Is tenacity born or made?

The ability to gut it out stems from your genes, but research shows that perseverance is coachable, sharpen that skill for endless progress

You and a friend recently made a pact to complete a 30-day workout program. You made all kinds of progress by getting up early to knock out your sessions and even snuck away for the occasional lunchtime jog. Your training partner, on the other hand, hasn’t worked out in a week. What’s the deal?

It may not be a matter of motivation, per se, but tenacity. And there’s a difference.

Tenacity is the ability to doggedly pursue a goal, whether it’s a workout streak or a new degree, even when it’s uncomfortable or challenging, says Alexandra Touroutoglou, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. Touroutoglou led a study looking into animal and human brains to learn more about the trait — and why some of us (CrossFit regulars and yoga enthusiasts who practice seven days a week, for example) have more of it while others hit the snooze button more often than the gym.

Difficult tasks, such as exercise, activate a neural hub called the anterior midcingulate cortex, or aMCC, and some people naturally have a more developed one. A high-functioning aMCC can predict the physical demands of a task, then effectively recruit the body’s energy resources to tackle it. A lower-functioning aMCC, on the other hand, could overestimate the work involved and underestimate the reward.

The exciting thing is that, much like your muscles, your get-after-it gusto can be trained, found Touroutoglou’s team. “It may be possible to increase your aMCC function and, in turn, your tenacity,” she says. In short, the better you can judge the effort required to complete an activity, the more manageable that activity becomes, so you’re much more likely to do it.

Practice makes persistence

Building a tenacious mindset can be surprisingly simple. Experts say it all boils down to making a task easier to do, then going out and doing it. Then repeat, repeat, repeat. Here’s how to start.

1. Make — and track — specific goals

“It’s important to have a clear picture of what you’re reaching for, otherwise you’re directionless,” says Nicole Gabana, PhD, the director of sports psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Those targets should be challenging but attainable. Working toward something that feels unlikely or, worse, impossible, only fuels frustration, which snuffs out that stick-to-it-iveness needed to accomplish any goal. Write your goals down — small and short-term as well as “stretch” goals, which are big and longer-term — and track them along the way.

Let’s say your stretch goal is to complete a duathlon (a race where you run, cycle, then run again) in six months. Maybe it’s challenging because you haven’t done much road cycling but doable because you run and indoor-cycle a ton. Break down that goal into smaller ones, like how many miles you want to hit in a month or hours of sleep you want to get in a week. The smaller goals are your stepping stones that create a path to the big goal. Using an app like Nike Run Club or recording everything you’ve accomplished on a calendar gives you a visual reminder of your progress, which makes you want to continue.

2. Establish a routine

Scheduling your workouts and setting your alarm for a regular wakeup call as often as possible, drinking water as soon as you get out of bed each day — all of these help create consistency. “Any time you discipline yourself by doing something repeatedly, your body adapts,” says Patricia Deuster, PhD, the director of the Consortium for Health and Military Performance at the Uniformed Services University. “You’ll develop new neural pathways, just as if you were learning to play the violin.”

Having a habit on lockdown lowers the hurdle one notch. If you’re struggling to create a habit in the first place, just take it day by day. Every time you do it is a step forward.

3. Chat yourself up

What are you telling yourself about your ability to cut down on sugar or complete that duathlon? “It’s hard to break some of the psychological tendencies we have in place,” says Gabana. “That’s one of the biggest insidious challenges: how to be more aware of the thoughts you have and how they impact your behavior, emotions and interactions.”

Most tenacious people chase a goal not because they don’t think they can accomplish it, but to prove that they can. So make sure the conversation in your head aligns with the goals you have on paper. Replace thoughts like “I have no willpower” or “I’m an awful runner” with ones like “I’m stronger than I give myself credit for.” As you check off your boxes, this should become much easier.

4. Use imagery

Say you’re dreading that long run you have planned for this weekend. To keep your aMCC in line when it’s rebelling, visualize yourself nailing the task. Research shows this can help you mentally prepare for the work and stoke your confidence, making it easier to actually go out and do it.

Chances are, it won’t suck as much as you thought it would. And if it does? Hey, you persevered anyway. That’s progress.

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