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  • Writer's pictureDr. Emi Garzitto

Your Brain on Perseverance

One of my goals for 2017 was to increase my skill at swimming so that I can eventually overcome my fear of swimming in open water. As a part of that goal, I am taking intermediate adult swimming lessons at the local pool. Twelve people are enrolled in the class.  It is a smattering of ages and abilities and attitudes.  I am decked out in my Costco one piece with a lavender swim cap that has got to be 20 years old by now.  Nothing matches.

Certain students are intimidated and overwhelmed.  They have just moved up from the beginner class and the expectations are a bit of a leap.  Some of the students feel daunted by the stronger swimmers in the group.  Their overwhelm seeps into the conversations.

"He shouldn't be in this class. He's too good."

"I am never going to get this kick right."

Certain students are motivated for fitness, or health, or losing weight.  A few just want to learn to swim.

Over the twice weekly sessions the class starts to thin out.  Increasingly more and more students arrive later and later.

By the end, there are 8 out of 12 students who complete the 12 sessions. I notice that all of the students with the overwhelm were the first to stop coming to the classes.

Perseverance, your ability to stick to something when it gets challenging, is a practice.  It is a skill you build by competing things, even when they get challenging. It is the byproduct of repetition.  It is a behavior - a doing.  Our ability to stick to something is not an overnight skill.  It comes from our ability to train our brain and our body to keep going, find a way and work through challenge.

It is a bit of an art form, because, you want to build for success and the way you build for success, is by having challenges in small enough pieces so that you don't feel like it is impossible to do. This is very important.

What good is a diet that you can only follow 40% of the time? What good is a fitness plan you will quit after 6 weeks? What good is a budget you follow for 3 months and then forget?  It is better for you to workout twice a week for a year rather than 7 times a week for 3 months.  Perseverance practice happens the same way resilience practice happens.  In small repeated steps that build the skill set over time. In a nutshell, it is the Nike slogan, "Just do it."

How can I build perseverance, or how can I help my child build perseverance?

Start with small challenges.  If a task feels too daunting, keep breaking it down into smaller bits until it feels more manageable.

Get to a place of discomfort but not so uncomfortable that it takes up all of your brainpower and willpower to complete.

Honor your successes.  Reward your effort, not your skill.  In perseverance training, the effort is more important than the skill.

Do what you can to make it more palatable.  Enlist a friend, tell those who will encourage your goal about your efforts, or do the work when you are most likely to complete the task.

Imagine your future self.  What will it be like, to have all my credit card paid off?  What will it be like to be able to swim across the lake?  What will it be like to complete my goal?

Be your own cheerleader.  Talk to yourself in ways that focus on success.  Your "head" can be your most effective self saboteur if you let it.  Train your brain to focus on where you WANT to go, not where you are AFRAID to go.

Every time you strengthen your perseverance skills.  Every time you practice consistently, tasks you want to accomplish, you are teaching all the people around you.  What you do and do repeatedly is what you teach.  Model perseverance and see the community around you inspired by your efforts.

Practice small.  Practice often. Just do it.

Right now, I gotta go.  I don't want to be late for my swim class and it takes me a minute to put my swim cap on.

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