set yourself a goal of losing a small amount of weight and then celebrate your achievement (with friends who know you’re on a diet!), before setting yourself progressively more difficult goals.

In summary, developing mental strength is fortunately not dependent on intelligence or personality. It all boils down to consistently behaving like the person you would like to be. These five powerful exercises will help you to develop mental strength and not feel overwhelmed, even during really difficult times.


With acknowledgement to: Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.

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