Put yourself in a 10'x 8' cement room (the size of a gas station bathroom). No internet. No phones. No clocks. Just a No. 2 golf pencil and your mind.
So ... what's your move, MacGyver? How long would you last? One day, two days, two weeks, two months? How about two years?
I read and wrote every day. Twenty-five hundred burpees were child's play. I learned Korean. I taught myself the basics of computer programming through textbooks and became infatuated with world history, physics and neuroscience. I even wrote my first book.
The quick back story, before you freak out at taking advice from an ex-inmate: At age twenty-two, I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I got into a fight in a Las Vegas nightclub, which ultimately landed me in prison for two years.
After being released, I had an undeniable confidence. Bootstrapping a business from the ground up and client complaints are far less draining after you lived in a room the size of a gas station bathroom for two years.
Prison made me mentally tough as nails and there are plenty of benefits to mental strength. The experience taught me how to adapt and embrace uncertainty, which translates to my professional life every day.
Here are some tips I learned along the way:
1. Take Zuck's advice and become a minimalist
Besides the typewriter in the law library, my No. 2 pencil was the most advanced technological piece of equipment I owned.
This helped keep my mind proficient. I wore the same thing every day, I ate what they fed me, and I didn't have to deal with the same decision fatigue we all experience daily in the outside world.
My mind was sharp, clear, and focused. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Johnny Cash, Barack Obama all wear (or wore) the same style of clothing every day. It reduces mental draining on mundane decisions and allows them to focus on more important ones.
This is one of prison's less-known hacks. Try it.
2. Enjoy solitary confinement
Every prison is different. Fortunately for me (*cue the sarcasm*), I was kept in a cell for two months straight when I first entered as part of the "intake process."
During the first sixty days of my stay, I didn't leave that gas station sized bathroom.
You have two options:
- Get stronger.
If you can find mental peace from being with yourself for so long, in such small quarters, your mind will be strengthened.
I've replicated this hack in the outside world and now prefer small working spaces and isolation to get things done.
3. To pinochle or not to pinochle
This is about daily habits.
While my inmate peers played pinochle, spades, and every other prison card game invented, I wrote and read. I created such a healthy habit that I wrote and read every day for 730 days straight. I even wrote my first book with that No. 2 pencil. The daily habits I formed in prison stay with me today.
Try creating a competition with yourself. For example, I'm going to start a 30-day reading game, and reward myself at the end. Figure out some habit you'd like to create, and put yourself to the test.
4. Flex on 'em
Body language is everything, whether walking the yard on a scorching-hot summer day or sitting at a table negotiating the terms of an investment. I've learned that your physical state is just as important as your mental state. There are physical body movements you can do that can help trick your mind into being more positive.
For instance, if you're having a bad day, and your mind is getting the best of you, you can force yourself to smile and laugh. This creates a dopamine effect in your brain, and will lead to a happier state.
If you're having a bad day, check yourself. Push your shoulders back, raise your chin, and walk with your chest out. Not only will you exude confidence while cruising the street, but you'll also feel better mentally.
5. Find your inner MacGyver
Science shows that solving problems and pushing your mental boundaries creates new synapses in your brain. New synapses lead to increased intelligence.
And prison has no shortage of challenges to solve. Every waking moment is a test of resiliency and grit.
Practice solving more problems on your own, rather than going straight for help. It will improve your daily resiliency and problem-solving skills, making you much stronger mentally than your weakened and constantly "Googling" foes.
6. Make your bed
Beloved stoner and Up In Smoke star Tommy Chong spent nine months in federal prison between 2003 and 2004 for selling marijuana paraphernalia. He claimed, "The only two things I learned while locked up were how to pick up trash and make a bed."
Little did Chong realize that making a bed was improving his mental health. Research shows that simple, consistent daily habits and routines--like making your bed--have a significant impact on improving mental health and combating depressive symptoms.
Yes, prison provides an abundance of time, problems, and experiences to get mentally tougher. With the right mindset, upon release, anyone can feel invincible.
Instead of going upstate and working on your list, though, how about you just follow my tips and go sharpen that No. 2 pencil?