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One of the key characteristics of mental toughness, as per the MTQ48 framework, is the ability to perform under stress and pressure ‘whatever the circumstances’. This ability comes from a mindset that is positive and in control and where you are able to think and process a situation in front of you, clearly and calmly.

When you feel stressed your brain becomes overloaded, it reacts by retreating into a more defensive self and that limits your high-level thinking, analytical ability and your ability to think clearly under stress.

One way to reduce being overloaded with things to think about and process is to transfer to your thoughts to paper – write or type as much as you can on paper or in a word doc.  You can then instantly forget about those things which immediately results in a reduction in the overload on your conscious brain. Having fewer things to think about means you have more processing time for each thought which, simplistically, means less stress, more calm and more clarity.

You then return later to your notebook to pick up and process what you need to.

This works for me, which I wrote about in another post on using the brain for creativity NOT memory.

This method is also validated by recent scientific research by Dr Jason Moser from Michigan State University, who found that this method of writing about your thoughts and feelings can help free up a lot of cognitive resources, which enables your brain to run more efficiently under stress.

The details of the study were reported recently on the excellent Psyblog website. Co-author Mr Hans Schroder provides some context:

“…it’s kind of like people who struggle with worry are constantly multitasking — they are doing one task and trying to monitor and suppress their worries at the same time.

Our findings show that if you get these worries out of your head through expressive writing, those cognitive resources are freed up to work toward the task you’re completing and you become more efficient.”

In the study, one group of chronic worriers wrote about their deepest feelings for eight minutes before they did a stressful task.

They were compared to a group who wrote about what they had done the previous day.

Scans revealed that the brains of those who had expressed their emotions worked more efficiently under stress.

Dr Jason Moser added:

“Here, worried college students who wrote about their worries were able to offload these worries and run more like a brand new Prius, whereas the worried students who didn’t offload their worries ran more like a ’74 Impala — guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”

Studies have shown repeatedly that expressive writing can be useful for dealing with stressful events in the past.

This study, though, suggests it can help people deal with upcoming stressful events.

Dr Moser said:

“Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get “burned out” over, their worried minds working harder and hotter.

This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head.’”

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In summary, focusing on one task (thinking and doing) until completed has helped me improve productivity. A big part of being able to stay calm and clear is transferring all my thoughts and feelings into another format (in my case paper but it could be electronic).