Chapter 4 – The 7P's of self-improvement – mental fitness in everyday life

Let’s start with a brief bit of revision. 

In Chapter 2 I introduced the concept of mental fitness, basically the idea of training one’s mind. I said there were formal and informal ways to do this. Formal methods include structured education, going into therapy, and meditation training. Formal methods are characterised by there being someone (e.g. a guide, teacher, therapist) who is leading you through a semi-structured process designed to improve some aspect of your psychological functioning. We spend a great deal of our early life engaging in a formal system of mind training that helps us build knowledge and skills. It is called school. 

Formal methods of training one’s mind have many advantages, hence why they’ve become important elements in our culture, but what I’ve been interested in the past couple of years is whether there are informal ways that we can train our minds. What can we do in our everyday lives, outside of those formal settings, that helps us build and maintain mental fitness?

I posit that a commitment to ongoing deliberate self-improvement (the process of enhancing, growing or developing some aspect of our physical, psychological, social, spiritual or environmental selves) is an informal way of training the mind.

Every time we set out to make some kind of improvement to our life or ourselves, no matter how small, we have to use a number of psychological skills to achieve this. I’ve summarised a few of these in Box 1.

Box 1 – Psychological skills/capacities used when making improvements to self or life
Positive attitude, self-talk, self-reflection, setting goals, planning, gaining knowledge, learning new skills, assessing outcomes, impulse control, critical thinking, taking other perspectives, problem-solving, forming habits, emotional regulation, self-monitoring

These skills are all like muscles. The more we use them, the stronger they get. 

And these skills aren’t just useful for making life changes. These are the skills that we need for all aspects of life; our work, our relationships, coping with adversity, coping with unexpected challenges. Strengthen these psychological muscles through daily and weekly efforts to improve yourself and you start preparing your mind for all the challenges of life. The fact that you make improvements to your life at the same time is a bonus!

The good thing about building mental fitness in this way is that you don’t necessarily need to commit (and pay) for a formal program. Yes, you might decide along the way to enhance certain skills through formal programs (e.g. I now pay for formal meditation teaching through an app), but you can commit to and engage in self-improvement with just small changes to how you think or act.

That is where this book comes in.

This book is a guide to self-improvement.

A few years back, when I changed jobs and moved into a new area, I was confronted with the reality that I needed to build a new and better version of myself in order to make the transition successful. As I started to work on myself, I realised that everyone around me was in essence doing the same. They might not call it ‘self-improvement’ but they were trying to grow in some way, shape or form.

Improvement seems to underpin what we are all working towards. We are all trying to create the conditions (both internal and external) conducive to us all operating at our best. And I fully believe that we can all get better at what we do. 

So I set myself the task of trying to illuminate the process/mechanics of improvement so we could all get better at improving (improve at improving so to speak). I focused at the level of the individual (rather than organisation) because that is where I saw the connection with mental fitness (training of the mind).

This book is the result of those efforts.

The purpose of this book is to provide you with everything I think you should know about self-improvement. Yes, I realise this is wonderfully arrogant of me, assuming that this book contains everything a person needs to know about self-improvement, and in reality, there is so much to learn, I couldn’t possibly cover it all in this book. I am still learning myself. 

But I’ve tried to pull together as much as I can of what I’ve learned over the course of my life, from what I learned in my degree (psychology), what I’ve learned in my career (behaviour change) and what I have learned personally (in my life and the lives of family and friends). 

I’ve organised what I know about self-improvement under 7 headings, each starting with the letter P – hence the 7P’s of self-improvement. 

I’ve dedicated a chapter to each of these areas. Wrap your head around these 7 areas and you have at your disposal a full set of principles and processes to start making meaningful improvements in your life. At a minimum, you may be triggered to at least consider the possibility of making improvements. 

So let’s quickly visit each of the 7P’s.

Purpose

Purpose is the reason or reasons we change. Purpose is interwoven at every level of self-improvement. 

For example, when you make a change to your diet, the immediate purpose might be improvements to your health or weight. But those have purposes of their own. To be healthier means a longer and more satisfying life, with greater time to spend with those you love, or working on projects that sustain you. Those activities then have their own purpose: to provide you happiness or meaning. Purpose permeates everything we do. Living life with purpose is a powerful avenue to wellbeing and contentment. 

As I will discuss in the Purpose chapter, and at other points throughout this book, a commitment to ongoing self-improvement is almost always done with purpose – multiple purposes in fact. In my opinion, one of the real benefits of committing to ongoing self-improvement is that it will invite you to articulate more clearly what it is your are working towards. It is purpose affirming. It is purpose generating. 

For some, self-improvement is a purpose in itself. They revel in the act of trying to improve themselves and seeing what they are capable of. For others, self-improvement is more pragmatic – it gets them closer to achieving their goals or becoming the person they want to be. Then there are those for whom a commitment to self-improvement opens them up to new perspectives, ideas and experiences, and in that diversity they find the thing or things that give their life meaning. Self-improvement for them is about finding purpose. I think that is where I fit in. 

So you will find me repeatedly returning to purpose in the discussion of self-improvement. It might be when discussing the goals of specific life changes (e.g. in the Process chapter), or the ongoing process of refining one’s personal philosophy of life (Chapter 11). That won’t be accidental. One of the best things you could get out of this workbook is being able to more clearly articulate your purpose(s) in life.

Principles

Each person’s journey of self-improvement is unique; why they are doing it, what they are working on, how they are working on it. 

However, there are commonalities of experience that bind us together in our efforts to improve. For example, there are ways of approaching self-improvement that improve the success rate. There are experiences that many of us share when trying to self-improve. 

Take ‘self-criticism’ as an example. Self-criticism, where one evaluates oneself negatively, pops up regularly when a person commits to ongoing self-improvement. This is because some efforts at self-improvement will end in failure or we’ll experience setbacks along the way. When this happens, many of us instinctively turn on ourselves and question our abilities and self-worth.  

Some people think this self-criticism will help motivate them to be better next time. However we know from research studies that self-criticism rarely leads to better performance. In usually impairs it. Self-compassion on the other hand, where we openly acknowledge failure and the suffering it brings, but treat ourselves with kindness is a much better motivator. Self-compassion therefore is a ‘principle’ to follow when committing to ongoing self-improvement.   

In the Principles chapter, I’ll dig further into the things you should know before starting your self-improvement efforts. Think of it as a briefing of some of the key things you’ll encounter along the way, and how to deal with them. 

Psychological and physical capacities

An obvious question when thinking about self-improvement is ‘what do I improve?’

The truth is there are many different aspects of yourself that you can work on. 

In the Psychological and Physical Capacities chapter, I’ll look at the different areas in which you could seek/pursue improvements. 

Spoiler: there are quite a few. 19 currently. And within each area there can be a lot of options. For example, “Caring for your body’ includes sleep, diet, physical activity, drug and alcohol use, illness management and more!

I tell you this not to overwhelm you (I apologise if that is the effect it has). Instead, I want you to be aware of the choice you have when it comes to self-improvement. It isn’t all about health or mental-health related changes. 

You might work on your study skills, critical thinking, building better relationships, modifying your environment or your financial literacy. There are many facets to a human being, many of which can be improved. 

You will have the choice what it is you work on.

Process

I wish I could tell you that self-improvement is a simple linear process where you decide what to improve, make some changes and wait for the benefits to roll in.

In reality it is more complex and messy than that. You’ll definitely have some wins, but you’ll have some failures and setbacks along the way as well. 

As with any messy process, the better you understand the various parts of that process, the better you are at turning it to your advantage. For example, maybe you can identify where your self-improvement efforts have got stuck, or where you might have neglected an important part of the change process.  

In the Process chapter, my job is to give you the mechanics of self-improvement so you understand how it works and can self-diagnose where you might be going right or wrong. I liken it to learning more about how a car works. The more you know, the more likely you are to be able to rectify it yourself. 

I warn you ahead of time – the Process chapter is a big one. It covers a lot of territory as I try to illuminate, as best as possible, the intricacies of change. That being said, it is the chapter you’ll probably return to most as you develop your own personal self-improvement plan.

Problems

Remember how I just said that self-improvement can be messy?

Well it can be, and sometimes it can get downright problematic. 

Any philosophy/ concept/ idea can be taken to a point where the benefits are outweighed by the negative impacts. 

This is true for a commitment to ongoing self-improvement. 

One of the most obvious problems that can emerge is perfectionism: a condition where you set unreasonably high standards for your performance, evaluate yourself negatively when you don’t achieve those standards and fail to attend to other valuable sources of self-worth in life. Perfectionism does not lead to perfection (unfortunately). It leads to significant distress and negative impacts on multiple aspects of life. 

In the Problems chapter I will explore that issue along with a selection of other ways that a commitment to ongoing self-improvement can become problematic and how to avoid or minimise these problems.

As much as I am a fan and proponent of self-improvement – it is not a panacea. It is a tool you can use to build a better life. That tool needs to be used responsibly.

Personal Plan

All going well, by the time you’ve finished the chapters on Purpose, Principles, Psychological and Physical capacities, Process and Problems, you’ll be ready to develop your own personal self-improvement plan. 

Nothing too complex or over-the-top, just some simple ways that you can get started on building a better version of you. 

Of particular importance in this chapter will be learning when and how to modify your personal plan if necessary. I know that my self-improvement plan has changed a lot over the last couple of years, as I’ve learned more about myself and the process of self-improvement.

Personal philosophy

I believe that each of us needs a personal philosophy that guides our decisions. A roadmap for life. 

For some that might be religion or some kind of spiritual practice. 

For some that might be a mission or a job they feel they need to do or complete. 

For some it might be about focusing on family and friends. 

It might be a mix of all these things. 

It isn’t my job to tell you what your personal philosophy of life should be. I will however invite you to consider that an ongoing commitment to self-improvement might constitute a part of that philosophy. 

In the Personal Philosophy chapter, I will put forward my argument as to why I think this is the case. You can then determine whether or not I put forward a good argument and whether or not you want to promote self-improvement from ‘this is interesting’ to ‘this might be something I want to bake into my life going forwards’.

The 7P’s

That was a very quick tour of the 7P’s. Of course I will expand on each in the subsequent chapters but that should give you a sense of what to expect. 

By this stage of the book, you probably know whether or not you are interested in reading further or not. 

If you are, welcome and I hope you find the subsequent chapters informative and practical in your life.  

If you aren’t interested, that is totally OK! Life’s short. No use spending time reading or doing something you don’t want to 🙂 I suggest a nice cup of tea/ coffee and then head off in search of the next thing.  

For those that are hanging around to see what is next, we kick off with digging further into the topic of Purpose and explore what inspired you to pick up this book and what goals and outcomes you are seeking in your life that self-improvement might help with.