Need to know
Whether it’s moving house, planning a wedding or putting together a killer pitch to land a major client, how many times have you found yourself faced with a task that seems so overwhelming that your brain freezes in blind panic? It’s surprisingly common. The reason is simple. When you’re presented with a big, complicated ask, your brain gets caught in the dazzling cognitive headlights of competing demands and deadlines. Instead of focusing on what you need to do, the temptation is to find comfort or distraction. You reach for a bar of chocolate or a leisurely trawl through Instagram – as if that will put things right.
Just like our prehistoric ancestors would’ve competed for limited physical resources, so the threat of psychological scarcity – not enough time, not enough energy, too many things to do – triggers a similar fight-or-flight response in our contemporary brains, which often results in the modern-day equivalent of freezing … procrastination. We buy something else we don’t need off eBay. Scroll through our Twitter feed. Or catch up with friends on Facebook. Again.
So, if Insta, TikTok and Netflix don’t cut it, what should you do when you’re faced with a task of seemingly impossible magnitude? The answer is, turn to GOD!
Back in September 2021, we embarked upon a challenge that everyone, including ourselves, thought was totally bonkers. The Metro Marathon Challenge involved navigating all 317 London Underground stations on foot in two weeks, sleeping rough on the streets of the capital for the duration, then running the London Marathon. You know you’re up against it when the world’s greatest living explorer, Ranulph Fiennes, offers words of encouragement! ‘The Metro Marathon Challenge requires that old-school Special Forces combination of guts, preparation and endurance,’ Fiennes observed. ‘I wish Kev and John the very best of luck. By God, they’re going to need it.’ The former Special Forces soldier turned bestselling author, Andy McNab, was similarly circumspect. ‘The Metro Marathon Challenge is eccentric, original … but genuinely bloody hard,’ he commented. ‘Fifty-fifty in my book whether Kev and John manage to pull it off.’ We did. And when we crossed the finish line just under four hours later, we became the first people in history to navigate the entire metro system of a major city on foot in one go. Mission accomplished.
But it wasn’t easy. The success of the venture depended in no small part on our strict adherence to an omnipotent code of psychological conduct that we call the ‘GOD Principle’. ‘GOD’ stands for guts, organisation and determination, and with GOD on your side, we believe you can achieve pretty much anything you set your mind to in life, no matter how big or how small it might be.
In this Guide, we’ll examine each component of this all-conquering cognitive triad to see precisely how they all contributed to the success of the Metro Marathon Challenge… and how you too can deploy them in the face of any major challenge in your own life.
What to do
Find your ‘why’
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in his classic work Die Götzen-Dämmerung (1889), or Twilight of the Idols: ‘He who has a “why” to live for can bear almost any “how”.’ We believe in the power of our psychological approach, which we’ll come to next, but if the ‘why’ isn’t there – if your task lacks vision or your mission an underlying purpose, then even GOD will be hard pushed to help you.
The Metro Marathon Challenge was a serious undertaking devised by Kev for a correspondingly poignant reason. A long time ago, a random conversation with a homeless man under a bridge one night had had a profound influence on Kev’s life. When news reached Kev that this man had died on the streets during the pandemic, it affected Kev greatly and he wanted to do something, not just as a mark of respect, but also as a token of appreciation for the time he’d spent with him that particular night. If we could raise a bit of cash in the process and, in some small way, shine a spotlight on the problem of homelessness, then so much the better.
The power of purpose can be seen all the time in sport. In 1990, a few weeks before the boxer Buster Douglas orchestrated one of sport’s biggest ever upsets by handing the formidable Mike Tyson his first professional defeat, Douglas’s mother had died. The fight wasn’t all plain sailing. In the eighth round, Tyson floored Douglas with an explosive uppercut – and usually, when Tyson did that to an opponent, they stayed put.
Not this time.
As he lay there on the canvas, in a world of pain and confusion, Douglas suddenly remembered the promise he had made to his mother at her funeral just 23 days before the fight.
‘Mum,’ he’d said. ‘One day I’ll be the heavyweight champion of the world!’
The rest is history. Douglas staggered to his feet, weathered the storm, and two rounds later knocked out Tyson with a devastating punch of his own to claim the title.
Who knows what Tyson’s ‘why’ was that night? But, whatever it was, chances are that Douglas’s was bigger – and that it was this that afforded him his remarkable, Rocky-style, against-all-the-odds victory.
Of course, if your ‘why’ is bigger than your opponent’s, then all well and good. But if it’s bigger than you, even better.
Guts – attack the challenge
The first component of the GOD Principle was once summed up by the celebrated Second World War US general George Smith Patton Jr in four words: ‘When in doubt, attack.’ More recently, the late, great Australian cricketer and spin-ball wizard Shane Warne reprised Patton in six words: ‘If in doubt, attack every time.’
In the final weeks of our preparation for the Metro Marathon Challenge, one of us (Kev) favoured delaying the start for a couple of months. He was concerned he hadn’t done enough training. John disagreed. He pointed out that few athletes sit or stand on the start line of an Olympic final feeling 100 per cent ready for what lies ahead. There’s always an element of doubt; a feeling that one hasn’t quite done enough to see the job through. At such crunch times, John observed, you simply have to back yourself. You have to take your first stroke, take your first step, play your first shot.
In short, you need to have the guts to attack the challenge.
There are two scientific-backed reasons for ‘attacking’ an apparently impossible task. The first centres on unconscious processing: getting started early on a task fires up your brain to continue working on it even when you’ve downed mental tools for the day, and this in turn can start to make the challenge feel more familiar and less daunting.
These processes were explored in the early 1900s when the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin described an observation he’d made at a restaurant to one of his graduate students, Bluma Zeigarnik. Lewin had noticed that a waiter seemed to have a better memory for orders that were still to be paid for than he did for orders where the bill had already been settled.
Intrigued, Zeigarnik looked into it… and discovered that the waiter wasn’t alone in his enhanced ability to remember unpaid food orders. In fact, the eponymous ‘Zeigarnik effect’ occurs when tasks or activities that have been interrupted – or are still underway – are more easily recalled than those that have been completed. This effect means that the earlier you start any challenge, the more your brain can work on it when you’re not – and, moreover, the less scary it gets as familiarisation grows.
This latter observation is known as the ‘mere exposure effect’ or the ‘familiarity principle’, a phenomenon first demonstrated in the 1960s by someone not far from Zeigarnik in the biographical dictionary, the social psychologist Robert Zajonc. In short, when we have already encountered something, it makes it easier for us to think about it in the future, and this facility usually generates more liking. It’s why we tend to like a song more the second and third times we hear it – and why, to return to our original point, the very act of starting a task inadvertently makes it easier to complete.
A year from now you’ll be glad you started today, someone once said. Hopefully that sounds familiar.
The second scientific reason why ‘now’ is better than ‘later’ has to do with stress management and self-preservation. Research shows that the longer you put off an unpleasant task or event, the more negative the experience eventually becomes overall. In one study, in which participants were given the choice of receiving a strong electric shock immediately or a milder shock later, they opted, 70 per cent of the time, to ‘get it over with’ now.
Madness? Not at all. People made the calculation that a Level 4 shock received later plus all the anticipatory anxiety amounted, on balance, to a greater negative experience overall than an earlier (thus anxiety-free) Level 6 shock on its own.
So, why don’t we act like those participants when we’re faced with unpleasantly difficult task in ‘real life’, and choose to ‘bring it on’ rather than procrastinate?
We believe it’s because, in the research, a ‘decision’ was all that was needed. Once people had made it, nothing more was required of them. In contrast, when we put off stuff at work, we do so as much through inertia than anything else. Once you’ve made the decision to act… you then have to act.
Get going in two steps – initiation and execution
How can you make it easier for yourself to face your fears head-on now and nip anxiety in the bud? The answer is surprisingly simple:
- First, be specific about your intention to start whatever it is that needs doing.
- Second, you need to stick to it.
Never set fuzzy goals – and commit to the goals you do set. The fuzzier they are, the more likely you are to come up with excuses not to do them. So, swap the vague ‘I’ll start the report/pitch tomorrow’ to the specific ‘At 9:30 sharp tomorrow morning, as soon as I sit down at my desk with a coffee, I’m going to begin crafting an exciting intro, explaining the business opportunity, highlighting the underlying business model, and explaining why we can beat the market.’ The clearer the image you have in your mind of what you need to do, the greater your chances of doing it.
Then, when you do settle down at your desk the following morning at 9:30 – and immediately regret the commitment you made the previous day – don’t rely on how you feel at the time but on what you planned earlier. It’s at times like this, when you’re hovering in the doorway of the pain-plane, humming and hawing about the wisdom of jumping out, that you must take comfort in the parachute of science. The landing will be softer than you think.
Organisation – break the challenge into chunks
When I (Kev) was around seven, my dad’s car broke down on the motorway. We pulled over on the hard shoulder and started walking to the nearest emergency phone, located in those days at mile-long intervals along the roadside. It was a cold, damp and murky night, and a dense fog encircled us.
Dad took a torch out of the glove compartment and handed it to me. There were no lights on the motorway, and it was impossible to see where we were going, except for those occasional moments of thunderous enlightenment when a huge truck rumbled past, headlights blazing.
I shone the torch directly in front of me into the swirling gloom. The light boomeranged straight back and blinded me. I couldn’t see a thing.
‘Dad,’ I called out, ‘this is hopeless. I can see better in the dark than I can with this.’
I’ll never forget what happened next. Dad turned around, took the torch out of my hand, and shone it onto the ground just a few inches in front of my feet.
‘You don’t need to see a mile up the road,’ he said. ‘All you need to do is put one foot in front of the other. So long as you can see enough to do that, you’ll be OK.’
I could. And I was. And although, in fairness, a car breakdown in the middle of the night on the northern approach to Doncaster doesn’t have much going for it, for me it was a life-changing experience – I learned that breaking a challenge into manageable chunks is a trick worth mastering. This is the ‘organisation’ component of the GOD Principle.
OK, we admit, this is not an insight of earth-shattering originality. The venerable Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, to take just one ancient thinker, beat us to the punch by some 26 centuries when he observed that a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. A little more recently, there’s the psychological research on chunking – a tried-and-tested cognitive strategy aimed at conserving focus and preserving willpower by dividing up larger tasks into smaller, rewarding, bite-size phases.
Crucially, chunking doesn’t just make challenges seem easier, it also aids motivation. Back in 2012, the psychologist John Salamone at the University of Connecticut led a study that helps explain why. He placed rats in a cage with two piles of food. The path to one of the piles was easy. Whereas the other, to a pile twice as large, was obstructed by a small barrier. Before letting the rats loose in the cages, Salamone adjusted dopamine levels in their brains.
His discovery challenged preconceptions about the fiendish neurobiology of our reward circuitry. The rats with lower levels of dopamine (often misleadingly referred to as the ‘pleasure molecule’) invariably chose the easier, unobstructed path to the single portion of food. But those with higher levels of the neurotransmitter braved the difficult route, opting to first jump over a small interposing fence to feast on a double helping.
Salamone concluded that dopamine arguably has less to do with pleasure – as had previously been thought – and more to do with drive, incentive and interest: with the cost-benefit analysis of engaging in particular activities. Dopamine wasn’t the ‘pleasure’ molecule. It was the ‘motivation’ molecule.
So where can you come by this elixir of industry? The answer lies in the anticipation of progress and achievement. Whenever you expect to get something right – whenever you make a prediction that turns out to be correct, or you see the chance to accomplish a challenge – the brain celebrates by pouring a shot of dopamine, fuelling your motivation, and then chugging it back when things work out, giving you the sweet high of achievement. Any excuse will do. From figuring out a joke, to drawing up that knockout marketing plan to, yes, you guessed it, finally completing the Metro Marathon Challenge is cause for celebration in the brain’s social calendar.
A dopamine ‘hit’ is basically your prefrontal cortex in party mode. It’s the brain treating itself to a drink for acing it. That’s why video games are so addictive – and why, if you want to get the best out of yourself, you need to think about turning your life into one.
The games are structured and organised into various phases and stages that dole out frequent feel-good feedback based on incremental progress. They chunk big, faraway, superordinate goals – finishing the game – into smaller, proximal, more immediate goals: reaching the next level. They keep your cognitive flashlights trained firmly on the ground in front of you.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. But it was built a day at a time.
Break your own daunting challenge into manageable chunks
To apply this technique, drawing up a list of micro-tasks will help, though to be truly effective, you must compile the list methodically:
- Itemise all the sub-tasks you need to complete to reach your goal.
- Arrange these sub-tasks in the order they must be completed.
- Create a ‘breakout column’ in your timeline containing any tasks that can be reasonably delegated to someone else.
- Colour-code the tasks in your column according to the following key: green = quick/easy; yellow = medium difficulty; red = long/hard.
- Plan ahead and allocate the appropriate amount of time to each task based on its colour-coding.
- Lastly, don’t forget to practise some self-compassion and – as we said – reward yourself appropriately at various stages of the process. A little chocolate-shaped pat on the back after the completion of a ‘green’ task might be just what the doctor ordered to get you started on a ‘yellow’ task, while a more substantial treat – a Lamborghini, say – might be more in order after a ‘red’ (only joking about the Lamborghini). On a serious note, the power of positive reinforcement to sustain focus, commitment and motivation on a task cannot be overstated. But it needs to be done scientifically. If you’re going to reward yourself, make sure you do so consistently. Consistency is the cornerstone of momentum, and momentum is the cornerstone of efficiency, confidence and success.
In the torturous application of tenderised, cushion-soled feet to the relentless, neverending tarmac of a marathon, the practice of chunking has a proven track record. Ever since the former women’s world record-holder Paula Radcliffe revealed that she regularly used to count to 100 during races, because doing so three times in succession would usually translate to a mile in distance, fun-runners around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief that they weren’t the only ones muttering feverishly to themselves in Lycra-clad numerical bubbles.
In the Metro Marathon Challenge, John and I took chunking to a new level. Having committed the cardinal sin midway through our first day of studying the London Underground map in its entirety and plummeting into demoralised freefall, we vowed never to do so again.
Instead, from that moment on, we divided up each day into the requisite number of stations that our schedule demanded we tick off, wrote down those stations on a small piece of paper, and rain-, sweat- and McDonald’s-proofed it by having it laminated (the guy accompanying us in the support vehicle had previously been homeless himself and was an inveterate hoarder of all things curious, arcane and ostensibly useless, including a laminator: it seemed a shame not to press it into service).
Once we’d come up with our daily allocation of stations, we further compartmentalised the list into morning, mid-day and afternoon sessions, and focused solely on covering those stations that comprised each section. Completion itself was positive reinforcement enough. Continuously mindful of the magnitude of the task that we’d set ourselves, the slow-burning intrinsic reward of inching ever closer to our goal, station by laminated station, was sufficient to eclipse any momentary highs dispensed by extrinsic incentives. Besides, how many tiramisu McFlurrys, Nando’s chilli chocolate brownies, and Five Guys chocolate milkshakes with marshmallows and whipped cream can you actually consume in one day?
Determination – maintain your self-discipline through the challenge
‘The difference between winning and losing,’ Walt Disney reportedly once said, ‘is most often not quitting.’ Anyone who has ever descended into ‘on-hold hell’ on a customer service phoneline will know exactly what he meant.
Clues for how to maintain your determination come from research by Roy Baumeister and others suggesting that willpower works like a muscle. Through stress and overuse, it becomes tired and needs a rest. For instance, these studies showed that whenever we engage in activities that test our resolve – saying ‘no’ to a plate of cookies when we’re hungry, for example, or trying to quit smoking – resisting temptation becomes harder immediately afterwards. In a nod to psychodynamic psychology, these findings inspired what Baumestier called ego-depletion theory. But it tells only part of the story. There’s also reverse ego-depletion – although willpower gets tired with repeated use over the short term, frequent use over the longer term tones it up, increasing your levels of discipline and self-restraint. So grit becomes stronger when used in moderation.
For instance, in experiments that required participants to keep track of their eating habits for several weeks (ie, making a habit of exercising self-control), or to use their non-dominant hands to perform everyday chores, the participants consistently achieved greater overall levels of self-control beyond those specific to the completion of the original tasks. ‘Use it or lose it,’ as they say.
During the Metro Marathon Challenge, drawing on the ‘willpower as muscle’ analogy, we made it a priority to meet all our station targets on time. If we had 10 to cover by lunchtime, then that number was non-negotiable. Come hell or high water, we hit all 10, irrespective of how tired we might’ve felt that morning or how delayed we might’ve been getting started. We worked that muscle, quite literally, around the clock, and over time it became stronger and stronger.
So, how come our willpower muscles never became tired or fatigued? It might have something to do with the value that we placed on discipline and self-control, and the nature of our ‘attacking mindset’. Supporting this interpretation, cross-cultural research has found that it matters how you think about mental effort. Unlike Western participants, Indian participants who performed a difficult challenge actually fared better on a subsequent challenge than those who performed an easy challenge first: their brains, quite literally, warmed to the task.
This fits with the way children in India are taught that effort is energising. Accordingly, they learn concentration techniques such as focusing their attention on a candle flame in a dark room. Great store is also placed on prayer and meditation – hardly surprising, then, that Indian students also spend more time reading books and doing homework than American students.
Again, we’ve seen these psychological principles play out in the world of sport. Years ago, when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge of Aberdeen Football Club, on some nights he and his assistant manager would often face a six-hour round trip to Glasgow to watch opposition games for research, sharing the driving between them.
‘Whenever we got tempted to skip a game and take the night off,’ Sir Alex recounts in his book Leading (2015), ‘we’d always say to each other: “If we miss one game in Glasgow, we’ll miss two…”’
Wise words. If Sir Alex and his colleague had skipped one game, the likelihood would have greatly increased that they’d have gone on to miss another – and this same principle applies the discipline you bring to your own challenge.
Be disciplined to stay disciplined
You could call this the ‘thin end of the wedge’, or the ‘slippery slope’ effect. Skip one commitment and you’re in danger of pulling your willpower muscle, increasing the probability that your resolve to future commitment will weaken dramatically. This is why it’s so important that you stick to your plan.
Social psychologists who study the formation of attitudes and beliefs have known this for years, and the phenomenon is enshrined in a simple maxim: ‘The greatest predictor of future behaviour in a given situation is past behaviour.’ So if you’re training for a marathon, for example, and decide to swerve on a training session to join your mates on a night out, then you’re likely going to swerve on another. If you’re meant to be studying for an exam but get stuck into Netflix instead, then the chances are that, before too long, you’ll be binning the course notes again. We like to put it like this: if you want to stop, don’t start… and if you want to start, don’t stop.
Key points – How to complete an impossible challenge
- When faced with a daunting challenge, it’s common to freeze and procrastinate. So you buy something else you don’t need off eBay. Or scroll through your Twitter feed. Or catch up with friends on Facebook. Again.
- To confront your challenge and complete it, the answer is to turn to GOD. It stands for guts, organisation and determination.
- Find your ‘why’. Before you get going with GOD on your side, it pays to think about why you want to do it in the first place. If your ‘why’ is bigger than you, even better.
- Guts – attack the challenge. For various psychological reasons, the very act of starting a task inadvertently makes it easier to complete.
- Organisation – break the challenge into chunks. Not only does this make the challenge seem easier, it will also give you a series of motivational boosts.
- Determination – maintain your self-discipline through the challenge. Skipping one commitment increases the probability you’ll miss another. This is why it’s so important that you stick to your plan.
Don’t forget the ‘small p’ psychology – looking after yourself
There’s Psychology with a big P, and there’s psychology with a small p – and both are equally important. Psychology with a big P is eminent, empirical, existential. It’s about having a ‘why’ and about putting your faith in GOD – all the stuff we covered earlier. Psychology with a small p, in contrast, is subjective. It’s about how you’re ‘doing’, about how you feel ‘in yourself’.
You can be the most disciplined, fearless, and organised person in the world. You might have a Steve Jobs-sized vision bigger than London itself. But if you’re not in the right frame of mind to push on to the next station, or to attend to your feet at the end of a brutal day, or to find somewhere relatively safe and out of the way to get your head down for the night, then the chances are you’re simply not going to do it.
The US sports psychologist Bob Rotella tells his golfers: ‘You’re going to have to decide before the round starts how you’re going to think and do it on every shot. You have to choose to think well.’
He’s right. What you do with your arms and legs is controlled by what you do with your mind. On the golf course. In the office. Pounding the streets of London for a fortnight. Anywhere. If you’re not ‘feeling up to it’ – if you’re stressed, anxious, bored, depressed, fed up – then no matter how big your ‘why’, or how great your faith is in GOD, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.
We’re not just talking about willpower. We’re talking about the everyday, bread-and-butter stuff that, if you get it right, means willpower is a last resort. Feeling good. Feeling happy. Feeling on top of things. Stuff that for many of us, during the COVID-19 lockdowns, became an all-too-distant memory. Ever wondered where all those lockdown love handles suddenly came from? They came because our ‘small p’ commitment to the familiar routines of normal, everyday life evaporated overnight. They came, essentially, because we walked out on ourselves.
OK, so you’ve got GOD and you’ve got your reason why. Time to sign off with a couple of simple, everyday small-p psychology hacks that helped us during the Metro Marathon Challenge. One we deployed at the beginning of the day, the other at the end. Apply them consistently and they might not change the world. But, as time goes on, they’ll inspire a world of change:
Tip 1 – Set the alarm 15 minutes earlier than usual and get straight out of bed when it goes off
Everything you do sends out a message, not just to others but to yourself. Hiding under the duvet when the alarm goes off and bagging another 10 minutes’ snooze time is no exception. Do that and the message you send to yourself is: ‘I’m scared of the day. I don’t want to get out there and face it.’
Get up 15 minutes earlier, on the other hand – meet the day on your terms – and it’s a different proposition. The message you send to yourself this time is: ‘OK, Life, let’s DO this! I’m not going to be bullied by you. In fact, today, I’m going to push you around.’
Try it. You’ll be amazed at what a difference that first 15 minutes of the day can make to your overall mindset.
Tip 2 – As you lie in bed before you go to sleep, think to yourself: ‘Today was the day I was so worried about yesterday’
Has it ever occurred to you that the vast majority of things you worry about never actually occur? Yet it doesn’t stop you from worrying about them, does it? Repeating this simple sentence to yourself every night before you go to sleep can, over time, help you break the ‘worry cycle’ and get a bit of perspective on your anxiety.
As Mark Twain (allegedly) once said: ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles. But most of them never happened.’
Links & books
This YouTube clip gives a moving and emotional insight into the power of ‘why’. You’ll hear John talking about the role of family and friends in the life of an Olympic rower.
In this episode of the podcast Marathon Talk, you can hear more about the Metro Marathon Challenge. You’ll hear Kev (and the official Metro Marathon Challenge coach and adviser, Steve Ingham of Supporting Champions) talk about precisely what was needed, physically and psychologically, to prepare for the event.
In the TED talk ‘How to Stay Calm When You Know You’ll Be Stressed’ (2015), Daniel Levitin explains the usefulness of the ‘pre-mortem’ – making a list of all the possible things that could go wrong before they do go wrong – when preparing for a challenge.
The book The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success: How to Use Your Inner Psychopath to Get the Most Out of Life (2014) by Kevin Dutton and Andy McNab. This is a shameless plug, but Kev first talked about GOD in this book, co-authored with McNab, a former SAS soldier. The book is packed with lots more practical advice for dealing with life’s challenges.
The book Switchcraft: Harnessing the Power of Mental Agility to Transform Your Life (2022) by Elaine Fox touches on some of the same themes while also stressing the importance of adaptability when dealing with life’s curveballs. The fact that Fox also happens to be Kev’s immeasurably superior other half makes this another shameless plug.
The book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (2016) by Angela Duckworth is the classic work for learning more about the ‘determination’ component of the GOD Principle. Kev does not know Duckworth personally, nor is he married to her, so this is not a shameless plug (though a plug, nevertheless).
The book The Moth and the Mountain (2021) by Ed Caesar provides a truly inspirational read, detailing the definitive application of the ‘attacking mindset’ and how sometimes in life it pays to just ‘go for it’. Caesar tells the incredible story of a former soldier, Maurice Wilson, who, with no experience of flying or mountaineering, set off for Everest by Gipsy Moth in the 1930s, in an endeavour to be the first man to stand alone on the roof of the world.