Build a “Mental Toolbox” to Help You Navigate Through Rough Times

mental toolbox


When it comes to self improvement, there is no single solution that is magically going to fix all of your problems.

My personal approach is to think of self improvement as building a “mental toolbox” with a wide-range of different tools, exercises, and techniques that I can choose from when necessary.

The more tools you have in your toolbox, the more options you have when you are confronted with a difficult situation.

This is very important because not every tool is going to be effective in every situation. Abraham Maslow once famously said, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”

This is a cognitive bias that is known as the “law of the hammer,” and it describes our tendency to have an over-reliance on a tool simply because it is familiar to us.

But just like you can’t build an entire house with just a hammer, you can’t build a better life with just one “mental tool.”

For this reason it’s always a good idea to diversify our toolbox and better equip ourselves for the various situations we find ourselves in life.

In this article, I’ll outline some of the most common tools in our “mental toolbox,” as well as some more advanced ones that I’ve discovered over my years studying self improvement.


7 Common Mental Tools Everyone Should Use

While there are an endless amount of different mental tools, techniques, and tricks to change your mindset, here are the 7 most common mental tools people use to enhance their self improvement. All of these should be a part of anyone’s “mental toolbox.”

  • Affirmations – Affirmations are a popular tool that almost everyone has heard of by now (but they can be very effective if practiced correctly). An affirmation is simply a positive and inspiring thought that we actively recite to ourselves inside our heads to make it “stick” inside our brains more. For example, we may repeat the thought “I have a lot of positive qualities and strengths” 3 times every morning to help us build more confidence and self-esteem. I recommend checking out my free guide The Science of Self-Affirmations to learn more about how to craft your own affirmations and create a daily practice of your own.
  • Meditation – Meditation is another popular tool recommended by psychologists. It’s the practice of focusing your awareness on a single object and training your mind to not get distracted. There are many different types of meditation, but the most common one is a “Breathing Meditation,” where you focus solely on your breath. My 100 Breaths Meditation is a good place to start if you’ve never tried meditation before. Once you get good at this, you can expand into other types of meditation like a “Walking Meditation” or “Sound Meditation,” which teaches you how to focus your awareness on different types of sensations.
  • Reframing – Reframing is a common tool in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. It’s when an individual takes a negative and destructive belief and looks at it from a more positive and constructive perspective. For example, instead of thinking “No one likes me,” a person may reframe that belief into “People will like me if they get the chance to know me.” When we reframe a negative thought, it’s not about ignoring the facts of reality, but merely looking at the fact from a different angle that we find more inspiring and motivating. I recommend checking out my article Reframing Your Dark Side for more interesting information on how powerful reframing can be.
  • Visualization – Visualization is when we “mentally rehearse” a new behavior inside our minds so that we are more prepared to act out that behavior in the real world when we find ourselves in a particular situation. For example, a football player may visualize themselves going through different play routines so that when they hit the field those plays will come more naturally to them. Visualization can be used for all types of habit change and mental preparation, here’s a simple outline for how to Change Habits with Visualization. One of the most important things to remember about visualization is to focus on process and not results. The goal of visualization is to change your behaviors, it’s not a magical force that will just bring you things you want without any effort.
  • Nudges – Nudges are a tool that behavioral psychologists are beginning to study more of, but in practice they are very common. A “nudge” is a small change in our environment that influences us to make a certain choice or action. For example, something as simple as setting an alert on your phone to remind you to take out the garbage (or feed the dog) would be considered a type of “nudge.” There are other types of nudges that are commonly used, such as “partitioning” your food servings so that you eat less (this is a common nudge for those trying to diet). I highly recommend checking out my article The Power of Nudges to learn about all the different types of nudges you can apply throughout your day to change your behavior in small ways.
  • List Building – List Building is a great tool for refreshing your mind about the good things going on in your life. You can create all types of lists to help change your mindset, such as a “Gratitude List” to remind you of things to be grateful for, an “Accomplishments List” to remind yourself of things you’ve achieved in your life, or a “Role Models List” to help you reflect on people in your life who have inspired you and motivated you to be a better person. I often recommend that people create these types of lists and save them somewhere for future reference. They can become a great resource to go back to when you feel like you need an extra boost of happiness, motivation, or inspiration. I personally have a whole self improvement folder that is dedicated to various types of lists like these.
  • Writing – Writing (or keeping a diary or journal) is another very common tool people use to improve their mental health. Our thoughts and feelings can often be messy and distorted when they are just floating around in our brains, but when we write them down it forces us to reflect more clearly and organize our thoughts in a more coherent way. The simple act of writing something down can help us clear our heads and “digest” our experiences more easily. In addition, we can often go back to our writings at a later date and discover how much we’ve changed or grown over the weeks, months, and years. I notice that even when I write articles like this, my mind becomes clearer and more organized. Check out my article Rewriting the Story of Your Life to discover more about how to use writing to change your attitude and mindset.

These are the top 7 most popular “mental tools” people use, especially when they are first learning about self improvement. Each one of these can be incredibly effective and powerful when used properly.

However, keep in mind that no single tool is going to be a magical cure for all of your problems.

The ultimate message behind this article is to build a diverse “mental toolbox,” because the more tools you have at your disposal the better you’ll be able to navigate the ups and downs of your life.

For example, say you had a bad day at work – people were treating you rudely, you made a bunch of mistakes that made the boss angry, and you ended up spilling your coffee on yourself right before a big presentation.

How do you want to bounce back from this day?

Repeat a few positive affirmations to boost your confidence back up? Do a quick meditation session to relax your mind and relieve some stress? Write in your journal to reflect on your experiences and clear up your mind?

There’s no “right” or “wrong” answer. The point is that you have many different options to go to – and having multiple choices available to you during rough times can be a very powerful thing.

In certain situations, you may prefer to use one tool over another. Or you can experiment with different tools in different situations to see which one “clicks” with you more and which one is most effective.

There are many other tools that I didn’t get to cover in this article. I currently have a list of over a 100 different tools in my “mental toolbox” to choose from – some of these include simple things like Checklists or identifying your Habit Loops, while other exercises can be a bit more complex and abstract, like creating a Mind Garden or Burning Negative Beliefs.

Of course, I don’t practice all of these on a frequent basis, but it’s still nice to have a wide-range of tools at my disposal. Every now and then I may do a random exercise just to keep things fresh or work on something that I haven’t focused on in awhile.

How many tools do you have in your mental toolbox? I hope it’s more than just a single hammer.


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