Also a quick reminder that for Flinders students, these lessons can found on our FLO site as well, where you can chat about these lessons privately with other students, as comments left on this blog are visible to the general public.
Welcome to Lesson 15 of the Introduction to Mental Fitness Course.
We’ve covered a lot of ground in the lessons to date. Looking back over my posts, a lot of the content is pretty good, but the overall narrative is quiet meandering and imprecise. There are also concepts that I don’t think I explained particularly well, or which I have thought about further since.
I make no apologies for the messiness of the process, as my intention from the beginning was to use these blog posts as a way of organising my own thoughts on the topic of mental fitness as well as sharing them with you. However I am mindful that someone reading those posts might be a little confused as to how all the pieces fit together.
Thus, the purpose of this post is to try and tie a bunch of loose ends together and provide a more elegant overview/description of what we’ve covered thus far. My hope is that by the end of this post, you have a clear overview of what mental fitness is and how you go about building it. We can then start delving into specific areas of mental fitness in subsequent posts.
So let’s pull the full narrative together……….
Who am I?
My name is Gareth. I am a psychologist.
I work in Health, Counselling and Disability Services here at Flinders.
I write and teach about productivity and wellbeing.
I do this because I want students to a) do well at their studies and b) build the skills necessary for current and future wellbeing
Not surprisingly, I am also interested in my own productivity and wellbeing, so I try to live what I teach.
Why am I talking about mental fitness?
For the full version, read this post here.
The short version is that professionally I am interested in helping people make positive changes in their life for the purposes of productivity (getting shit done) or wellbeing (feeling happier, healthier, more connected, more in control).
Personally, I’ve found that to do this, one needs a model or framework for thinking about their life, what is possible and what they need to do to create the life they want.
I didn’t have such a model in my life, so I created one based on my psychological training, personal experience and ongoing reading of the literature.
Mental fitness is that model. It is something I am always working on and refining.
What is mental fitness?
I think of mental fitness in a couple of ways.
First, mental fitness is a process for making positive changes in one’s life. It is an overarching framework that guides one to reflect on their life, imagine a better future or version of themselves, and then make that happen.
Second, mental fitness is a set of capacities – psychological skills – that you develop in the process of making changes in your life.
Thus to be mentally fit means:
a) having and using a coherent framework for self-improvement, and
b) developing the necessary psychological capacities to make and sustain positive changes in one’s life.
Mental fitness is similar to physical fitness in this respect as getting physically fit means having an exercise program in place, as well as building physical capacities like strength, endurance, flexibility, and aerobic capacity.
The process of building mental fitness is outlined below.
Mental fitness capacities that I’ve identified thus far include:
- understanding and getting one’s psychological needs met
- forming new habits
- study skills
- mastering emotions
- caring for your body
- thinking effectively
- building positive relationships
- helping others
- self-awareness and understanding
- cognitive enhancement
- developing meaning and purpose
- personal safety
- shaping your environment
- work skills
- financial control
- unwinding and having fun
- presenting yourself
- being creative
Why bother building it?
Ultimately it comes down to something fairly simple.
I start with a really basic assumption about people. Inherent in the diagram below is the idea that we are all moving towards the life we want, from the starting point of the life we currently have. In the process of moving towards the life we want there are things that will help us get to where we want to be and things that will hold us back.
You can also modify this diagram to be a little more focused on you as an individual. So rather than reflecting on your current and ideal life, you are instead focusing on your current and ideal self.
The specifics of ‘current’ and ‘ideal’ will be different for different people.
It might be:
- unwell now, want to be well
- don’t have a degree, want a degree
- not feel connected, want to feel connected
- unhappy, want to feel happy
- in one job, want to be in another
- not feel like I am a very useful person, want to feel like a useful person
- have no purpose, want a purpose
- achieving nothing, achieving something
- not feel in control, feel in control
- not helping other people, want to help other people
For some people the discrepancy between ‘current’ and ‘ideal’ will be large. They have big changes they want to make. For others, the discrepancy will be small things. Regardless, there is a discrepancy and it is that discrepancy which drives people forward.
Moving from where you are to where you want to be involves tackling those factors that are holding you back, as well as building those factors that will help you succeed. This pretty much always involves changing how one thinks or behaves. If I want to improve my physical health, I need to change how I eat, exercise and sleep. If I want to be a more effective learner, I need to change how I learn and study.
Building mental fitness therefore, underpins us building the life we want to live.
How do you build it?
You build mental fitness through a continual dedication to making deliberate incremental improvements or changes in how you think and behave (psychological capacities), with the goal of modifying some aspect of your life.
There are steps or stages in making changes to how you think or behave.
I often talk about these steps/stages as though they are a linear process (move from one to the next in order), but that isn’t really how it actually works. It tends to be a lot messier than that. In making any life change, we tend to flit between these stages/steps or being doing multiple steps at once on the way to successfully making a change.
Regardless, it is useful to study the different steps/stages separately as it might help you work out where in the process of making changes in your life you are going wrong (or right).
The steps/stages involved are as follows:
self-reflection and analysis – having a good understanding of who you are, and where you are at in your life in order to identify what it is you want to change.
knowledge acquisition – having identified something you want to change, educating yourself on how that is done. I looked at this in Lesson 10.
attitudes – accepting that change is possible and that you are capable of change.
goals – translating the changes you want to make into some specific goals.
skills – learning and practising the skills necessary to make the change. I explored skills in Lesson 12.
self-experimentation – using trial and error to explore whether the changes you have in mind actually lead to the outcomes you want. I talked about self-experimentation in Lesson 13.
habits – taking beneficial changes and making them part of your daily, weekly, monthly or yearly routine. I talked about this in the last lesson.
In previous lessons, I encouraged you to apply these ideas to an actual lifestyle change. I used myself as a guinea pig in the process – trying to increase my use of my standing desk.
Here is a bit of an overview of how that unfolded:
self-reflection and analysis – I realised that my sedentary time had increased, which I knew wasn’t good for my health. I wanted to find ways of being more active during the day.
knowledge acquisition – I identified from reading the published research that standing desks are associated with less sedentary behaviour.
attitudes – I was confident that I could establish a regular habit of using a standing desk.
goals – I set the goal of using my standing desk for at least 5 hours per day.
skills – There wasn’t any real skill to learn, other than re-organising my desk space to cater for using a standing desk.
self-experimentation – I used the standing desk for a couple of months and noted what the positive and negative effects were.
habits – I now use my standing desk daily.
What is this Introduction to Mental Fitness course all about?
This course is about sharing with you my mental fitness model, so you have a framework for making positive changes in your life. You might apply this to your studies or you might apply it to another aspect of your life.
In the lessons to date, culminating with this one, my goal has been to try and explain the model/framework.
In subsequent lessons, we are going to visit each of the different psychological capacities listed earlier and look at the kinds of changes you might make to build those capacities.
As we do, i’ll introduce you to resources and programs that I have found along the way that might help.
You see, once you have a framework in place for making changes in your life, you have something you can draw on at any stage in your life to make improvements.
Mental fitness is a framework for thinking about self-improvement that I built out of existing psychological theory and research and my own experiences.
I’m using this framework in my own life to move myself forwards.
I share this framework with you in the hope that you might find it (or elements of it) helpful in your own life.
I’m constantly refining and working on how I present this framework. This means I have been constantly developing my ideas whilst writing the lessons.
Thus the goal of this post was to summarise as best I could many of the key ideas that I’ve explored over the past 15 lessons.
With this in place, future posts will now hone in on specific mental fitness/ psychological capacities so you can see how the framework is applied to different areas.
Let the next adventure begin!