Yesterday I got a good question from a reader. His email was too long to paste in full, but the gist of the question was that he was trying to do a lot of self improvement stuff at once, and his attention seemed to be too spread to really made a big impact in any one area. How do I manage to make a lot of progress, he asked?
Over the past dozen years or more I've tackled a huge number of self improvement projects. Not all of them have been complete successes, of course, but generally I've been satisfied with my progress. Through that time I've come to classify these projects into three different categories, which helps me coordinate them all.
The first category of self improvement projects are instant changes, which I wrote about here. These are mainly habits that binary, meaning that whether or not you're doing them is very easily measured. Either you're waking up early in the morning or you're not, either you're smoking or you're not, either you're eating healthy or you're not. The process of tackling these sorts of improvements is easy-- you come up with a compelling reason why you MUST switch ("If I don't quit smoking, I will die ten years early and miss seeing my grandchildren") and then you just do it. We have a natural inclination to draw these things out and make them into big deals, tapering them and scheduling them, but I find it much easier to just start now and do it completely. The biggest changes I've made in this category are waking up early, always being on time, and not eating unhealthy food.
When attempting instant changes, do one at a time unless two are complementary. For example, you could quit soda AND sugary food since they're related, but I wouldn't try qutting sugary food and waking up early at the same time. Will power is a strong force and can be harnessed for really impactful permanent change, but it works best with its attention undivided. So make a big instant change, wait 20-30 days or so until it's effortless (possibly more for some habits) and then move on to the next one.
The second category is long term gradual change. Here I'm talking about lifelong bodies of knowledge that you accumulate which end up shaping you, or personality characteristics that you develop over a lifetime. The distinguishing feature of these changes isn't that they MUST be done over a lifetime, but simply that they can be. A great example might be financial habits.
While you could tackle small subsets of the problem as instant changes ("I will save and invest $500 every month!"), the real benefit comes from a lifetime of learning and gradual improvement. Other examples would be conversation skills, optimism, or physical fitness. Multiple long term changes can be done concurrently because they don't require too much focus. If you read one book a month about conversation skills and related topics, and keep some of what you learn in mind while you go through your everyday life, you'll become a better conversationalist as you age.
Despite long term gradual changes being the least glamorous of the changes, I think that they might be the most important. Although all three categories are applicable, the post I wrote about always getting better is mainly about these sorts of changes.
The last category is focused change. In my life these tend to be short or medium term projects. Focused change projects are things like learning a language, learning to program, and learning pickup. You can tell that something is a focused change project and not a gradual change project when you realize that you won't get anywhere unless you go really hard on it for some period of time. One Italian tape a week for three years will leave you never speaking Italian, but doing ninety tapes in ninety days will leave you with a lifetime of SOME understanding and speaking Italian.
Most people, especially those who are really into self improvement, will try to do many focused change projects at once. I've tried this too, but it doesn't really work. In my experience, the best strategy is to have one and only one focused change project at a time. Always be working on something, but never work on more than one. From February to March this year, mine was pickup. Then I quit that and started taking violin lessons. Once I got to where I wanted to be in violin, I stopped that and started working on learning Chinese. If I had tried to do all three of these things at once, I doubt I would have gotten anywhere. Instead I focus on one at a time, switch it to gradual improvement once I've developed a base competency, and then focus on the next one.
When you use this three-tiered system, you can get a lot done in a short amount of time. In the past five months, while I brushed up on my pickup skills, learned to play the violin, and started to redevelop my Chinese, I also made several instant changes. I began waking up early (7:20am with no alarm today), being on time to everything, using a todo list, drinking tea every morning, flossing every night, taking vitamins every day, reaching out to one person every day, tracking my time, reading every day, and analyzing my day every night. For long term gradual changes, I've read several books on conversation, continued to practice poker, begun to read some fiction to train my mind to write fiction, become a better programmer, learned to cook a few new things, learned a few handyman skills, and become a better motorcycle rider.
Humans have an incredible capacity for self improvement, but unless it's coordinated properly and kept on pace, we risk overloading ourselves or slacking off completely. By understanding the three speeds of self improvement we can tackle a lot at once and lock in permanent changes as we move along.
Photo is a Chinese flash card. I've actually switched to Japanese since writing this, since I'll be going there in a few months.