It’s All Mental

What’s your default mindset?


For a long time, mine was “can’t.” I can’t do this. I can’t do that. I focused on the things I couldn’t do. I let people tell me what I couldn’t do or I disqualified myself from doing things because I think I fit the criteria to do it.

I’ve talked about that before and it’s the whole idea behind my list.

I’m don’t identify as an idealist or positive thinking self-help advocate, but I think there’s a huge value in reworking how we approach situations and a lot of that has to do with your default mindset.

In other words, if you think you’re not able to do something, you’re probably not going to try and do it. Conversely, if you think you can do something, you’ll probably figure out a way to do it.

Real Life

For most of my life I told myself I wasn’t a “runner.” I avoided it for years even though I was an athlete. I played basketball for over 10 years, and when I joined track and field in college I threw javelin because I didn’t want to run. I told myself I couldn’t run, so I didn’t run.

Then a funny thing happened. I just decided to start running [insert obligatory Forrest Gump joke here]. I signed up for my first race ever. A monumental distance that was almost twice as long as I had ever run before. A 5k.

Up to that point in my life, I had never run more 2 miles. That was last November. I’m not a running fanatic by any means now. I still think running is hard and after a long run, I hurt for a while, but running isn’t impossible any more. I can run [and I’m running 13.1 miles next month!]

Same thing happened with swimming. Before this year, my entire swimming expertise consisted of wading in pools, floating on lazy rivers and body surfing in the ocean hoping not to drown. I could “swim” but I had never actually swam for distances before it. When I did my first triathlon, I was sure I was going to drown.

So what did I do? I just started swimming. Every day. I’m not Michael Phelps now, but I have swam almost a miles straight. The only thing that changed was me deciding to do it. When I decided to head down to the swimming pool and just start swimming. I stopped worrying about drowning and just started swimming.

For the longest time I said I couldn’t get an email series done because I couldn’t’ figure out the design for my signup box. It didn’t matter that I actually had the form code already ready and sitting there, and all I had to do was write the series. Nope, I had to wait wait and wait almost six months until I decided just to write the dang thing. What changed? I just decided to do it, and I did it. [You can sign up for the 1 week to impossible series here or on the sidebar >>>>]

If your default mindset is “can’t”, you’re stuck in park and you won’t go anywhere.  When your default mentality changes to “can”, you’re able to actually start taking action and figure out how you’re going to be able to do it.

It’s science!

A bunch of Stanford psychologists agree. Your beliefs about what you can do affect what you actually do.

After a tiring task, those who believed or were led to believe that willpower is a limited resource performed worse on standard concentration tests than those who thought of willpower as something they had more control over.

One of the lead researchers said:

“If you think of willpower as something that’s biologically limited, you’re more likely to be tired when you perform a difficult task. But if you think of willpower as something that is not easily depleted, you can go on and on.”

They also had this gem that’s my favorite from the paper:

This is an example of a context where people’s theories are driving outcomes. Willpower isn’t driven by a biologically based process as much as we used to think. The belief in it is what influences your behavior.”

[via Science Daily]

Read the study yourself and make your own conclusions, but I’ve seen that often, my beliefs affect my behavior. There’s a direct correlation between the times that I’ve intentionally set out to do something and the times I actually accomplished it.

I had a javelin coach one year that tried to rid me of the word can’t. Anytime I said the word can’t in our workout, I had to do 10 more push-ups. It’s not bad the first few times, but after a full workout 10 push-ups starts to seem pretty freaking hard. At first I would get really upset.

I just told you I can’t do it! How do you expect me to do MORE?

But my coach didn’t back down and after I stopped sputtering my excuses and realized it’s going to be easier to just do it rather than try and argue with him, I just did it. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun, but I did it.

Your default mindset is your mindset. If you think you can do it, you probably can. If you don’t think you can, you probably won’t.

If you’re scared of the impossible, you’ll keep spitting out excuses and telling yourself you can never do it but if you’re set on doing the impossible, no matter what, you probably will. In fact, the only thing that’s holding you back is how big you can dream. While others are spinning their wheels, your only limit is how big your imagination is.

For those of you that are stuck where you are right now, just think about this:

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What’s your default mentality? What are you doing to change it?

[Photo by Helga]

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  1. says

    I love it! You and I have talked about this before and you are dead on.

    I love this story and how you DID achieve something. I hate looking around and seeing so many people imprisoned by their wrong thinking. Leaving open the possibility of failure and telling yourself that you can’t do something is POISON!

    Keep doing the impossible.

  2. says

    Excellent mindset. You remind me of my friend. She ran and swam competitively when she was in HS, but quit sports after she graduated. Then two years ago, she got into spinning, and thought “I’m going to do a triathlon.” Except she could not ride a bike, had terrible balance, and scared of steep inclines. But she wanted it BADLY, so she committed herself to it. So she bought a bike a week later, got on it, and taught herself how to ride.

    Fast forward to now, and she just competed in this years 2010 Kona World Ironman. At 31! In just a year and a half of training! And she finished, too!

    • says

      Wow! Kona sounds awesome! That’s such a cool story. When you look at the things some people are able to do, it’s amazing how much power we have that we’re not tapping into. Tell your friend great job! Big congratulations are in order.

  3. says

    Joel- one of your best posts yet! In his book, The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green presents that idea of removing the word “can’t” from one’s vocabulary . . . as well as the word try. Thanks for turning me onto the willpower study- great stuff. Thanks a ton!

    • says

      Found it via Lifehacker the other day as I was writing this post. Synchronicity is crazy.

      A wise man once told me “Do or do not. There is no try.” He was very wise, very old, very short and very green. :)

  4. says

    Great post Joel! Just like Henry Ford said, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you’re right”
    I’m working on changing my “can’t” mentality as well. It can be tough sometimes, but keeping at it will make it become a habit.

    • says

      Just keep at it and find a crew to help you out. Makes things a lot easier =)

      Also, the best way to combat the “can’t” mentality is to just continually do it anyways.

  5. says

    What’s the difference between a runner and a couch potato? A runner runs. You and a math wiz? He practices math. Painter? Writer? It’s all the same: to become anything, it starts with the mindset and is “completed” by (continual) action.

    Loving the most recent articles, Joel.


  6. says

    Great post, Joel. As I get older and wiser (still only a humble 30), the more I realize how powerful our mindset is in everything we do. While reading your post, I thought of an article I read this morning in the NY Times about running and will power:

  7. Jason says

    Great post. I just started running and am counting down to my first 5k. I’m starting to research swimming instructors for the spring. I still can’t get over the progress I’ve made just by doing it and not making excuses.

    • says

      Dude you got it. The first 5k is the hardest. Once you do it, you start to realize that it’s just the beginning =)

      Keep it up and let me know if there’s anything I can do to help

  8. says

    This must be “change your mindset” week or something. I just wrote a similar post about comparing “I would like to…” with “I am going to…”. It’s amazing what a difference changing your perspective makes. There is only one person that can change my life and that is me. The writing you’ve been pumping out is very motivational and encouraging and sparks me into action.

  9. Paul says

    Great post Joel – I’m enjoying the reading in the commute to the office.
    Can we also eliminate the word ‘but’. Unfortunately I have faced the word in Dutch (‘maar’) and Turkish (‘fakat’) and I don’t want to learn it in an more languages :-)

    • says

      I hope you don’t drive to work =)

      I’m going to work on a list of disallowed words. No worries, “but” will be included. So will the word “just” – I hate that one.

  10. says

    DO IT! I’m a huge advocate of positive thinking 😉 and in believing in ourselves. As a former nay-sayer and “I can’t do it” junkie, I’ve come far. And all because I CHOSE to believe it is possible.

    My Karate Sensei’s always teach us to push harder than we’ve ever pushed before, train harder than we’ve ever trained, fight harder than we’ve ever fought, because the moment you think you are not as good as the next karate student, you have already lost.

    I go into tournaments and belt exams with this same mentality. Belt ranks mean nothing once I’m out there. It’s just me and you. That’s how I was able to bring home a Silver medal at the 2008 U.S. Nationals as a Purple belt fighting against a Brown belt. That’s how I was able to bring home the Gold at the 2009 U.S. Open. That’s how I was able to bring home a Bronze medal at the 2009 U.S. Nationals as a Brown belt competing against Black belts. And that’s how now, as a Black belt, I am able to train in the utmost highest standards … all because I believe I can do it and so I just simply do it.

    Excellent reminder to us all, Joel! Thank you, as always. :)

  11. says

    Great stuff, man. I completely agree. Willpower, habit, and a “No Excuses” philosophy will get you very, very far in life.
    I still have some things that I’d like to do that I procrastinate on or haven’t made a habit of yet.

    But I’ve found (and it sounds like you have also) that Step 1 is just deciding that you can and WILL do something. Step 2 is making that choice every day (again, No Excuses) until it becomes a habit.

    Good luck with the 13.1!

  12. says

    Oh, so true. I’m still working on my “I can’t” mentality. It’s not easy, but I’m starting to push myself to just do it. Great post and a reminder to me to just keep pushing!

  13. says

    I think that every day we have a choice to be what we want to be and to do what we want to do. Once we make a decision to overcome our fears and any other self-imposed obstacles, anything is possible.

  14. Jessica says

    I really enjoyed reading this blog! I origianlly found your “When Do You Give Up? Pt. 2” article and then read the shoter part 1, followed by this. I’m at that point myself. I have been training to meet the standards of a PT test for a police/correction officer academy. I can meet all the requirements except for the run. I used to be runner and kind of ruined my knees, so for like 3 years I didn’t run (hardly ever). I did/do other things like the elliptical or bike – I’m just not a runner anymore. I’ve tried twice in the past three years to get in and the running component is the ONLY thing that has held me back. There’s another test (try #3) in two weeks but I’m tempted to not even bother. I keep practicing and practicing and practicing and practicing and have practiced many, many, many, many times over the past three years and I just cannot do it. And I believe the whole “mind over matter” mentality thing, I do – I REALLY keep telling myself “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”… persistant, like you playing basketball. I’m NOT a quitter. But I’m at the point now where I don’t know if it would be better to just throw in the towel and find something else, rather than keep devoting all this energy to something that will just not happen… like you said, “The first thing I noticed about Track & Field is you either have the times & distances needed to compete or you don’t… End of story.” You’re either a runner or your not. I just don’t know…

    • says

      Thanks for the nice words Jessica!

      As for your situation, I think the bigger question is “do you really want to be an officer?” and is there a bigger reason than simply your knees hurting that you can’t run? Sure, you might not be a born runner, but if you’re injured it’s another story. It might be something with your form & shoes. Have you looked into that?

      • Jessica says

        I just got brand new sneakers in September. They’re very comfortable and I love ’em! And I do want to be an officer… I went to school for Criminal Justice. Just had no idea a few years ago that the economy would be like this (no one did obviously) and, especially, that this field was so hard to get in to. It’s allllllll who you know, very political unfortunately.


  1. […] The third attempt I didn’t even count the pushups myself. I was pissed and I was going to do as many as I could even if my arms gave out and they almost did. This set was ugly, really ugly. Complete with lots of cheating by doing my downward dog impressions [I'm not even sure that's what they call it] to try and take a break without really “stopping.” The whole thing ended with my arms physically shaking as I tried to keep going. Even so, I still managed to do even more than I did earlier [more confirmation that it's all mental]. […]

  2. […] But I thought this was the 100 pushup challenge? Technically. But I have a rule I try to follow with all my challenges: Never do the bare minimum. Always try to do something extra. Why? The bare minimum isn’t fun. Sure, you finished the challenge, but just barely. Yes, you want to finish, but you don’t want there to be room for error. If you only do 100 pushups, you could convince yourself you counted wrong, you did a few wrong, or you just got lucky. If you do 110, you’ll know that you not only finished the challenge, but you dominated it. There won’t be any doubt in your mind that you did it and you’ll make up for any of those pushups you might have missed, or might have had poor form. Instead of scraping by, you’ll be able to say you crushed it. After all, you did 100 pushups. You can do 10 more. Suck it up. Remember, it’s all mental. […]

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