Chapter 6 – Psychological and physical capacities

In the last chapter I looked at the idea of a life with purpose

I said that a life with purpose was one where you can more clearly articulate:

  • What it is you are doing in your life 
  • Why it is you are doing those things 
  • What it is you are working towards (e.g. goals)
  • How it is you are working towards those things
  • Whether your chosen strategies for achieving what you want are working 
  • What needs to be put in place to successfully achieve what you are working towards

Self-improvement is a pathway to living a life with purpose because you are encouraged to be more deliberate and intentional with the choices, decisions and actions you take in order to achieve outcomes you want.

In that chapter I invited you to complete a checklist of common goals that people are working towards and that trigger them to pursue self-improvement and self-development. Hopefully you got from that some clarity on things you might be currently working towards, or would like to work towards. For example, maybe you identified that you lack clear goals, or want to be healthier or have better relationships. Or maybe you have a number of things you are working towards.   

In this chapter, I take a look at the kinds of self-improvements and the areas of your life you could address in order to achieve those outcomes. 

As you read through this chapter, consider what self-improvements might be relevant to you in helping you move in the direction you want. 

There are so many things you can change

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of improvements you could make in your life. Some are tiny little habits (https://www.tinyhabits.com/) like consistently taking a few deep breaths in the morning. Others are big, time consuming, life-upending changes (e.g. starting a degree).  

What improvements you decide to make in your life will depend on a range of factors:

  • What you are working towards
  • What you think will help you move in the direction you want
  • The areas of life in which you think you can make improvements
  • What problems you are trying to solve in your life
  • How much time and what resources you can dedicate to making changes
  • What you think you are capable of changing

In Chapter 8 I’ll outline more clearly the thinking process for deciding what changes to make. In this chapter, however, I simply want to get you thinking about the kinds of changes you might make.  

Psychological and Physical Capacities

When I think of making improvements in my life, I think about what psychological or physical capacities I can build. 

The term ‘Psychological and Physical Capacities’ refers to knowledge, skills, abilities or competencies you can develop that improve your life. . 

For example, a psychological capacity might include knowledge about good nutrition, or the ability to manage stress or anxiety using psychological techniques like grounding. A physical capacity might include tangible observable skills like playing a sport or a musical instrument. 

Many (probably most) capacities we build have both psychological and physical components. For example, starting a new exercise program includes psychological components (motivation, knowledge, discipline, planning) as well as physical components (skills, actions etc). 

In most cases, when discussing a capacity, I am talking about knowledge and skill in combination. You might know a lot about good nutrition, but if you aren’t actually implementing that knowledge to modify your diet, then the self-improvement benefits are minimal. Thus we are talking about knowledge that you are implementing.  

Viewing self-improvement from the perspective of developing psychological and physical capacities is an attempt to shift the framing away from deficits and self-criticism (I can’t manage my emotions, I’m a bad student) to a frame of learning opportunity (I can learn to better manage my emotions, I can develop new study habits). 

Humans are learning organisms, but we’ve all had different learning histories. This means we’ve had different opportunities in terms of what we’ve been able to learn. I come from an academic family so I got a lot of opportunities to learn good study skills like writing and critical thinking. But I didn’t come from a family of tradies (e.g. plumbers, electricians etc), so my skillsets in terms of fixing things are limited.

You’ll have your own learning history meaning there are things you do well and things you don’t do so well. Self-improvement is simply the deliberate and intentional addition of new psychological and physical capacities to your repertoire. You aren’t so much fixing yourself, as enhancing yourself – upgrading your software 🙂

So what are the different psychological and physical capacities that people can build?

Given the many capacities that people can develop, I have tried to organise them into categories for easier consideration.

My category system isn’t perfect. There is some overlap between categories, some missing areas, and likely some categories that aren’t necessarily relevant to you. But the categories cover a wide range of capacity areas, all of which I have found evidence along the way are related to your quality of life, life satisfaction, wellbeing etc. 

Hopefully you’ll see that there are indeed many areas in which you could make improvements and start to get a feel for where you might start on your own personal journey of self-improvement. 

Knowledge about self-improvement

Technically, just by reading this book, you are making an improvement in your life. You are learning about self-improvement. You are learning the principles and processes of self-development. 

It might be that this is as far as you want to go for the time being. You might be in a place in your life where you are curious about how people make changes in their life, but aren’t yet ready to start making those changes. That is perfectly OK. 

If that is the case, my recommendation is to search out and read some other books on self-improvement. There are many of them. As I’ve mentioned previously, the self-help/ self-improvement industry is huge. I don’t recommend trying to read them all. Some people get addicted to self-help books, but never actually make any changes in their life. However it is worth reading a few books on the topic, looking for common themes and building your motivation and willingness to make some changes.  

But if you are ready to start making some changes in your life, keep reading. I’ll cover the whole self-improvement process in the subsequent chapters. 

Advanced study skills/ learning

One of the more popular self-improvement focus areas for students is their study skills. Improving your study habits can mean spending less time studying, but getting more done and getting better results. For students who are feeling incredibly time pressured, this is the holy grail of studying. 

Many of the students I come across (including myself) were never actually specifically taught how to study. We went through primary and high school and did our work and learned a lot about maths and science and English but no-one actually taught us how to learn. Interestingly though, there is a science of learning and if you apply the principles of that science, you can get better at your studies. 

This includes things like:

  • Increased confidence in capacity to study
  • Improved memory and retention of material
  • Tackling common study barriers like procrastination, perfectionism and anxiety
  • Better quality and more efficient writing
  • Improved critical and logical thinking skills
  • Mastering exams

If you feel like your university experience is suffering because of bad or ineffective study habits, this might be the area of self-improvement for you. 

Mastering emotions

Humans are not robots. We’re creatures with emotions, and those emotions shape our experience of the world, other people, and ourselves. 

Emotions come in many different flavours, some of which we like (e.g. joy), some of which we aren’t as fond of (e.g. anxiety). 

Managing our emotions is a skillset that involves developing a strong understanding of emotions in general, of the emotions in our own lives, knowing how to bring positive emotions into our day, as well as managing unpleasant emotions.

If you find that certain emotions/feelings (e.g. anger, anxiety, sadness) seem to hijack your experience on a regular basis, this might be a key area of improvement for you. 

Caring for your body

That meat suit that carries you around needs care and attention. 

Feed it well and look after it, and it will return the favour, with better energy levels, resistance to illness, and mental acuity. Treat it badly and it will eventually punish you with fatigue, illness and injury. 

Caring for your body involves acquiring good quality knowledge about diet, physical activity, drug/alcohol use, medical conditions and their management, cognitive enhancement, supplementation sleep and using that knowledge to build healthy habits. 

One of the good things about focusing on this area of self-improvement is that any improvements you make to your physical health will generally improve your mental health at the same time. I call them the ‘two-for-ones’, where an activity has physical and mental health benefits at the same time. 

Thinking effectively

Humans like to believe they are rational creatures, but the evidence suggests that whilst we certainly have the capacity for reasoned logical thinking, we are often irrational and biased.

You aren’t however condemned to a life of crappy thinking. You can improve it. If you do, it will have benefits for your emotional life, professional life and capacity to deal and work with others. It might even make you a bit smarter along the way as well!

Very few of us wake up one day and decide ‘I need to think more effectively’. We are so used to sitting in our heads all the time, we don’t necessarily stop and think about thinking. It isn’t until we hit some kind of barrier such as mental illness or difficulty learning that we entertain the idea of thinking ‘better’. 

I personally find this one of the more interesting areas of self-improvement, knowing that simply training myself to shift my perspective on certain things might translate into a better life. You might find it interesting also.   

Building positive relationships

Some say the most fundamental human need relates to connection with others, feeling like we belong, like we’re loved, noticed and needed. You’ll frequently hear people refer to humans as social creatures, meaning our success as a species has been largely dependent on working with each other: cooperation and connection. 

Just because relationships are hugely important to us however, doesn’t mean we are naturally gifted at forming and maintaining them. The modern adult has to navigate many more relationships than has been the case in our past: partners, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, collaborators, bosses, role models. We have to navigate these relationships in the online and offline worlds. The social demands on all of are high. 

Relationship problems are one of the most common reasons for individuals presenting for therapy. It is thus an area that many of us see room for improvement. So if this is an area in which you think you could make improvements, then you are in good company. 

Helping others

Self-improvement doesn’t just include what we change about ourselves or our lives for our own benefit. It is what we might change in ourselves or our lives that benefits others. As an example, some of my own self-improvement efforts have been driven by a desire to be a better psychologist and more helpful to the students I come across in my teaching/writing role. For many, it is, in fact, the helping of others that is the main driver of their self-improvement efforts. 

Helping others can take many forms from the small changes we might make to be a better partner or colleague, to the big changes we might make to start a business or organisation with the intent of helping people. 

Regardless, the focus on others can be both a strong motivator for self-improvement, but also the focus of our self-improvement efforts. I help myself because I want to help others. Self-improvement does not necessarily mean self-focused.  

Self-awareness and understanding

As you get older, you understand yourself better. You understand your strengths and weaknesses, triggers and vulnerabilities, your personality, likes and dislikes, and situations in which you thrive or falter. 

But you don’t have to let age be the only driving force here. You can accelerate this process with self-reflection. This might take the form of writing or therapy or long searching conversations with close friends. You can also try new things and observe your reactions/ responses.  

When you understand yourself better, you have a stronger foundation from which to make decisions and choices about your future that are matched to who you are or who you want to be. When you make the effort to understand yourself, you also develop the capacity to understand others. 

It isn’t necessarily an easy pathway and you’ll likely discover things about yourself that aren’t super fond of, but some argue that the examined life is the best life. 

Meaning and purpose

There is an ongoing debate about whether one just finds their passion and purpose in life (i.e. it just plops down in front of them), or whether one has to build it themselves. 

Whilst I don’t deny that some people have the fortune of spontaneously finding their passion and purpose, I am not willing to leave that to chance. I’m of the view that we should work to build meaning and purpose in our lives, and there are specific things you can do to bring meaning and purpose into your life. 

Meaning and purpose do more than give us a direction in which to move. They help buffer us against the unpredictable yet inevitable setbacks in life. We can endure much in the short- and medium-term when we know what it is we are working towards long-term.

And what better thing to work on than finding what one wants to work on! (that is an extremely awkward sentence).  

Maintaining personal safety

It is an unfortunate and upsetting reality that many people will find themselves in situations in which their safety is threatened. 

It might be danger from others (e.g. abusive relationships) or danger from themselves (e.g. suicidal intent, risky behaviour).

It might seem strange to think about self-improvement in the context of such things but it is often new knowledge and skills that help people get out of these situations. It might be as simple as knowing what supports to contact through to specific emotional regulation skills that help dampen down thoughts of self-harm. 

If your safety is in question, I recommend you head straight to the Appendix on Page ? for some resources re: safety. You may still decide to work on other aspects as well but putting your safety first is a good decision.   

Shaping your environment

Not every change has to come from within. 

Much of our behaviour is shaped by the environments we are in. Just consider how different you feel and behave across different settings: university and home for example. 

You can activate improvements in mood and energy and attention by creating spaces for yourself that promote those things. Creating organised and inspiring study and living spaces, spending time in nature, surrounding yourself with the right people. These are all ways to modify you, by modifying your environment. 

This is one of the underappreciated areas to focus on for self-improvement, yet one of the more powerful. You can create a better you, by creating better environments in which ‘you’ lives. 

Work skills

It is likely that work will consume a large chunk of your life, hence focusing on work skills is a valid approach to making your time at work more rewarding. 

Whilst your degree is a sensible and valuable investment in your future work life, it will teach you only some of the skills required to make the best of your work life. There are a whole bunch of ‘soft’ or ‘transferable’ skills that you can bring to a workplace to make your experience and the experiences of your workmates better. Some even say that it is these soft skills that determine much your satisfaction in the workplace. 

Because soft and transferable skills aren’t necessarily taught in the same way that discipline-specific skills are taught (i.e. in structured degrees), there is a greater emphasis on individuals deliberately pursuing these skills on their own. You might decide it is these skills that you want to focus on.   

Financial control

Whilst money doesn’t technically buy happiness and satisfaction, it can create (or destroy) the conditions that do. 

Whether you can use money wisely to create the conditions for happiness and satisfaction is dependent on the amount of money you have but also your confidence and knowledge in managing money (financial control). Some people have lots of money, but no idea how to manage it. Some people have very little money but can intelligently and confidently make it go a long way. 

Despite the reluctance many of us have to talk about money, its management does play a significant role in the quality of our lives. The sooner you learn and develop good financial habits, the sooner you can start building wealth and set up your future self for a better life. 

Unwinding and having fun

Something that I will talk about in Chapter 9 (Problems) is that you can get overly focused on self-improvement and self-development and paradoxically neglect your needs for rest, recuperation, fun and winding down (necessary for many to have a happy life). 

For some people, the best investment they can make in themselves is slowing down a bit, stepping away from their dogged pursuit of change and achievement and taking some time to rest, accept themselves fully and find activities or people that fill them with a sense of fun and joy. 

Whilst it might seem strange to speak of ‘having fun’ as a capacity you can build, I view it like any capacity, something you can learn to do. It is still a self-improvement but one focused on finding joy and fun in life. 

Presenting oneself

As a man who spends life in shorts, t-shirts and casual shoes, I am loathe to include a category that includes a focus on image and appearance, but I can’t deny, having interacted with many humans in my life, that for a lot of people, focusing on how they present themselves is a form of self-care and a source of wellbeing. 

There are also settings (e.g. job interviews) where focusing on how one presents themselves can pay dividends.  

The clothes we wear, the haircut we go with, the jewellery we use are all expressions of some aspect of who we are. But it can work in the other direction as well. We can make choices about our appearance that will influence how we feel inside. I remember how differently I used to feel when I had long chaotic hair, versus how I feel now with a short crew cut. 

I liken modification of our appearance for the purposes of improving our wellbeing as similar to the ‘shaping the environment’ ideas earlier in this section. 

Creativity/ imagination

My observation is that humans like and value bringing something new into the world. It might be a child, an idea, a product, a piece of art or music. We have a natural desire to create. 

However, I’ve also met a lot of people who lament that they ‘aren’t creative’, as though we’re each allocated a certain amount of creativity and we’re stuck with that. 

Increasingly, I’m seeing references to creativity that suggest it is something you can develop, can get better at. And for those wishing they had been allocated more creativity, this is good news. 

Appendix P

This book has one Appendix. I call it Appendix P because ‘P’ is (as you’ve probably realised now) a dominant theme in how content in this book is organised.  

In Appendix P I list some starting points for self-improvement in each of the areas listed above. I’m constantly finding new activities for each of the self-improvement areas, so the Appendix will grow over time, with successive versions of this workbook. One day I should just create a website with all of them listed that I can update over time (if I ever get that done, I’ll let you know in this part of the book). 

If you are feeling motivated and confident in your ability to start making changes in your life, you could easily just skip to the Appendix, find some relevant starting points, and just get going. You might not need the following chapters that dig into the self-improvement process itself. 

But if you are still a bit unsure about what changes to make, why, and how to go about it, keep reading. The Appendix is designed to be visited at whatever point you feel you are ready to make some changes and want to know where to start.  

Identify a couple of capacity areas of interest to you

In Chapter 5 (Purpose) I got you to consider your broader reasons for wanting to self-improve. 

Now is the time to revisit those and ask yourself whether improvement in any of the areas described above might help you move towards those broader goals. 

In some cases the mapping is easy. If you indicated that you wanted to build better relationships, then relationship skills might be a good start. If you wanted to improve your health, then a focus on caring for your body makes sense. If you lack direction and purpose, then activities to help you find meaning will be appropriate. 

In other cases, the mapping isn’t so easy. Perhaps you are struggling with the expectations of other people (e.g. family, friends) and it isn’t clear yet what you could do to alter that. If this is the case, simply note those capacity areas that you find most intriguing or interesting. There isn’t a need to commit to anything just yet. We’ll do that in Chapter 9.  

Final thoughts

The goal of this chapter was to give you a feeling for the range of capacities you can build in your self-improvement efforts.

As I close this chapter, there are a few things I want to highlight:

  • The areas described above are broad capacity areas meaning there are lots of potential self-improvement activities within each area. For example, within the ‘caring for your body’ area you can focus on nutrition, exercise, sleep, supplementation, and/or medication. Such choice might be paralysing at first but as we dig into the self-improvement process in Chapter 9, you’ll find that you can narrow down these choices on the basis of what it is you are working towards. You’ll also find that by focusing on small improvements you can work on multiple areas at the same time.  
  • Whilst I am a psychologist with an interest in mental fitness, you’ll note that some of the self-improvement areas aren’t traditional mental health topics: financial control, presenting oneself, shaping your environment. This reflects a few things:
    • Wellbeing and life satisfaction can be built via multiple pathways
    • Self-improvement can take many different forms
    • Many factors contribute to our mental health

Some of the best changes I have made in my life that positively impacted my mental health were not things that are traditionally considered mental health interventions (e.g. decluttering my home, learning to invest)

  • Self-improvement can actually be very much focused on other people. Some people improve themselves so they can be a better friend, partner, parent, colleague or member of the community. Self-improvement needn’t be a selfish endeavour. In fact, for many it is driven by a desire to make a positive impact on the world around them. 
  • If reading about the different self-improvement areas has left you feeling a bit dejected, like you aren’t good enough, I encourage you to notice that self-criticism and see if you can shift it slightly in your head. I’ll talk more about this in the next chapter, but the stance you are encouraged to take is one of a curious scientist in your own life. You’re about to run some experiments to see just what you are capable of achieving. This is exciting! You are potential and you’re going to see what of that potential you can actually manifest. Try to see these areas as places for growth, not reasons for self-denigration. 
  • Getting better at rest (‘unwinding and having fun’) is still getting better. We can sometimes fall into the trap of assuming the improvements we make should always be in the areas of work or study and consist of tangible achievements. But maybe the improvements most beneficial to you will be ones that allow you to relax your standards, give yourself a break, relinquish the need to be in control at all times, deliberately not achieve something.