Chapter 7 – Principles of self-improvement

I read, think and talk a lot about self-improvement. 

Over the past couple of years as I’ve got to know more about the topic, I’ve discovered that there are some principles of self-improvement that seem to keep popping up regardless of who I am reading, listening to or talking to. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these are ‘laws of self-improvement’, but they seem reliable enough that they are good things to reflect on before setting off on your unique self-improvement path. 

I wanted to use this chapter to talk about these principles. I liken this chapter to the pep-talk that a coach might give a sports team before the big event when he/she reminds team members of some of the key bigger picture ideas and motivations they need to remember during the game. The job is to get everyone in the right headspace. 

So this chapter is about getting you in the right headspace before delving into the specific changes you might make. There are some important nuggets of wisdom in this chapter (mostly that I have learned from others or from my own efforts at self-improvement) that are useful to know going in, but also that you might need to remind yourself of along the way, when things don’t quite go to plan. They may at times sound a bit trite, but each of them reflects an important feature of the change process, or a description of what to expect or what to look out for as you try to make changes in your life. 

1. You are modifiable

Your body and mind are both set up in a way that facilitates growth and improvement over time. Your muscles can increase in strength. Your cardiovascular system can increase in efficiency. Your memory, knowledge and skills can all be upgraded because of the neuroplasticity in your brain.. Let’s face it, If we didn’t believe this is some way, we wouldn’t waste our time with going to school or university or doing hobbies. You’re here, reading this chapter, already knowing that you can increase your knowledge and skill over time.

In this respect we’re all ‘works in progress’ meaning we have room for self-improvement. This isn’t about admitting you aren’t good enough. It is about embracing the possibility of being a better version of yourself and knowing that it is possible. 

Now there are limits to this modifiability. Biology and circumstance place some limits. You can only get so happy, or so smart. We’re all given a range in which we can move in terms of our emotional and mental health, our personality, our temperament. But we have the capacity to push ourselves to the top (or the more adaptive end) of those ranges. We have the capacity to take what nature has given us and improve upon it. 

Modification tends to happen incrementally (bit by bit) and cumulatively (new building on old) and it happens through repeated habits (see point #4 below) and gradually exposing ourselves to new and more challenging experiences. This doesn’t mean that radical transformations aren’t possible, but that the primary commitment you are making is to incremental and cumulative improvement. Happy surprises can then follow.   

2. You should take charge of this modifiability

Psychologists often warn people against ‘shoulds’. When our thinking becomes dominated by ‘shoulds’ it can become inflexible and lead to distress.

“I should be smarter”

“I should be thinner”

“People should treat me well”

“This product should make me happy”

But I am going to tentatively use the word ‘should’ in the context of self-improvement. 

The way I see it is this. In the absence of any effort on your part to take charge of the things in your life that you can improve (things that are modifiable), other forces will step in to fill the gap. 

For example, if you don’t make purposeful decisions about what food to eat, convenience might dominate which may lead to an overconsumption of fast-food or highly processed food. 

If you are not deliberate about what you read and watch, you might end up getting a skewed perspective on the world, driven by fake news, social media and advertising. 

If you are not deliberate about the people you choose to have in your life, you may inadvertently invite people into your life that don’t have your best interests at heart. 

Also, I think it is wired into humans to feel happier under situations of autonomy, that is, the freedom to make our own choices about the direction of our lives. We feel better when we feel in control (at least partly) of our own lives.  

So I use the word ‘should’ cautiously, but I believe there is no better person than you, to take charge of modifying you. 

And if you are thinking ‘well how do I do that?’ don’t worry because we’ll be covering that in the next chapter. 

3. In taking charge of your own modifiability, you’ll practice skills and confront (in a more measured dose) some of the realities of life in a way that will set you up to deal with future challenges

The planet/solar system/ galaxy/ universe we live in is amazeballs. 

It is also fucking dangerous and doesn’t by any means have your individual best interests at heart. 

That means in the average human life there is:

  • Uncertainty
  • Impermanence
  • Pain and suffering
  • Loss
  • Uncontrollability
  • Setbacks and challenges
  • Sacrifice
  • Imperfection
  • Danger and threat
  • Fragility and vulnerability
  • Failure
  • Illness and decay
  • Unfairness
  • Fear

All of these test all of us at some point in terms of our ability to survive and thrive. 

So how does one prepare oneself for these challenges?

A commitment to self-improvement is one way of training oneself. 

When we commit to trying to improve ourselves, our lives and the lives of those around us, we confront (generally in smaller doses) many of these challenges. 

Self-improvement is messy and unpredictable and sometimes uncomfortable. It involves change and adapting ourselves to new situations. It involves taking responsibility for the things you can change and learning to live with the things you can’t. It involves experimenting with different ideas and activities, knowing that some will fail and some will work. In trying to improve ourselves, we learn to embrace these things. 

But the value of self-improvement doesn’t just come from embracing the negative.

When we take action to improve ourselves, our lives and the lives of those around us, we also find out that there are human forces at play that balance out (to some extent) many of these challenges described earlier. 

  • Routine and order
  • Legacy
  • Love
  • Growth and strength
  • Success
  • Achievement
  • Beauty
  • Conection 
  • Justice and fairness
  • Virtue
  • Knowledge
  • Safety
  • Happiness
  • Courage
  • Control

Self-improvement is a place to play with both the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of being human and in turn, prepare us for the realities of life. 

4. Self-improvement is fundamentally about habits and routines

Some things that we do to improve our lives involve a single action or decision. But most things that continue to have a positive impact on our lives are repeated over time. Mostly if we are hoping to have an ongoing positive impact in our lives we are looking at actions we repeat over time (habits or routines). 

Habits are simple behaviours that we do automatically, with very little thought. Brushing your teeth is a common example. The more good habits we can create, the more of our life we can put on a kind of positive ‘autopilot’. 

Routines are more complex chains of behaviours that require some level of awareness, concentration and commitment but have become staple parts of our lives. A regular gym workout is an example of a routine. Like habits, we want to embed as many positive routines into our day as we can.  

Take the example of getting fit. 

To get physically fit, you can’t just go to the gym once per year and hope that you stay fit. Getting and staying physically fit requires regular exercise, rest, good nutrition and sleep.  Getting and staying fit requires habits and routines based around exercise, rest, nutrition, sleep.  

It isn’t any different when we consider self-improvement more broadly. 

Let’s consider the 16 different areas of self-improvement that I identified in the last chapter. 

  • knowledge about self-improvement 
  • advanced study skills/ learning 
  • mastering emotions 
  • caring for your body 
  • thinking effectively 
  • building positive relationships 
  • helping others 
  • self-awareness and understanding
  • meaning and purpose 
  • maintaining personal safety 
  • shaping your environment 
  • work skills
  • financial control 
  • unwinding and having fun
  • presenting oneself 
  • creativity/imagination

When I look at this list, I think of all the habits and routines that one could set up in their life that would lead to improvements in these areas. I’ve included some below. 

  • knowledge about self-improvement – regular reading
  • advanced study skills/ learning – retrieval practice
  • mastering emotions – challenging thoughts
  • caring for your body – exercise
  • thinking effectively – critical thinking
  • building positive relationships – expressing gratitude
  • helping others – volunteering
  • self-awareness and understanding – journalling
  • meaning and purpose – trying new things
  • maintaining personal safety – developing and using safety plan
  • shaping your environment – time in nature
  • work skills – regular professional development
  • financial control – saving and investing
  • unwinding and having fun – scheduling rest time
  • presenting oneself – personal hygiene
  • creativity/imagination – set aside artistic time each week

So self-improvement is very much about embedding healthy and productive habits/routines into our life. 

As we’ll discover in future chapters, the habits and routines we put in place don’t necessarily need to be complex or time-consuming. I’ve been strongly influenced by the work of BJ Fogg who proposes Tiny Habits as the starting points for significant life changes. This means that self-improvement is within reach of even the busiest individual.  

So as you move through the remainder of this book, remember that you are working out how to shape your use of time on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis that helps you improve in those areas most important to you (Chapter 6) to get you closer to what you are working towards (Chapter 5)  

5. Self-improvement requires willingness more than motivation

As we’ll discuss in Chapter 8, forming new healthy habits and routines can be achieved without having to generate massive globs of motivation, which is good, because motivation is a slippery sucker. One minute it is there, the other minute it is gone. Trust me, it took me ½ hour to just write this section. 

What self-improvement does seem to require however is willingness, of different types:

  • Willingness to learn and try new things
  • Willingness to fail and use trial and error to discover useful additions to your life
  • Willingness to challenge existing ways of doing things or thinking
  • Willingness to accept you might not be super good at some things
  • Willingness to accept less improvement than you initially hoped for 

The challenge is, you might not know your level of willingness to experience something until you’ve experienced it. 

For example, I’ve found that I’m generally willing to accept small changes to the way I do things, but I am less willing to entertain different ways of thinking. I tend to hold stubbornly onto old ways of thinking, even if I accept they are probably holding me back. 

You might discover as you start your self-improvement journey that there are things you are willing to accept and things you are not. Developing that acceptance might end up actually being part of your self-improvement process.  

6. Use yourself as the reference point for improvement

I have a number of people that I consider role models. People whose work I admire, have a skillset I covet, or can perform a task at a level I aspire to.  

In some cases, their performance at some particular task of interest is far greater than my current level of performance. If I was to use them as a benchmark for my own self-improvement, then I would be consistently discouraged, because the discrepancy between my skill level and theirs is too large to feasibly traverse.  

Whilst role models are important (they are a representation of what is possible and desired), you should track your own self-improvement using yourself as a benchmark.

What do I mean by this? 

If I want to get better at giving presentations, I don’t compare myself against the best presenters I know. I look instead to do better than my most recent presentation. In doing so I might take some ideas from my role models (e.g. using notes less, making more eye contact), but my immediate goal is to give a better presentation than the one I gave last time. I try to improve on myself. 

Why focus on self-as-benchmark?

Your improvement needs to be noticeable in order to help motivate you to continue. If you simply compare yourself against an impossible ideal, you will never notice improvement. You’ll only notice yourself falling short of your ideal. 

One of the places that I really learned this lesson was in weight training. When you are at the gym training weights there are people there much stronger and bigger than you (usually). You might admire their achievements, but you can’t use the weights they are lifting as a goal. You’d just injure yourself. 

Instead, your goal in any given weights session is to lift something slightly heavier, or do more reps than you did last time. Keep good records of what you lift and how many times and you will see your own numbers increasing. That is what gives you the motivational feedback that your training is working. You can see yourself getting better.  

7. Things won’t go to plan so treat yourself with compassion, not self-criticism 

Unless you are a robot, your self-improvement experience will include setbacks and failures. I’ve been quite successful in a number of areas of self-improvement (standing desk, exercise, meditation), but there are areas where I consistently fail (particularly dietary changes). 

Confronted with setbacks, humans are prone to being highly self-critical. We go over everything we’ve done wrong and highlight to ourselves all the ways that we aren’t up to scratch. 

At some level, this is OK. Self-criticism does help us find where we are underperforming. The problem is we typically quickly shift from assessing our performance on a task/activity to assessing who we are more broadly as a person. 

Say I fail on a test. Rather than dig into the specific mistakes I made, my mind might go down the path of ‘you’re an idiot’, ‘you fucked that up like you fuck everything else up’. 

For some reason, our minds’ believe that this is motivational, that this negative self-talk will inspire us to try harder next time. But it rarely works. Constant self-criticism tends to demoralise us further. It reduces the likelihood we will try to correct specific mistakes or misunderstandings. 

Self-compassion is the alternative to self-criticism. 

Self-compassion doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook or going around saying how amazing you are, regardless of the evidence. Self-compassion is the acknowledgement that:

  • No human being can be perfect;
  • Mistakes and failures are central to learning and should be expected, often;
  • You would motivate a friend with kindness, not criticism, so why would you criticise yourself. 

A self-compassion approach to setbacks can still be as equally critical of performance as a self-criticism approach. When we make mistakes, the goal is to still work out what went wrong and what you could do to change it. The difference is it is done in the spirit of kindness and desire to motivate, not demoralise. 

8. Self-improvement tends to operate at the micro level, but typically with macro level goals in mind

The mechanics of self-improvement, as we’ll see in the next chapter, tend to be focused on minutiae. We’re playing with changes to our lifestyle, how we think, our knowledge-base. 

But typically we are doing these things with bigger goals in mind. 

That extra serve of veggies that I eat for dinner are not because I have the goal of ‘making sure I spend my life eating veggies’ but because of the goal of having a long and healthy life. 

As we explored in Chapter 5 – ‘Purpose’ – there are many higher order things that we might be working towards – better relationships, to make a difference in the world, to find meaning and purpose, to be healthy and happy. 

When we focus on self-improvement, we are trying to find the right set of life ingredients that deliver us those goals. 

I think we’re ready now……….

I reckon that is just about everything I need to tell you before we launch into the next chapter and look specifically at the process of self-improvement. 

If you’re thinking ‘why the hell did he have to take 7 Chapters to get to the point?’ then that is a fair question. 

The answer is that, whilst the mechanics of self-improvement (which I’ll discuss in the next chapter) are relatively simple, my own journey in this space has shown me that it is all the problems and questions that pop up along the way that actually make it challenging. 

I wanted to address a few of those before getting started. 

Once we’ve looked at the process of self-improvement, I’ll explore a few more related topics in Chapters 9, 10, 11 and 13. 

But now it is time for us to look in-depth at how to self-improve.