A PRACTICAL APPROACH TO SELF-IMPROVEMENT
Todd Dewett | March 30, 2020
Sometimes, when I watch people engage self-improvement efforts, it reminds me of dieting.
You have the crazies who are super self-motivated and never seem to stop trying things, always improving a little, reading, thinking, measuring, and striving. They are inspirational, and possibly even annoying (as all superstars can be from time to time).
Then you have the people who try once or twice each year, but fail miserably. They say they will take that online course, will start staying late to get ahead of the curve, or that they will improve their social game to ensure they’re making the right connections. Then the day wears long, they tire, and they quietly give up on their goal.
Of course, the third group of people are the ones who perpetually sit on the sideline and never really try. For them, self-improvement ended after college or that first promotion. They’ve had a little success, or begun a family, or found some other focus, and have lost the fire.
Yes, these are the common archetypes, but you don’t have to be one of them. Let me suggest a different goal. What you want to do is find a sustainable path forward. One that isn’t overwhelming. A plan you can stick with.
In my experience personally and as a professional coach, there are a few essential elements of a sustainable plan.
Sustainability starts by focusing your efforts more on strengths than weaknesses. This is because maintaining a consistently positive mental state is absolutely essential. Sure, if one key issue is a clear weakness, and it’s vital for your future, get serious about it. However, if you look to the future and realize you have several clear weaknesses, you must consider the possibility that you’re on the wrong path. Building and leveraging strengths should dominate your efforts.
Next, let’s think about how challenging you should make your self-improvement goals. One popular line of thinking is that all goals should be reachable (i.e., reasonable). Another is that real progress requires audacious goals (the classic BHAG – big hairy audacious goal). I like these, but you do have to realize neither can be absolutes. Too reasonable, and progress is slow. Too audacious, and burnout will become a problem. Here’s a great guideline: at any point in time, you should have one reasonable goal (typically one measured over several months to one year) and one really big goal (measured over multiple years).
Another essential element is including someone other than you in the process. Ideally, this includes at least two people for any important goal. One should definitely be a mentor, and the other should be significant other or highly trusted colleague. The idea is two-fold. First, sharing your goal with someone other than yourself, increases accountability. It makes the goal function more like a contract. Second, by opening yourself up to others, you stand to gain actionable insights you might not otherwise have.
The final component is about taking time off from your self-improvement efforts! You can’t work on being better full time. Just to pick a few well known numbers… Let’s say that eighty percent of the time you can focus on your self-improvement activities. Reflect, measure, work your butt off – awesome. Then, twenty percent of the time – step away. During this planned down time, you will not judge yourself. You’ll enjoy your family, friends, and hobbies with no guilt. Do it. Schedule it if necessary. Soon enough, your batteries will be recharged and you’ll be ready to continue the journey.
Self-improvement matters. It’s a skill you can learn. If you do it thoughtfully, as we’ve discussed, it just becomes a fun positive part of your routine. Stated differently, it’s about running a strategic marathon, not an all-or-nothing sprint. You win by realizing that it’s less a race than it is an intentional and sustainable way of life. Good luck!