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.
So, to recap:
What do you mean by reach out to one person a day and how do you do it?
I think this is one of your better posts. Also coincides with a lot of thinking I've been doing recently. As a manager one of the most fascinating questions to me is, given a person who needs to make a certain change to improve in his work, and given that person wants to make that change, how do I help him make the change?
I think this is a nice summary. I've been reading a bunch on habits and habit formation to try to understand better how to coach others in habit change (and how to improve my own habit formation.) This is helpful food for thought.
Incidentally, search and post referrals are starting to work really well - the "read this next" recommended your 3-year-old post on instant habit change, and Sebastian's post on inspiration, and the instant habit change post recommended Seb's post on eating well. All of which I'm now reading. Super useful.
I hear this super awesome dude writes a blog that talks a lot about managing people at www.madeofmetaphors.com.. :)
Otherwise, Difficult Conversations by the Harvard Communication Project guys (Stone and others, I think) is required reading. Getting to Yes by the same people is great too. Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Lencioni is great. After that I trend towards the Buddhist and psychotherapeutic ends of the spectrum.
Mark Epstein's work is universally excellent, he's a psychotherapist and Buddhist. I draw a lot on my experience with psychoanalysis as a manager, and I think I couldn't manage anyone at all without very strong belief in the Theory of Mind and spending a ton of my mental energy trying to empathize with people as an active process, mapping my experience onto theirs.
Belief in the Freudian subconscious is a big part of that, for me, being able to see people behaving in certain ways when they swear they aren't doing it on purpose, especially when these behaviors are subtle individually but constitute patterns in the larger scheme of things. Being able to hypothesize that the drive comes from an unknown subconscious is essential to me in figuring out how then to work with people. I don't know what I'd do otherwise.
P.S. Always happy to talk over direct messages about management stuff, and if you have specific things you're curious about post in my community section with post ideas and I'll see what I can do!
Thanks for the recommendations, I'll definitely be lookign at your site more often.
I read Difficult Conversations recently. It's funny because I didn't enjoy the book in the beginning because it seemed too simple but then when they lay it all out, it was brilliant. Also read Getting to Yes a while back but should probably give it another go. Ordered Dysfunctions of a Team now.
Funny, I studied Buddhist philosophy and did a lot of meditation but never thought about directly applying to that managing people but makes sense...
I'll second Difficult Conversations. Brian recommended it to me, and I'd say it's one of the best books I've ever read.
Hope you don't mind me butting in, even though I'm not Brian.
This blog is excellent.
I actually disagree with the only focus on one thing philosophy. I find I get bored with a subject if I spend more than an hour or so a day learning it. When it comes to learning new skills, languages, etc I work much better if I focus on 2-3 things each for 30-60 minutes per day. That seems to be about the maximum amount of time I can actively focus on learning something before my mind starts drifting. Granted if my work day was spaced out differently I could probably spend 4-5 hours per day on one topic with hour breaks but with a 9-5 I tend to front load all of my learning in the mornings.
is there some post about waking up early? I didn't find it.
All along I was doing a focused change! I promised myself that I will learn how to play the piano. LOL! Thanks for the article.
Very interesting article at a very appropriate time: New Year Resolutions. How do you analyze your day? How do you rank a good vs a bad day?
Skills require time to attain. There's no magic pill to become stronger; we have to go to the gym consistently. If you want to learn Russian, you need to study, practice, and probably spend some time in Russia. If you want to become a better writer you can learn some good practices, but you ultimately have to produce a lot of writing before you'll be any good.
But what about habits like diet change, sleeping habits, and introversion? While we may not all be able to speak Russian, we all have the innate ability to wake up early in the morning. Our mouths will all accept healthy food. We all have the physical ability to walk up to a stranger and begin talking.
Why do these switches often take so long to flip? Why is it a gradual struggle, rather than an instant change?
I have been into self-improvement for a long time now. For almost five years now I have religiously followed a number of authors who speak to becoming a bigger, badder you.
However, the pursuit has always felt a little hollow to me. Becoming a better you has always felt to me to necessitate an overly inward eye. Many years ago I took a pledge around a campfire to live my life for others. While I was just a kid at the time, the pledge is still something that I take seriously, something that has been fed by my activities since.
This campfire experience is one that came back to me several years later when I sought to learn more about Buddhism. My interest was academic rather than spiritual, but I was struck by something on a deeper level nonetheless. I was watching a video series with basic information about what it was to be a Buddhist, and I was struck by a statement the monks said ad the beginning of each installment. "... to achieve enlightenment for the betterment of all beings..."
That is how self improvement reconciles with altruistic, charitable living.
That is how I want to live my life.