Is Tenacity Born or Made?


The ability to stick it out stems from the brain, but recent research shows that stamina is coachable. Grow your grit starting now.

Last updated: December 1, 2020
Is Tenacity Born or Made

You and a friend recently made a pact to complete a 30-day workout programme. You've been getting up early to knock out your sessions and even sneak 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 single workout 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 recently led a study looking into animal and human brains to learn more about the trait—and why some of us (cross-training addicts and yogis who train seven days a week, for example) have more of it while others regularly hit the snooze button instead of the gym.

To start, know this: Difficult tasks, such as exercise, activate a neural hub called the anterior midcingulate cortex (or aMCC), and some people naturally have more developed ones. 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 (the cost) and underestimate the reward (the benefit).

The exciting thing is that, much like your muscles, your get-after-it gusto can be trained, as Touroutoglou's team found. "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.

"Tenacity is the ability to doggedly pursue a goal, whether it's a single workout or a new degree, even when it's uncomfortable or challenging".

Alexandra Touroutoglou, PhD, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School

Is Tenacity Born or Made

Practise Makes Persistence

Building a tenacious mindset can be surprisingly simple. It all boils down to making a task easier to do, then going out and doing it, experts say. 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 towards something that feels unlikely, or worse, impossible, from the get-go 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 longer term or bigger plans that get you out of your comfort zone—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 a lot and are an indoor-cycling devotee. Break down that goal into smaller milestones to hit every week and month, whether those are miles to cover, hours to sleep or minutes of foam rolling to do. The smaller goals are your stepping stones that create the path to the big one. 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 for the same hour as often as possible, setting your alarm for a regular wake-up time (no snoozing), 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 in the department of military and emergency medicine at the Uniformed Services University. "You'll develop new neural pathways, just as if you were learning to play the violin".

    Having the habit on lockdown makes doing the gritty work that much easier; it 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 on the right path.
  3. Talk 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 behaviour, emotions and interactions".

    Most tenacious people chase a goal not because they don't think they can do 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 tick 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, visualise 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 did it anyway. That's tenacity.

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