We’ve all done it: made a big, far-reaching goal that’s exciting, challenging, and even a little scary.
You start out strong with big aspirations. You may even tell a few friends or family members.
And while the initial push goes well, before long, you start to struggle.
Life starts to get in the way. One missed workout turns into two. The deadline to sign up for that race you were so excited about comes and goes.
Before long, you’re making excuses about why your goal wasn’t realistic in the first place.
You see other people stick with programs, skills, and difficult challenges and eventually accomplish amazing things…
…but you just can’t seem to stick with anything.
Whenever this happens, it’s easy to get disappointed and feel like you can’t accomplish anything. But that’s not the case.
You’re not hopeless. You just need to build some grit.
What it Means to Have Grit
One of my very favorite books about the subject of sticking with things is Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth.
Duckworth defines grit as: “passion and perseverance for long-term goals.”
The truest form of grit combines persistence, ambition, and self-discipline in the pursuit of big goals that might take months, years, or even decades to accomplish.
In terms of health and fitness, these could be intentions like making fitness an integrated part of your lifestyle and your identity, working toward long-term competition goals, or working toward mastery in a specific sport or with various skills.
Of course, grit doesn’t just apply only to our biggest long-term goals. We also need to have grit in order to accomplish smaller goals and develop habits, such as finishing a workout program (like the 12 Minute Athlete Academy), working toward a challenging skill like pull-ups or handstands, or making sure you’re moving enough during the day to get in your 10,000 steps.
Basically, you have to have a certain amount of grit in order to stick with any goal.
Handstands: My Grit Experiment
Before we get into how to actually increase grit, I want to tell you a bit about my own grit experiment of learning handstands.
When I was growing up, I wasn’t very gritty in any area of my life. If I wasn’t immediately good at something or outwardly praised for my potential, I would give up quickly. I’d justify my lack of perseverance with excuses that I clearly wasn’t a natural and I didn’t have the right body type, genes, or opportunities to improve—so I might as well not even try.
I constantly felt stuck, unable to get better at anything I tried, and destined to be mediocre at a lot of things in life.
Looking back, I realize what was really going on is that I didn’t have the grit to stick with something long enough to even see any progress.
So when I took my first adult gymnastics class six (!) years ago, it was a real stretch for me. I went into it completely open-minded and with zero gymnastics experience, knowing that there was no way I would be immediately good at anything I did in class. I fell a lot and fumbled my way through front tucks, cartwheels, and backbends – things I hadn’t done since I was a little kid.
Without question, I sucked.
As a long and lanky person, I didn’t show any immediate progress toward any of the tumbling. I’d often leave class feeling hopeless and embarrassed, wondering why I was putting myself through it.
But I kept going, and I slowly started to see a little progress here and there. Soon enough, I became fascinated with one specific skill: mastering a handstand.
I was so excited about the possibility of doing a handstand that I decided to do an experiment.
What if I stuck with handstand training long enough to see if I could actually make progress?
I decided to give it my best shot.
Pushing Through the Struggle
As luck would have it, I was soon referred to an incredible hand balancing coach at an all-circus gym fairly close to where I lived.
I struggled to hold a 30-second handstand against the wall with what I now know was terrible form while I watched as those around me (mostly circus performers who had been training for years) held beautiful, seemingly effortless handstands for minutes at a time.
As I worked on finding even a second or two of balance, they were progressing on all kinds of skills and tricks that appeared so difficult, I couldn’t even understand how they were humanly possible.
At this stage in my handstand training, my one big goal was to hold a five-second freestanding handstand. I didn’t care about the specifics: how it looked, how I got into it, whether it was “pretty” or not, I just wanted that five-second “real” handstand hold (a.k.a. not just a perfectly timed shot for Instagram).
I worked at it day after day, training with my coach a couple of times a week and almost every day on my own, diligently working the drills he gave me.
Handstands didn’t come easily to me. In fact, most days I wondered why I was even trying at all. My mind tried giving me those same excuses—I was too old to learn, I was too tall, my body wasn’t built for handstands…
So. Many. Excuses.
But I stuck with it, constantly reminding myself of the “why” I was putting myself through this: not just because I thought handstands were one of the coolest skills ever, but also to see if I could become a grittier person in general.
To test if, contrary to my prior belief, I could actually make progress on something difficult if I stuck with it long enough.
A Glimmer of Hope
Somewhere around six months of focused, consistent training, I started to notice it: I was beginning to make a tiny bit of progress.
It wasn’t constant, and it definitely wasn’t linear. Some days, I started to feel the balance, just a little. Other days I still felt like a total beginner. But it was just enough progress to give me hope that if I stuck with it, I could keep getting better.
And I did.
I got that five-second handstand, and five years into my big experiment, I’m still working toward bigger, more challenging handstand-related goals. I surpassed that first goal years ago, but I decided not to give up there. I chose to continue my grit experiment and see just how far I could go if I stuck with it really long-term.
It’s amazing what you can do if you keep chipping away at a hard thing day after day, year after year.
I’m proud of how far I’ve come in my handstand journey and all I’ve learned along the way. But more importantly, I’m proud of the grit I’ve built along the way that has expanded to so much more than just cool handstand tricks.
How to Grow Your Grit
So how do you grow your grit when it comes to health and fitness?
Like anything, grit is a skill that can be learned and trained in time. Here’s how to go about increasing grit:
Step One: Find a Goal You Care About
The first step in the grit-building process is to find something you care about enough to stick with for an extended period of time. After all, why waste time being gritty on something that doesn’t really matter to you?
But this important first step is easier said than done. In fact, a lot of people actually get stuck at this point in the process trying to figure out something they’re passionate enough about to pursue long-term. They get so worried about finding the absolute perfect fit that they never end up pursuing—or even trying—anything at all.
On the other hand, some people dive right in and commit wholeheartedly to a goal, only to find out fairly quickly that they’re actually not that interested in that goal (or the steps it takes to pursue that goal) after all. This often leads to people quitting and feeling like a failure early on.
Even worse, some people stick with goals that they’re not really that interested for a long time in order not to seem like a quitter. This often leads to unhappiness and missed opportunities to pursue other interests.
The better approach? Keep trying new things until you find something that fascinates you enough to stick with it.
The key is to avoid putting too much pressure on this process—it may take years until you find something that feels like the right fit (it did for me!). Be patient, and try to enjoy the process of discovery.
Step Two: Seek Out Knowledge to Improve
Once you’re relatively clear on your long-term goal, the next step is to seek out the necessary knowledge to improve. This can be in the form of books, online programs, in-person coaching, workshops, etc.
The trick here is to not overload yourself with too much high-level knowledge too early because doing so can leave you in a state of overwhelm, not knowing where to start. Try to avoid getting too far ahead of yourself in the process and aim for a daily challenge at about four percent above your current skill level (more on this later).
Make sure to break your long-term goals into small, manageable steps that steadily progress toward your larger goal. This will help you stay motivated to take action without being too overwhelmed about the big picture.
For example, if I had decided that I wanted to go straight to training my one arm handstand before even getting a regular five-second freestanding handstand, I would have given up early on because it would have all been too big and overwhelming. Even if my original goal had been a one arm handstand, getting my regular freestanding handstand would have been a necessary step along the way to that bigger long-term goal.
This article breaks down the goal-setting process I find to be the most helpful.
Step Three: Connect it to a Larger Purpose or Higher Value
Another key piece of increasing grit is to connect your goal to a larger purpose related to your higher values. In your regular life or career, this usually means figuring out how what you’re doing is helping others and making a difference in the world. In terms of your own health and fitness, this may be as simple as connecting your goal to your value of living a healthy, active life.
It may help to ask yourself questions like these…
- Why are you doing that three-month program? Because you want the structure and support to help you stick with a workout habit now so that you can make fitness a part of your identity for the long run.
- Why do you care about doing a freestanding handstand? Because going after challenging goals is important to you in your life.
- Why keep up with your HIIT workouts, pull-ups, push-ups, and squats? Because you want to stay strong and independent as you age and be a good example for your kids, nieces, and nephews.
…You get the idea. The point is that it’s not just about sticking with that new program or building up your skill arsenal in the short-term. Connecting your smaller goal to a larger purpose makes it much more likely you’ll stick with your goals when things get hard (and they will!).
Step Four: Track and Adjust
This step really should be implemented early on in the process of any goal pursuit. Because as much as we would all like to experience smooth, linear progress toward our goals, that’s just not the way it normally works.
Two steps forward, one step back is more typical than not when going after a challenging enough goal.
The key to constant improvement is to work on both your strengths and your weaknesses so that your weaknesses slowly become your strengths. This takes practice.
“You develop a capacity for doing hard practice — the kind scientists call ‘deliberate practice.’ Over years of working in a very diligent way on your weaknesses, you improve.” – Angela Duckworth
If at any point in the process you feel like you’ve plateaued and aren’t sure where to go next, it may be time to reevaluate and ask yourself these questions:
Is this goal still something I want to pursue? Quitting isn’t always a negative thing as long as it’s intentional and you’ve invested enough time in it to know that it’s not your thing.
In Grit Duckworth suggests that kids (but this obviously applies to adults, too) stick with a new sport or activity for one to two years—long enough to actually see some progress—before quitting to try something new. This may seem like a long time in our instant-results-society, but one to two years is a good amount of time to actually see some real progress on a new goal.
If after that amount of time you decide it’s no longer a goal you want to pursue, whether because of different interests or new priorities, then, by all means, find something new to go after.
Do I need to decrease the challenge? Often times, when we make a big goal (like to be able to do a freestanding handstand, run a marathon, compete in an amateur boxing match, etc.), we’re so stuck on that end goal that anything less than that can seem like we’re coming up short.
But the key to actually accomplishing those big, long-term goals is to break them down into smaller, manageable steps. (Check out this article on goal setting for my favorite way to set—and achieve—long-term goals).
If you’re not making progress because your current goal is just a little too challenging, break it down further. For example, if your goal is to be able to do a push-up, you can break it down by first doing push-ups with your hands on a countertop, then once you build up strength moving to a bench, a step, and finally, to the floor.
Do I need to up the challenge? If you’re the type of person that almost always gets bored with long-term goals, you may actually need to increase the challenge, not decrease it. I see this happen with a lot of people who do group workouts —at a certain point, they’ve reached a level of fitness where they are no longer being challenged so they stop making progress, get bored, and quit.
Steven Kotler, the author of Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman, Bold, and other books on high performance, suggests from his research that you should aim to increase the challenge by about four percent on a constant basis. This four percent reach is the sweet spot that will help you continue to make progress and get into flow or “in the zone” on a regular basis.
“Flow appears near the emotional midpoint between boredom and anxiety, in what scientists call the flow channel — the spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap.” – Steven Kotler
Do I need more feedback? If you’re been at a goal for a while and are just feeling stuck, it may be because you’ve reached the limits of your knowledge base and need more feedback on how to break through and keep making progress.
In my experience, the best way to get this kind of feedback is to find someone more experienced than you, whether it’s a coach, a physical therapist, or even an experienced friend or mentor. Because of their own experience in the subject area, they know the often simple adjustments you need to make to get through your current struggle phase and continue making progress.
If you can’t afford to hire someone, there are always free or low-cost resources like books, online courses, video tutorials, etc. The internet is an amazing place—you can learn nearly anything if you put your mind to it.
Other Ways to Increase Grit
Here are some additional ways to increase your grit and stick with your goals:
Surround yourself with gritty people. If the friends, family, and colleagues you spend the most time with are also working on being gritty with long-term goals, you’re much more likely to stick with your goals, too.
Believe you can. It may sound silly, but believing in yourself is a huge part of sticking with challenges long-term. If you believe that your hard work will ultimately result in success, you’ll be more likely to actually put in the time and work and keep going when it’s tough.
Celebrate small wins. Keeping track of your progress is a key part of achieving long-term goals, and it’s important to celebrate small wins along the way. Being able to hold a wall handstand five seconds more than yesterday may not feel like much now, but it will add up big time long-term. Celebrate your win and keep going.
Remember that grit is a skill, just like anything else. While some people may indeed be born with a little more grit than others, ultimately grit is a skill that can be trained. Basically, if you work at increasing your grit, you’ll become more gritty.
“Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.” – Angela Duckworth