I spent the first half of 2017 trying to systematize my self improvement efforts. I won’t pretend to have kicked every bad habit or have a perfect formula for helping you do the same. Every mind is different so I don’t mean this post as a prescription. I’m just going to share what has worked from me and if I do my job well, raise a few insightful.
The human mind feels awfully hard to program. It seems especially difficult to us engineers who are accustomed to solving most of our problems by inserting new instructions into our machines. Many people of all walks of life have tried and failed to load new instructions into their mind with little success. According to research over 90% of all New Years Resolutions, the equivalent of writing yourself new instructions, result in failure.
Society’s prevailing mantra is that “people don’t change”. While that may be true statistically, it means nothing for you. Many patients with terminal diseases survive, there are real life rags to riches stories, and there are many people who have changed. You can be one of them too. Believing you can’t change is the only way to guarantee that you won’t.
We are what we believe we are, and we are capable of what we believe we are capable of. Psychology has concluded this in experiments throughout the last 20 years.
You control your mind, your destiny and your situation.
I hope you agree, but that’s not good enough. Just like deciding you believe in being healthy rarely results in working out everyday. Agreeing in principle with that statement gets you nowhere. You need to believe it viscerally and intuitively. The only way to do that is to prove to yourself that it’s true.
Your goal should not be to change X, Y, and Z, your goal should be to get yourself to believe that your are the master of your mind. That takes weeks, months and often years of daily training. However, once developed, this mindset enables you to create adopt new habits and change your behavior in hours/days instead of weeks/months.
A lot of work has gone into studying Keystone Habits. Basically psychologist have found that cutting back one bad habit or creating one good habit can completely alter somebody’s life. There are countless stories of overweight alcoholics who smoke bucking one habit with professional help and then having all the other ones dissolve away. The most important mechanism behind the power of Keystone Habits is confidence. Once you overcome a huge obstacle, you feel like you’re one of the people who can change. When fostered, that feeling can be incredibly productive.
So before you start setting up long lists of resolutions, focus on one thing and prove to yourself you can do it. For me, it was proving to myself I could read 3 books a month. I figured that was a good exercise because I could do it anywhere, it was easy to measure, and it would build focus. It didn’t take right away, but it’s important that you don’t move on until you make your first big change.
Here are some tips to get it done:
- Focus on the rewards, not the task. For me I thought about how much I enjoyed learning about whatever I just read. If you’re trying to loose weight think about the compliments your partner will give you, not the scale or the gym.
- Keep a streak. Streaks are remarkably additive. Get an old paper calendar and mark an ‘X’ over every day that you did the new habit. It feels exhilarating to keep score, and once you have 2,3,5,10 days in a row, it’s really hard to break it.
- Use cues. They pull you into your habits. My cue was my shinny blue goal book where I keep my streak calendar. I left it in my living room so I’d see it all the time and be compelled to do my reading when I had some free time. Other great cues are workout alarm clocks, shoes by the door, etc.
It’s a Fickle Thing
Once you’ve changed one Keystone Habit, you need to start adding new things to your ‘to-change’ list. However, this is when the danger can really start. Our brains are wired to give painful and disappointing experiences disproportionate weight. Doing a good task might be worth 1 brain point, but failing at once might cost 5 brain points. That is why the momentum of 3 months of good habit days can be wiped out by a few bad days in a row. If you try to do too much too fast, or if you set goals you can never reach you will fall back into disbelief. Some people even start reverting to bad habits they had overcome.
The game is rigged against you, it’s easy to fall into negative patterns of behavior. Be aware. Be smart. You are probably not an exception to the larger findings of psychology.
Serial improvement > Parallel improvement
Adding one new habit at a time is the best way to avoid the disaster scenario above. You might feel really good about trying to change 3 things at once, but it’s actually slower than changing one thing at a time. I’ve tested this thoroughly and stand by he claim. We have limited willpower and if you focus on changing one habit at a time you usually end up doing better than going trying to go parallel because each habit sticks faster and stronger.
Once you start being deliberate about self-improvement you will begin to notice bonus improvements everywhere. These are things you feel good about doing but were not focussed on changing. Notice these and celebrate them. Don’t do the opposite. If something stands out to you as a failure or something you really need to change, write it down, but don’t berate yourself for it. Think to yourself, “I’ll get to you” and leave it at that for now.
There are people in the world who will be inspired by your efforts to improve, most people won’t care, and some will hate to see you improve. I’ve never understood why someone would root against someone else. Some people just have a fixed mindset and think they will never change and others can’t either.
We’ve all made mistakes and we all wish we were better. Invite the naysayers to join you on the quest of self-improvement. If they don’t want to come along, do you best to keep them from holding you back. When people become better, it makes the world better. We’re all in this together.
Self-improvement isn’t about changing X, Y, Z habit. You can do it, but that’s like teaching a man to fish, it won’t prepare you for the next meal.
- Pick one habit to add / replace. The first one should be of medium difficulty.
- Once you’ve changed your first habit, write a “to-change” list. Add new things as you observe them
- Only focus on one habit at a time by working down your t0-change list.
- Repeat 3 for the rest of your life.
The cycle time for step 3 will decrease dramatically over the first several months as your belief, willpower, and self-improvement skills build. I’ve found my cycle times for a habit I want to improve have gone from 2–3 months to 2–3 weeks now that I have a self-improvement system in my life.
Self-improvement is about training yourself to believe in your own mutability. Once you’ve accomplished that everything else falls into place.