Theo Tsaousides Ph.D.

Smashing the Brainblocks

A New Year's Resolution to Help You Achieve All Others

What we can learn from the most popular New Year's resolutions.

Posted Dec 17, 2018

Source: Pixelsaway/DepositPhotos

When you look at the list of the most popular New Year’s resolutions, the top position is consistently dominated by one specific goal: get in shape!  Every year, improving one's physical fitness in the next 12 months is the most common goal that people set for themselves.  Every year, they promise to eat more healthy, to exercise more, and to lose weight.  Every single year.

Why is it that these goals are both popular and everlasting? What makes us want to continue to improve our physical fitness year after year?

One reason could be that these are easy goals to achieve, so why not go after them again this year.  Another reason could be that these are impossible goals to achieve, but still important enough to make us persist.  Or maybe exercising and eating well is the right thing to say.  Maybe they are the kind of goal that doesn’t require much thinking or soul-searching.  Maybe the overindulgence over the holidays that comes with family get-togethers, trips to exquisite food destinations, or a lot of relaxing time at home sitting in front of the TV with a cup of hot chocolate studded with marshmallows, always results in a few extra pounds that need to be gone before the summer.  Who knows. 

Whatever the reason, one thing is obvious.  We care a lot about our physical fitness.  We go to great lengths – at least in terms of what we report on the surveys that quiz us on our New Year’s resolutions – to stay healthy, fit, and trim.

But what about our mental fitness?  Do we care about it with the same enthusiasm as we care about our physical fitness?  And do we take care of it with the same devotion as we take care of our physical health?

Probably not.  With respect to mental health and fitness, we take things for granted.  We assume that we have reached the peak of our capacity, and don’t always realize how much of what we accomplish in our lives, how content we are with our state of being, and how important the contribution we make to the lives of others is more a product of our mental fitness and less of our physical fitness.

Granted, it is hard to work on our mental fitness when we don’t even what that looks like.  Is there a gym for that?  What kind of exercises should I do to be mentally sharp? Can I get a mental fitness personal trainer? What is mental fitness anyway?

Mental fitness is the ability to think, feel, and act in ways that enable us to reach our goals, meet our needs, and conquer the challenges we encounter, both internal and external.  To understand it better, think of it in terms of some of these questions: How confident am I that I can build the life I want?  How good am I at coming up with new ideas? How good am I at taking these ideas out of my head and into the world?  How comfortable am I with uncomfortable feelings? How good am I at being present in the moment? At following through with my promises?  At turning intention to action?  

Based on research done by Paula Robinson, who pioneered the efforts of defining the meaning and highlighting the importance of mental fitness (Robinson et al., 2015), our level of mental fitness depends to a large extent on our own efforts, and as a result, can be continuously improved.

Being physically fit makes everyday life easier in many ways.  But being in good shape physically doesn’t happen by simply hoping that one day your body will tone up or that the pounds will disappear. It requires work.  That’s why we spend hours at the gym acting as if lifting weights is inherently fun.  That’s why we run for miles on treadmills watching reruns of shows we would never tell anyone we watch.  That’s why we risk getting tied in a knot trying to get into the simplest yoga poses.

To be in good physical shape, we exercise.  We practice.  We play.

Similarly, mental fitness does not happen by hoping that someday we will find the courage to go after what we want, that we will spontaneously find the motivation to change our lives, or that we will magically develop the ability to defeat our counter-productive habits and limiting beliefs.

We need to exercise.  We need to practice.  We need to play.

Just like physical fitness, mental fitness can make everyday life easier in many ways too.

To break it down a little further, the authors, using physical fitness as a paradigm, suggest that the same three basic components that make up physical fitness make up mental fitness as well: strength, endurance, and flexibility.  While we understand what these qualities mean in the physical world, how do they translate into the world of the mind?

Here are some ways to think about them.  Mental strength means you have the confidence to pursue big goals, the courage to accept big challenges, and the ability to come up with creative solutions to complex life problems.  Mental endurance means you have the ability to stay focused and to be present in the moment, despite all the distractions around you or inside you.  It helps you stick to the plan and keep working on tasks and projects even when you are bored or unmotivated. And mental flexibility means that you are truly thinking outside the box, you are able to see other people’s point of view, and you are OK with admitting that you made a mistake.

So, if you are making New Year’s resolutions this year, and you plan to add “get in shape” on your list, think about getting in good mental shape as well.  What could you do this year to improve your mental fitness, so you can achieve the rest of your 2019 resolutions?  An easy way to start?  Ask yourself: what will I do differently this year?