Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mental Skills: Long Post Ahead

I want to open up today's post with a question; do you believe that mental skills exist?

Given the title of the post, you can assume my answer.  Yes, obviously mental skills exist.  The best way to define them that I can think of off the top of my head is this: a mental skill is a trained habit of thought which leads you to ideas and decisions you have deemed useful or beneficial for the situation.

For instance, a skilled rapper doesn't just magically have better connections between words that happen to rhyme in his/her brain.  That person has trained their mind to scan quickly and efficiently for words and enjambments that create rhyme, and even more impressively, to also screen those words for contextual meaning.  The brain quickly searches for options and ideas and doesn't just pick good ones, it actively shuts down undesired ones before they hit your conscious thought.  At least, it does this when the mental skill is well trained.  Eventually, you can get to the point where you don't have to consciously activate the skill.  Like a martial artist might immediately assume a ready stance when confronted with a a sudden threat, your mental skills send you to certain thoughts and ideas and skips ones that will probably be useless.  Thoughts and ideas are geared to lead you towards decisions, so you train mental skills to create decisions that help achieve your goals.

I guess it's worth saying that, because every skill starts in your brain, technically every skill is mental.  I'm bothering with a distinction here because I'm referring specifically to skills that create ideas and decisions, and not to skills increasing the efficiency of physical actions.  So for purposes of this post, quickly assessing a goalie's stance and picking the corner you aim for with a soccer ball would count as a mental skill, but the trained form of the kick would not.

A well-trained mental skill doesn't just become an unconscious process, it becomes an assumption, an invisible rule that guides your decision making.  The skill quickly limits and defines the choices that occur to you; the more efficient the mental skill, the fewer options you get.  A perfectly executed mental skill leads you to a single decision or idea, and it happily turns out to be the correct one (i.e., the one that leads to achieving your objective and promoting your happiness).


So what's the point of this distinction?  The implications of this definition are many and, I think, extremely useful for self-growth.

The first rule of progress is this: you cannot become discouraged by setbacks and failures if you want to improve.  They are inevitable in every endeavor.  You want to train a skill?  Expect for it to fail a bunch.  If it weren't failing, that would be a sure sign you were wasting your time working on it, because you're clearly already perfect.

Guess what?  That applies to mental skills.  And we're remarkably good about maintaining that distinction when it comes to mental skills like your ability to do rapid arithmetic, but not when it comes to skills that seem related to your personality.  Skills like willpower and emotional control.  Angry people are just angry, lazy people are just lazy, and people who lack willpower are just weak-willed.  Which is weird, because no athlete has 100% success rate at their various physical skills, and you don't assume because somebody misses a free-throw that they're "just bad at free-throws."  But when someone loses self-control, we're more likely to think "what an angry person," and should they fail to resist a temptation, we're more likely to think, "why are they weak-willed?"  Skills and training increase the probability of success, but don't always guarantee it.

And actually, I take back what I said earlier; lots of people out there think they're "just bad at math."  We're used to thinking of all these mental processes as things that are an inherent part of our personalities, that define "who we are."  We do this because so many of them happen so fast.  You can watch yourself kick a ball, it happens on a level you can visually process.  But you can't visually process thoughts nearly as well.  Even worse, you're using your thoughts to think with, and questioning the tools that allow you to question things in the first place.  It's even trickier when those thoughts also affect our feelings.  Feelings aren't often associated with skills, but that's strange since "anger-management" is about handling feelings, and it's most definitely considered a skill.

Willpower is another skill I think about a lot.  I mentioned failure earlier because, in the case of willpower, failure can have insidious effects; it can be tough to trust your willpower once it fails, so failing can give you less of it.  Or consider perseverance; what if your goal is to train how long you can stick to certain tasks even when you screw up?  You will screw up at persevering and quit early, because it is a skill you're actively trying to practice (and there'd be no pointing at practicing it if you were perfect at it already).  Then you have to exercise your perseverance if you want to practice it again (because you failed).  You must use a tool, one that falls apart as you fix it, to fix itself.  How infuriating.  What a shame you're also having trouble remembering to work on your anger management because you get angry at yourself so easily.  Whoops.

Yeah, it gets rough.  Something that helps me in cases like these is remembering that these skills are nothing more than thought habits.  You train willpower and perseverance, in part, by training yourself to think more thoughts about reaching your goals than thoughts about quitting.  For some people, the thought of quitting early doesn't even occur to them, and it's not because they are magically better than you; as they have grown up, the thoughts of maintaining focus have been positively reinforced (by parents and by results) while thoughts of quitting have been negatively reinforced.  Overtime, association with negativity causes quitting to be forgotten (or quickly and immediately discarded).  Parents are critical for willpower development because they provide a useful external force towards action; they can provide that negative reinforcement when you flake on your homework or forget to practice clarinet that day.  You are less likely to follow through with grounding yourself for disobedience, however.

You must also remember that mental skills, like all skills, require training.  If you can only train your anger management when somebody cuts you off in traffic, it might be tough to practice.  You can practice a scale on your piano one hundred times, but can you do the same with willpower?  Maybe you can!  Maybe while trying to stop drinking soda, you can practice by opening a picture of one on the internet and saying to yourself, "I don't want this because I'm trying to lose weight."  Then you minimize it, open it again, and say, "I don't want this because I'm trying to lose weight, and I'm a person that sticks to my goals."  And maybe the next time you think about having a soda, you will also imagine that phrase, and it will help you resist drinking soda.  Give these kinds of things a shot!


The next part of this post is about spotting the mental skills that need improving and getting started.  It's actually not a super complicated process, but it can be an agonizing one.  Then again, the trade-off here is that unless you go through that agonizing process and improve the mental skill in some way, you will always keep making the same mistakes (or even worse, reinforce them through repetition over time, and make them stronger).  So the choice here is between something that sucks and makes things better, or something that sucks and makes things worse; the arduous task of improving crummy thought patterns, or reaping their penalties forever.

1) Find a behavior that is causing you problems.  This is a pain in the butt because you have to experience the problems to single out the behavior.  You can't do it beforehand, you find out the behavior is a problem because of its problematic consequences.  Which kind of stinks, but that's induction for you.

Example: you have a tendency to shout about how BS a video game is when you something goes wrong.  You don't like this behavior, the unpleasant emotions associated with it, or the weird stares you get from people on the bus for yelling at Plants Versus Zombies.  You want to work on your anger-management, so the first step is noticing occasions on which you get angry.

2) Once you've picked the behavior that is causing you problems, try and pinpoint the thoughts and feelings that lead to the behavior.  It helps to do this later when you are able to think detachedly about things.  That way you can do a play-by-play review, rather than get caught up in the moment.  Something like, "I did <X> because I felt like <Y> because I experienced <Z>."  Then you can propose and test solutions: "Next time, I will <A, B, C>."

Example: You go and take a break when you're confronted with a ton of homework after working on it for only thirty minutes.  You want to work on your willpower/perseverance, so you have to spot these feelings of tiredness (and desire to retreat from your work) before they turn into the undesired action of abandoning your work.  Then you may try and tell yourself, "I will work for just five more minutes, even though I'm really tired," and over time, you will develop a habit of procrastinating on abandoning your work.

(Side note: I learned about the "five more minutes" solution from a smoker attempting to quit cigarettes.  When he felt a craving, he said to himself, "if I still want a cigarette in five minutes, I will have one," and found it drastically reduced his consumption.  He would sometimes give in, but many times he would either forget about the craving, or tell himself "well heck, I went five minutes without it" and feel so proud of himself he wouldn't want to break the streak.  Your mileage may vary)

3) Attempt to actively think things which will lead to the right decision.  It is definitely a lot nicer to use positive reinforcement when you succeed; negative-reinforcement can be extremely effective, but it can also make you very neurotic and stressed out.  It's one thing when an outside source negatively reinforces you, because you can go along with it while retaining your sense of value.  If you negatively reinforce the wrong decision yourself by using unpleasant self-talk, you create a stressful mental habit of thinking "if I screw this up, then that means I suck."  That can detract you from thinking about the skill you're working on, which then defeats its own purpose.

There's also evidence that things like procrastination and self-sabotage occur when people have too many negative associations with failure.  They will avoid trying, or only try under conditions where failure is both likely and understandable.  So from what I can tell, in the long-run it helps more with your self-esteem and self-compassion to use positive reinforcements when you do things right.  And when you screw up, instead of berating yourself, congratulate yourself for being ready to try again in the face of a painful failure.

Example: Back to video games.  You notice yourself getting angry at a game, and try to think to yourself "I know that I don't want to be angry at this game just because something didn't go my way.  Staying calm and having fun always makes everything better."  Then, proceed to seriously pat yourself on the back for catching the impulse to become enraged, and attempting to prevent it.  Sometimes you get angry anyhow, but now you are developing a habit of noticing and trying to prevent that anger from taking over.


Here is the second to last idea of this post.

After thinking about it a bunch, I think the prime skills mental skills to develop in your life are probably these:

1) Perseverance: the ability to stick to a goal or endeavor in the face of setbacks and failures.  This skill is number 1, because it will be the guiding habit in everything else you learn.  If you believe that you lack this skill, you must make improving it your #1 priority.  It will be instrumental in learning other skills, and without it, everything else you do will be less likely to succed because you will be more likely to quit.

I can't stress this enough.  Everybody fails, everybody screws up, everybody wants to quit at some point.  People who habitually think, "I'm gonna keep trying to make this work, I'm not gonna give up on it right away," those are the people who see results in the end.  There is definitely a point where you must reassess your approach, but it's typically farther along than people think.  They try and convince themselves they have reached that point of "welp, I tried!", just so they have an excuse to quit.  That is not being realistic.  That is lacking perseverance.  Train honest perseverance.

2) Willpower: the ability to restrain momentary impulses in favor of overarching goals.  It is perseverance's twin, and in many cases they look identical.  But sometimes willpower will fail you; perseverance is the ability and willingness to try and draw upon your willpower again, even after it has let you down.  Willpower is only a hair behind perseverance in terms of importance, so it's not really #2, it's more like #1.5, or #1.08.  "The Willpower Instinct" is a good and interesting read on the subject.

3) Impulse awareness: the ability to recognize unhelpful impulses before acting upon them.  Mental skills, habits, and tendencies will make you want to act a certain way, and they often do so at lightning speed.  You want to hone your thought-processes to lead to positive, successful action; to do this, you have to spot that break point between deciding to do something and doing it.  With willpower, you will resist the urge to follow that impulse, and you will pick something better.  With perseverance, you will keep trying to do so, even when your failure frustrates you.

4) Critical-thinking: the ability to continually ask "why" and "how" when confronted with a new idea, as well as the ability to make connections between new ideas and old ones.  Attempting to take new skills and ideas and actively understand them, as well as relate them to older ones, is another unbelievably useful element of learning and improving.  Learn to play and tinker with your new knowledge, and don't just passively add it to the list of things you read or heard somewhere.

Maybe not the stuff I write.  But some stuff, for sure.

I picked the skills that seem to be the most important for (and this is no accident) learning new skills.  I think the consequences of this are obvious; by making yourself a better learner and student, you give yourself the capacity to do more and understand more.  Expanding your mental repertoire, generally speaking, just results in more success.  Hopefully in the future, as I read and learn more about from these skills through experience, I can share more comprehensive methods of improving them.


Final point:

The recurring mental skills that I mentioned were anger-management, perseverance, and will-power, and this is because these are the skills that I have worked on the most lately.  I have also seen a lot of results, despite my many failures and setbacks.

Personally, I've gone from becoming distracted, tired, and negative after working on something for twenty to thirty minutes, to being able to stick to that same project for hours.  This blog post, for instance, has involved more than an hour of sustained, undistracted writing and proofreading, something which would normally leave me tired and drained.  But over the past few years, I've substantially improved my focus (allowing me to stay away from distractions), my mental endurance (I don't feel mentally fatigued), my conscientiousness (I don't feel inclined to say, "okay I did a bit now, I'll finish it later"), and several other related skills in that vein.

Another skill I've improved on is the tendency to give myself credit for what I do right.  Yes, even this qualifies as a skill.  It's a mental habit that confers advantages in the form of positive reinforcement and higher-self esteem.  It encourages me to try harder and succeed more, and in this way, guides my actions positively.  I'm also lucky, in a way, because a history of extreme self-criticism has made me less likely to lie to myself and pretend I'm succeeding where I'm not.  I'm more likely to regard a successful outcome as neutral, a neutral outcome as a failure, and failures as, I dunno, double failures.  The tendency for self-doubt is a useful insurance against developing a tendency for self-BS.

Nowadays, I'm less likely to let my negative and unproductive behaviors discourage me and make me feel like a lesser human being.  Instead, I am more likely to examine them, try and find the point in my thought process that sent me down the negative path, and come up with a plan to improve it.  I don't get it right every time, but I also have faith that this too is a skill I can work on and improve.

Take care, thanks for reading, and see you next week.


  1. This post changed my life. I want to play League of Legends professionally, and since reading this and trying to apply what you say here (and in other posts on this blog), I've improved extremely rapidly. I knew I had problems that were preventing me from getting better, but I just assumed I was missing some talent that people who are destined to be successful competitors innately have. This post made me realize that I can change the things that are holding me back, I can learn to understand what makes me play poorly and, over time, begin to change my patterns to make me a better player. It's been working. I'm lucky to have perseverance innately, but my willpower and impulse control are not exactly top of the class, and you've helped me immensely with changing that.