Two years ago, Dean Stott grabbed a couple of unlikely world records. In just under one hundred days, he cycled the Pan-American Highway. That’s 19,000-miles across the Americas. During the journey, he covered 6,000 miles of South America in just 48 days. Yet before his training, Dean had never cycled far from home. For most of his life, he hadn’t even owned a bike. 

I tell this story because it’s a case study in mental resilience. Dean Stott had been an elite soldier in the Special Boat Service. But seven years before his cycling adventure, he had a severe injury in a parachuting accident. Doctors said his damaged knee would stop him performing at the elite level. He wasn’t convinced. 

Dean’s journey took him to extremes, from the mountains of Alaska to the Atacama Desert. He faced storms and even a tornado. One day he cycled a jaw-dropping 340 miles. As the pedals turned, he also raised nearly £1 million for Prince Harry’s ‘Heads Together’ charity. It sounds almost superhuman. So when we want to build our mental resilience, what can we learn from people like Dean Stott?

In this and two sister blogs, I’m going to find out. I’ll give you some useful ways to think about getting mentally stronger, and practical tips you can apply in everyday life. Most of my clients will tell you that getting physically stronger is hard. They also agree that building mental resilience is even tougher. 

It’s common for people to feel that they can’t cope with what life’s throwing at them. But I believe we can learn and practise resilience. This is the ability to bounce back from setbacks like an illness or being made redundant. It lets you adapt in the face of challenging circumstances, giving you a buffer against life’s difficulties.

One of my favourite experts in resilience is Charlie Unwin, a sports performance psychologist. In order to thrive, he tells us to focus on three things – positive doing, positive thinking, and positive feeling. Like the legs of a stool, these three depend on each other. In this blog, we look at the first one – doing.

Positive doing reduces the harm from our bad habits, and builds our mental resilience along the way. Unwin gives us three principles:

Principle 1 – Always have a plan 

Having a plan is good for your mental strength. One thing it does is help make order out of chaos. Of all the different things you could choose to do, it tells you (and the world) what you’ve decided. This is where your priorities lie.

Your plans won’t be perfect. But even a bad plan is a good step forward. Getting stuff out of your head and into words will give you a sense of control. You can make the plan better when you get more information, or when you see how it’s working out in practice.

We’re not all going to be cycling 200+ miles a day like Dean Stott. But whatever your goals, you’ll only reach them if you plan for your success. You might be interested in the blog I wrote about using goals here – it explains how to link big goals to small steps.

Principle 2 – Harness the power of routine

Even a messy or incomplete plan is a step forward, because you can now shape it into something better. Your biggest challenge is then sticking to it, and here we should lean heavily on routine. The Olympic champions that Unwin has trained will vouch for that.

Routine is key because it gives us predictability, and predictability gives us consistency. There is a direct relationship between the routine of a tennis player’s prep and the likelihood of them hitting a winning serve.

Our brains pick up on repeated patterns. This makes the same behaviour easier over time. So we’re more likely to stick to a workout if we do it at the same time every day. We’re more likely to get a better night’s sleep if we have a routine for the hour before bedtime.

Get routines right and your days will feel more energetic, productive, and focused. Bit by bit, this will build mental resilience. To set up new routines: 

  • Create them together with your partner or family, and get their ideas
  • Keep a diary – if you’re running every day at 7am, write that down
  • Forgive yourself if you miss a day – but restart as soon as you can.

Another tip I’d add to this advice is the two-minute rule, developed by a productivity expert called David Allen. It will help you start and finish tasks. The rule is to pick something and do it for two minutes.

This works for two reasons. Firstly, many tasks take no more than two minutes – a tidy-up, a quick email. So if a job takes no more than two minutes to complete, do it now and it’s off your mind. Second, the other tasks take two minutes or less to start. And if you can get started, momentum will often keep you going.

Principle 3 – Do less, to achieve more

Take a look at that plan of yours. Can you make it simpler?

Our modern obsession with ‘achieving’ and getting things done has some downsides. One of them is that we do everything with less energy, less focus, and less quality. 

So try to make things simple. Grab a pen and paper and ask yourself – if you did only half the things you do now, but did them properly, what would happen? It’s worth trying this out for a few weeks. It may mean learning to say ‘no’ a bit more often to your partner, family and colleagues. 

When we decide to do less, we can be single-minded – like Dean Stott on the Pan-American Highway. We become more productive and more connected with those around us. Some people call this the Law of Subtraction, and it’s backed up by research from behavioural scientists. 

Focusing each day on fewer things will increase your ability to deal with frustration, pressure, risk and adversity. You’ll start to trust your ability to cope. Try it today.

Find out more:

Blog: How goals can change your life

Website: The Thrive project

Book: Relentless by Dean Stott

Blog: Mental resilience for everyday life – part 2

Blog: Mental resilience for everyday life – part 3