Chunking: How To Increase Your Mental Endurance

“What time is it?” David Blaine asked a bystander at his Frozen In Time expedition in Time Square.  

“It’s 2pm” the man responded.

“Jeez, that means I still have 8 hours left in here!

Blaine had been standing in a block of ice for a full 56 hours at that point. Sleep deprivation was causing him to hallucinate terrifying images and characters doing unspeakable things. The unseasonably warm weather in New York had caused part of the ice to melt, resulting in a cold dripping on his neck similar to Chinese water torture.  

This type of torture is not new to David Blaine.  He has stood on a 22 inch wide pole 100 feet in the air for 35 hours fighting this same sleep deprivation to prevent himself from falling. He spent 44 days in a box of glass above the River Thames without food - surviving only by drinking 4.5 liters of water per day. The list goes on and on. But to this day, Blaine claims that his stunt in Times Square was the toughest challenge he’s ever faced. And those last 8 hours were the worst of it.

So what did he tell himself to get through those excruciating last 8 hours? When he had to summon every ounce of strength to keep himself upright so that he wouldn’t fall into the block of ice and develop severe frostbite, he told himself:

“Okay, I just need to make it through the next 2 hours, then I’ll only have 6 hours left, and that won’t be so bad.”

What David Blaine did was use a process is known as “chunking” and it is one of the best tactics we can use for any of our struggles with willpower and mental toughness. [1]


Chunking is the process of taking a large task, goal, dream, etc. and breaking it into manageable “chunks”.  In David Blaine’s case, it was impossible for him to fathom having to stand in that ice block for the equivalent time of a full work day. However, he knew that he could make it through the next two hours, so that’s what he focused on. This same method is used by long-distance runners to help them endure the long hours of exerting themselves, as well as productivity consultants to help people break their long-term goals into short-term, manageable chunks. [2]


If you’ve ever had a goal, you know how exciting it can be at first. You can see your “after photo” of your life when the goal is achieved - and you love what you see.  You imagine all of the great things about the “new you” and you can't wait to get started working towards that goal!

Then it’s time to get to work. And whether that work is putting pen to paper, or putting foot to treadmill, we get a sudden rush of being completely overwhelmed. We see  just how much work it’s going to take to get us from where we are, to where we want to be. Many of us then get paralyzed by the fact that we don’t know where to begin and don't bother trying. Or somewhere down the line we lose the persistence to keep going.

Chunking works because it shifts our focus from that larger goal, into smaller chunks that are easier for us to comprehend. If your goal is to follow a 12-week exercise plan, it can be overwhelming when you’re tired on day 4 and thinking about the fact that you have 80 more days of this. But if we shift our focus to simply accomplishing the workout plan today, we are far less likely to become overwhelmed. Then, before you know it, 20, 40, 60 days have passed and we’re more confident than ever that we can make it to the end.


When Will Smith was 12 years old, his father torn down a wall in front of his business, then told Will and his 9 year-old brother to rebuild it. This task would be something that even adults would find daunting, to Will he thought it was “impossible”. It took them over a year and a half, but they did it. And the lesson he picked up from the experience was - don’t try to build a wall. Instead, tell yourself that “I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid” and soon, you will have a wall. [3]


We have an amazing ability as humans to dream big dreams. This quality has led to us to invent airplanes, build skyscrapers, and send a man to the moon. But all too often these huge goals go unfulfilled. At some point we get overwhelmed by just how far we are away from our dreams that they now appear “unrealistic”.

Chunking focuses the mind on what is realistic and manageable to be accomplished. Whether that is simply focusing on prospecting a certain number of potential clients, or focusing on making it through the next mile of a 10-mile run. If you can break the goal down, you will not only find it more manageable to complete, but also gain confidence by accomplishing a small win on your way to fulfilling your dream.


  1. Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print
  2. Bandura, Albert, and Dale H. Schunk. "Cultivating Competence, Self-efficacy, and Intrinsic Interest through Proximal Self-motivation." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 41.3 (1981): 586-98.
  3. "Will Smith: My Work Ethic Is "Sickening"" CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 2 Dec. 2007. Web