How to Establish a Mental Fitness Routine

Burnout. Fatigue. Brain fog. Anxiety. A general lack of motivation. If you experience any of these things in your daily life, it might be time to change up your mental fitness routine. That’s right, I’m talking about brain exercises, or small, easy, thought-based activities that can have dramatic effects on your mood and mental health. You’re already aware of the impact that small changes in diet and exercise can have on your body. Well, the same goes for your brain.


Every day, we’re thrown into dozens of stressful situations. Some are big, like waking up to a sick kid, and some are small, like forgetting a phone charger. Our mental strength and preparedness dictates how we respond to each stressor. The more mentally fit you are, the more easily you can access things like clarity, calmness, or intentionality when you need it.


You’re already aware of the impact that small changes in diet and exercise can have on your body. The same goes for your brain.

So how does mental fitness work, exactly, and what does a typical routine look like? To start, think about brain workouts as a way to form new pathways. The scientific term, “neuroplasticity of the mind,” speaks to your brain’s adaptiveness; just like your muscles, it can be trained. I’d argue that mental strength is even more important than physical strength because it’s the driving force behind everything you do: Whether you’re pushing yourself through a tough workout, resisting a certain junk food, or opting not to react when someone or something triggers you, it’s your brain that kicks into gear and carries you through.


Developing mental fortitude is easier than you think. All you need is ten or twenty minutes to check in and ask yourself some meaningful questions. In doing so, you’ll train your brain to slow down and be more aware, arming you with a stronger understanding of where you want to be. That insight will help you be more intentional with your choices and establish habits that support the person you’re trying to become.


Mental strength is even more important than physical strength because it’s the driving force behind everything you do.

Here are some easy ways to get started.


Start your day with a check-in.

First thing in the morning, when you’re brewing your first cup of coffee or tea, take a moment to check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Your answers can be short and fast–“stressed,” “overwhelmed,” “groggy,” and so on. The point is to identify the emotions themselves. Ask yourself: Where are you feeling it in your body? It may sound silly, but here's the thing: If you're not asking these questions, those emotions will continue seeping in. And whether you notice it or not, they’ll affect how you show up with others. They’ll affect your energy. They’ll keep you from thinking clearly. Don’t let these lingering stressors hijack your day! Instead, take a few minutes to identify them early on. By doing so, you’re taking back the power.


Surround yourself with tools for small perspective shifts.

Instead of whipping out your phone every time you’re stressed or bored, give yourself healthier alternatives. I keep a small stack of books next to my desk––a mix of philosophy, biography, memoir, and motivational books––and whenever I need a quick mental reset, that’s where I go. It’s not because I necessarily want to be swept up in a story, but because the sheer act of reading is one of the surest ways to achieve a perspective shift, to take myself out of a chaotic state and establish a sense of calm. It’s almost impossible to do this by tapping around on your phone (in fact, the science shows that mobile devices almost always make us feel worse), but books are uplifting, steadying, and stabilizing, the equivalent of a mental deep breath.


Instead of whipping out your phone every time you’re stressed or bored, give yourself healthier alternatives.

Try breathwork.

Speaking of deep breaths, I’ve recently started a breathwork practice that has been transformative for my mood and focus. I use an app called Othership which has guided sessions that span anywhere from two to 15 minutes, and they’ve quickly become a part of my daily ritual. It’s a handy way to calm nerves; if your emotions start spiraling or you’re anxious before a presentation, a few focused deep breaths will bring you back from a survival state into a thriving one.


Take a minute in the evening to set intentions for tomorrow.

Our mornings are dictated by the things we do the evening before, and intention-setting is an easy way to make the most of our early hours. Every night as you’re winding down, make a short list of intentions for tomorrow. Most days, I list two or three things – like trying a new breathwork, taking a spin class, and maybe doing some journaling – and have it next to my bed when I wake up. The key is this: I may not do all three of those things, but I will do something, and I’m going to feel good every time I cross something off that list. It’s great for accountability and positive thinking. It's so easy to negotiate ourselves out of self-care tasks like early morning workouts or meditation sessions, but if it’s the very first thing on a very short list of personal priorities for your day, it carries more weight. We all want to start the day off with a win.


I may not do all three of those things, but I will do something, and I’m going to feel good every time I cross something off that list.

End the day with gratitude.

It’s hard to overstate the value of a gratitude practice. My preferred method is journaling. It doesn’t have to be intense! I take about ten minutes to review the day and revisit anything that threw me off, which helps the issues from festering and offers some relief. Then I answer a handful of uplifting questions: What went well today? What were the micro-wins? What made me feel good about myself? What made me feel good about the world? You can find lists of gratitude questions all over, including in my book Personal Socrates. Give them a shot and be specific in your answers. You’ll be giving yourself a nice little neurochemical cocktail of serotonin and dopamine, and go to bed in a happy, peaceful state of mind. I 100% guarantee that if you do this every day for one week, you’ll start to notice massive shifts in your mood, focus, and energy, and eventually, your life.


Be kind with yourself:

If you’re new to mental fitness, give yourself some grace. I’m an expert in mental fitness and I struggle with it! Don’t be too hard on yourself. If you forget to journal for a week or find yourself stewing on things for no reason, don’t panic. You can pick your practice right back up where you left off and try again. But do try again! We expose ourselves to so much stress and negativity that it’s crucial to find ways to keep our minds healthy and clear. I promise you: Those check-ins and micro-pauses work. They help us adjust our goal posts and remind us what we’re working toward.


We expose ourselves to so much stress and negativity that it’s crucial to find ways to keep our minds healthy and clear.


Originally published on the FWRD blog.