The Secret to Exceptional Mental Strength Lies in This Surprising Science-Backed Habit

Unlock the key to mental toughness that flies in the face of traditional thinking.

When we resolve to be more resilient and mentally strong, we often adopt a militaristic “tough it out” approach. That is, we believe the more we put our noses to the grindstone and endure, the stronger and grittier we’ll become. Picture: a Marine slogging through the mud, or a football player dusting himself off to make one more play.

However, Shawn Achor, world-famous speaker and author of The Happiness Advantage, has found a key to mental toughness that flies in the face of traditional thinking.

“Resilience is how you recharge, not how you endure,” he revealed in a post for Harvard Business Review.

His research found that the traditional method for developing grit — “toughing it out” — often has the opposite effect, resulting in burnout, insomnia, and $62 billion (yes, with a “b”) of lost productivity every year.

The real key to resilience, he says, is to find the proper ways to get mental rest and unplug daily, so you can resume work tougher than ever, ready to take on the world.

Here are some proven ways to practice this habit of recharging — and thus become tougher — every single day:

Actually “turn off” when you leave the office

For most of us, when we leave work at 5 p.m. (or later), we might physically check out of the office, but our minds are still stressed.

A big part of recharging is all about finding periods of time to decompress outside of work, which is known as “external recovery.” As Achor points out in HBR:

“If after work you lie around on your bed and get riled up by political commentary on your phone or get stressed thinking about decisions about how to renovate your home, your brain has not received a break from high mental arousal states. Our brains need a rest as much as our bodies do.”

To start, set aside chunks of time at home as “work-free zones” — that means no thoughts about any challenges, and instead focusing on podcasts, movies, reading, or anything that allows for mental decompression. Even better, consider taking a vacation or at least a personal day.

Recharge in the office too

You can also make simple adjustments at work daily that will allow you to properly turn off and recharge your mental energy. This is known as “internal recovery,” and it plays a huge part in recharging too.

Experts recommend a cognitive break every 90 minutes (at least) to allow you to boost your mental batteries during the day. Eating lunch away from your desk is a great place to start. Also, try taking a walk during your breaks instead of scrolling through the news on your phone.

Use technology to your benefit

Looking at our phones is an automatic reflex for many of us. Perhaps it’s the fear we might miss out on something, but we check our phones constantly, even when we have no reason to. Not only does this reflex waste time, but we misdirect precious mental energy that could be better spent recharging or focusing on other important areas of our lives.

HBR recommends using the technology on your phone to keep yourself off your phone. Apps like Offtime can help you digitally detox by turning off distracting features while you work, and the app Instant will show you how many times a day you turn on your phone.

Creating this kind of awareness can help you curtail time spent on your phone. You can also set alarms on your phone that will remind you to take mental breaks, and apps like Headspace offer 10-minute, guided meditation sessions that can help you recharge and be more productive at work.

Don’t sacrifice sleep for your job

Good recharging habits start with a good night’s sleep.

In her amazing book The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington wrote,

“We sacrifice sleep in the name of productivity, but ironically our loss of sleep, despite the extra hours we spend at work, adds up to 11 days of lost productivity per year per worker, or about $2,280.”

Combining these recharging steps (like putting away your phone) with a healthy eight hours set aside for sleep will ensure you’re well rested and ready to go every single day.

The bottom line

So while those all-nighters might feel empowering and productive, being mentally strong is actually about having the fortitude to practice sustainable habits that will allow you to be happier and more successful at what you do.

Do you have any tips for mental toughness or recharging? Share them with me on Twitter!

If you liked this piece, be sure to follow me on Medium, and to check out my column in Inc. Magazine.