How to improve your mental fitness (Lessons from coach Neil O'Brien)

Business Strategy • Fun stuff
19 • 2 • 18

Lyndsey and Karen had the opportunity to attend a Design Leaders Breakfast Seminar, hosted by Institute Designers Ireland, where they heard Neil O’Brien talk about how to use the 3 competencies of The Mental Fitness approach to become a peak performer.

As briefly mentioned in our previous blog detailing our 5 minute internal presentations, the 3 competencies of The Mental Fitness Approach are:

  1. Mood
  2. Self Discipline and Habits
  3. Resilience and Recovery

Neil started his presentation showing us a graph that illustrated the range of a person’s mental fitness. He charted this mental fitness on a scale from 1-10 (1 being a very low mental fitness and 10 being very high mental fitness). He continued to explain that people with similar mental fitness levels will be attracted to one another. For example, someone with a mental fitness of a 2 will be motivated by another 2, by mutually complaining and being right, agreeing and feeding off each others woes. 2’s have no habits, structure, or discipline. They have lost their shape. Because of this, a 2 will never see the opportunity that a person with a mental fitness of 10 will. Of course it is possible to improve your mental fitness, but if someone who is at a 2 stays there for too long, they will settle and start to believe they are at the height of their worth.

Alternatively, two people with a mental fitness of 10 will challenge and inspire each other to move up and grow. 10’s are inspired, they challenge themselves and others to reach beyond their already high mental fitness. 10’s are very good at structure and routine, they don’t overthink, this structure has become automatic.

You’re probably thinking “how can I become a 10?” Well, back to the 3 competencies of mental fitness…

First we looked at mood. Our mood is how we measure our self worth and our self esteem. It is important to learn how to trigger the right mood and in order to do that, we need to question our mood. How is you mood at work? At home? At your hobby or favourite activity? Can you find 2-3 things than can trigger the right kind of mood?

“90% of mental fitness is physical” so get out of your head. When you’re having a difficult time with something, the worst thing you can do to find a solution is to think more. Instead, move! Do something that requires physical energy and movement as much of the time we find answers when we are not directly searching for them.  

Neil continued on to talk about how we value ourselves as humans and what we use for proof of that value. He cautioned us that many people use 3 quick fixes to make ourselves feel more valuable. While they may work in the short-term, they are not sustainable as each one is exhausting and rooted in other people’s perceptions of us.

  1. Overindulging in people pleasing
  2. Pretending to be a mood level you are not (faking it)
  3. Constantly in the “I’m unbearably busy” battle

In order to prove our value effectively, we need to have it be internal, not based on how others see us. To be honest, we’re still finding it difficult to understand how to find ways to allow ourselves to internalise value… but we’re working on it!

The next of the Mental Fitness Competencies we learned about was Self Discipline and Habits.  Now that we have our mood taken care of and we are in a good mood, how do we keep it up? We need to become better at having a shape, structure and routine that becomes instinctual, something we do without paying attention. There are 4 core areas of discipline:

  1. Move
  2. Eat
  3. Rest
  4. Tidy/Organisation

Believe it or not, having organisation and tidiness is as important to your mental fitness as physical exercise.

The reason why most people give up on their New Year’s Resolutions before the end of January is because they set their sights too high and make unrealistic goals.  You need to start small, but make sure you hold yourself accountable. You are trying to train your brain to get to the point where doing something become natural. The habit needs to be so small that you don’t activate your internal cynic. If you hold yourself accountable to go for a 10 second walk 3 times a week, the internal cynic will not try to stop you since that task will not affect your life, time etc. Of course you can do that! It is important to note that...

“The habit of habit is more important than the habit itself”.

Last, we discussed Resilience and Recovery, the 3rd and last of the Mental Fitness Approach competencies. When thinking about resilience and recovery, we often think that we need to have a set back in order to master this competency. However, Neil made the point that we need to be proactive. We should take steps to practice being resilient before a setback happens. How long does it take you to get moving again after a major setback? What does someone have to do to be able to recover quickly? When thinking about this both from the point of view of a professional athlete as well as a business, the best way to be more resilient and recover from a set-back quickly is to simplify everything and master the basics of your craft.  If you can master your basics, that is all you need to go back to in the midst of a setback.

According to Neil...

“Brilliant basics is the key to outstanding performance.”

A few ways that you can focus on your basics is to choose 3 basics of your health, work success and happiness and practice them everyday. Make sure you are not putting all your eggs into one basket. If you only have one type of client and that industry tanks, what do you have left? Have lots of clients, friends, and activities, that way if you have a setback with one thing you have plenty of other options to keep moving forward.

In order to continue to check in with your Mental Fitness regularly, Neil suggested we ask ourselves these three questions every month:

  1. How happy are you?
  2. How tough are you?
  3. How focused on the basics are you?

When someone is diligent about maintaining the three mental competencies that Neil spoke to us about, it all adds up to this:

“The key to your mental fitness success is the ability to do what you don’t want to do when you don’t want to do it.”

He went on to explain that our potential is on the edge of our comfort zone and that is also where our mental fitness is. In our moments of discomfort, we will discover how strong we really are.

To learn more from Neil O’Brien, read his great book, “A Time to Fly, 7 Exhilarating Lessons to Take your life to the next level.”

You can find more information about Neil on his website: