As a self-loathing, chronic procrastinator I’ve often ridden the self improvement train. You know, the “I just watched 5 motivational videos of The Rock saying you can do anything you set your mind to, and today I’m going to change my entire life, omg yes” train. Of course, that effort never quite ends the way we’d envision it; with the new lifestyle lasting all of a week before we’re back to old habits.
After the inevitable fall off-the-bandwagon, I’d always do a haphazard post-mortem of why I failed. No matter how short my brief toe-dip was, I always seemed to have reasons why I failed… good reasons, even. “I didn’t try hard enough”, or “I just wasn’t honest with myself” or perhaps even better, “I didn’t plan well enough“. These reasons weren’t wrong, per se, but they also all seemed to fail to help me do better next time I rode the self improvement train.
Can anyone relate?
Upon reflection, at least for me personally, I think attempts at self improvement fail for the following reasons:
- Setting vague goals with no deadlines instead of specific goals with fixed deadlines and measurable outcomes
- Failing to take an honest and complete inventory of what time and energy is currently being spent on
- Failing to budget time and schedule activities that would accomplish our goals
- Falling into the “just this once I’ll make an exception” trap when it’s time to execute on the schedule we set
Of these, I think we are usually really, abnormally good at identifying the latter two failures. In fact, I think we blame them more than we really should. It’s impossible to actually budget time towards achieving goals if we’ve never taken an honest inventory of what we currently spend our time on. It’s equally impossible to resist the “just this once” trap if we’ve never mapped out our list of specific goals, deadlines, and outcomes. In short, we blame the wrong things, hence our continual failure.
The last two are context specific, and depend on the first, so I’ll only be covering goal setting and taking inventory today.
Goal setting is actually quite simple, but many people get it wrong. It’s easiest if I give an example. Most people will make a goal like this: “I want to get fit for Summer”. If they’ve ridden the self improvement train a few times they might add “so I need to workout alot and eat healthy”. The problem is, this goal is not nearly specific enough, and is meaningless to the reptilian/reactive part of our brains.
Instead, a good goal should look like this:
- High level: Get fit
- Outcome: Weigh 180lbs, measure 32in waist
- Deadline: By 6/01/2020, the time when I’ve booked my summer vacation
- How: 1 hour of weights per day, before work; 1 hour bike ride 2x/ week
- Reward: Get a tattoo and look good during summer vacation
- Punishment: If I don’t do the above, I’ll look like shit during the summer vacation I’ve already booked on a non-refundable ticket.
The above is fairly self explanatory, but I’d like to elaborate on one point. It’s important to have both a positive and negative motivation here: something really awesome that will happen if I achieve the goal (look good on vacation and get a tattoo) and something really negative that will happen if I don’t (look like shit on vacation and I can’t back out because I already bought the ticket). We need both reward and punishment in order for goals to really stick, it’s just how we are as humans.
Note: While it’s entirely arbitrary how many goals like the above you can set and push towards simultaneously, 2-4 longer term goals is probably the “magic” number to start with.
This is one of the most important steps, because it’s where the rubber begins to meet the road. In order to follow through on our goals successfully, we need to know exactly where we stand currently. Taking inventory is a painful, but rewarding process, and it’s vitally important to be honest with oneself while doing it. You shouldn’t let yourself be too judgy about the way you spend your time, but you need to be as accurate as possible.
Steps to taking honest inventory look like this:
- Once you’ve formulated your list of goals, make sure you have them handy on a sheet of paper. Write a priority for each (it’s ok if some share the same Priority level) as we will need this for later.
- Define “buckets” or “types” of activities that you engage in on a daily or weekly basis. An example of what a typical set of buckets would be is: Pleasurable Activities / Vices (things we solely do for our own enjoyment, which have no positive effect on our lives but aren’t necessarily bad), Career Improvement (things we do to better our careers, could include studying if you’re a student), Social Activities (things we do with others, usually not social media), and Self Improvement (things we do to make ourselves stronger, healthier, or happier).
- For each of the buckets, list all the activities you do on a daily or weekly basis along with the amount of time you spend per day/week doing each thing. It’s vitally important that you’re accurate with this, as you need to truly understand how much of you’re time you’re spending on each bucket.
- With the above in hand, compare to your list of prioritized goals. Sort your goals by descending priority and your daily activities by total time spent.
Do they match? They probably don’t… and that’s why your attempts at self improvement have been failing thus far. You are what you spend your time doing and your stated goals should at least somewhat match what your day to day actually looks like.
Let’s get after it folks.