10 Tricks for Actual Self Improvement


I have spent the last year working on working on myself.  It turns out that changing yourself is hard.  I would love to pretend I am some superior life hacker übermensch, but in fact I probably suck way more at life than you.  That is why I needed to find real solutions that worked to actually make me productive.  While I still struggle with being disciplined about all the many ways i would like to improve my behavior,  there are some tricks I have found that have worked for me.  Here is what has worked for someone who is just as lazy, ADHD-addled, and confused as anyone you know.

1. Habits > Resolutions
2. Small Successful Steps > Big Arduous Leaps
3. Make Positive Changes Enjoyable
4. Start Your Day on the Right Note : My Hour of Power
5. Write Stuff Down, Especially Your 5 Daily Goals
6. Give Yourself Points – My Glorious Spreadsheet of Being More Awesome
7. Mono-tasking and Timers
8. Environment & Visibility
9. Monthly Personal Goals
10. Evaluate the Objective Good

1. Habits > Resolutions

Around New Years I enjoy that ritual of coming up with my yearly resolutions.  “Yep, this next year, this next year will be the year I finally take off to brand new heights,” I tell myself.  I’m going to drink some tea and write it all out, and a perfect new me will be a done deal.  Many make similar grand plans, lists upon lists, and then ask them a month later and they’ve completely gotten off track or just as likely completely forgotten about their resolutions.

So instead of making a big list of ideal resolutions, start thinking about changing your daily habits.  The more actions that bring about positive results that you can make automatic, the more likely you’ll stick to your changes.
Resolutions happen at the vague time of someday.  Habits happen every day.
Resolutions are nice ideas that you might never get to doing.  Habits are actions you just do.

Want to be more active?
Make the habit of never taking elevators or escalators.  Choose to always stand while waiting as opposed to sitting in a chair.  Make the habit of biking to work.

Want to eat better?
Make the habit of eating the same healthy breakfast every day.  Make the habit of never buying sweets at the grocery store.  Make the habit of drinking tea instead of coffee.

Want to learn a new language?
Make the habit of listening to something in that language every lunch time.  Make the habit of using a language app when you ride the subway.

The less thought and decision making you put into changing yourself the more likely you’ll actually change.  If you think about meditating sometime this week, you probably won’t.  But if you force yourself to meditate first thing in the morning, it will become a natural part of your schedule.

If you maintain a habit for about twenty days, you’ll rewrite you behavior and it will become your new normal.  Your New Year’s goal is to make a better and better everyday normal.  Not an unworkable list of exceptional expectations.

2. Small Successful Steps > Big Arduous Leaps

Sometimes we want to instantly change lots of things about us.
To learn German and Japanese.  To lose 100 pounds and do a Triathlon.  To learn computer programming, get into one of the top 5 law schools, and save money to travel to the Galapagos.  To learn the steel pedal guitar and also become enlightened and increase your stock market portfolio by 50%.  And this should all be done by the end of the month.

While it’s definitely good to know where you are aiming, trying to do too much too quickly will be a sure path to fatigue and discipline exhaustion.  You have to think of discipline as a muscle, and for many that muscle is weak and needs to be built up slowly and steadily.

If you want to go from no meditation to meditating for an hour a day, you’ll most likely set yourself up to fail.  But if you start with two minutes of meditation, you can probably succeed.

Developing the Discipline muscle is much more about lots of small successful repetitions, then trying to lift a huge amount from the start.  There is no shame in doing a small amount of something good.  Work with what you know about your current attention span and will power, instead of struggling against it.

A short 5 minute hand weight workout that you do regularly is infinitely better than not doing any workout.  Watching a brief 10 minutes video lesson that you turn into a daily habit is better, than struggling to watch an hour long lesson.  Write a tweet every day before trying to write a novel.

3. Make Positive Changes Enjoyable

Some changes we may not naturally enjoy doing, like doing the dishes and making our bed everyday.  Try to find a way you can make these chores enjoyable.  For example, working out bores me to tears, but I love listening to podcasts (shoutout to Risk, Harmontown, and Mark Kermode Film reviews).  So every time I workout, I listen to a podcast I enjoy to give my brain something to do.

Maybe you like listening to new albums, so pair doing the dishes with getting to listen to a favorite new album.  Maybe you want to stop smoking.  Maybe give yourself a daily reward for not smoking once that day, so if you love Downton Abbey, reward yourself with an episode for every day you don’t smoke.

If you can make positive changes fun and reward yourself for not engaging in bad behaviors, you might be able to Behaviorally train yourself to be a better version of you.

4. Start Your Day on the Right Note :
My Hour of Power

One of the best things you can do is start your day off right.  The good feelings you can produce the first moments of your day can help carry you through to the end of your day.

My Hour of Power
Right after waking up I have to take medication, and after I take that medication I have to wait an hour before I can eat breakfast.  Instead of just waiting around or sleeping for an extra hour, I have turned this time into my “Hour of Power.”   Yes it’s a cheesy name, but here’s what it entails:

Step 1 – Actually Waking Up
Always set an alarm.  If I do not set an alarm i will sleep for 9-10 hours.  Better to set an alarm for seven hours so you have more time in your day.  After your alarm goes off, instantly turn on the lights in your room.  I allow myself two snoozes, but no more.

Step 2 – Meditation
I wake up with my mind racing.  I don’t know why my waking consciousness starts in 4th gear stressing mode, but the first thing I need to do is quite my brain the heck down.  The day hasn’t even started for gosh sakes, there’s nothing I have to worry about yet.  The best way to slow my brain down is with meditation.  I encourage everyone to find their own way to meditate that fits them, but here is what works for me.

In keeping with my previous points, when it come to meditation keep it short & make it a habit.  Trying to do too much meditation too often, might discourage you from starting a habit of it, and I find maintaining a daily habit is much more important that how long you meditate off and on.  You can meditate for one minute, 5 minutes, 10, whatever amount you will do regularly.  I personally count 100 breaths (or 200 in breath/out breaths).  I count because between the counting my brain tries to think of its regular repetitive and negative thoughts, but I have to drop the thought by the next count.  I recommend deep slow breaths that fill you whole lungs.  Think of your lungs being filled up like a pitcher on the in breath, then the pitcher draining to empty on the out breath.  It’s also important to sit up straight and not lean on anything.

Sometimes I invoke a mantra, or a positive word on the in breathe and a different one on the out breath.  Sometimes I focus on filling all the individual parts my body with relaxing light energy.  I always try to finish the last breaths of the meditation session feeling good, and invoking a feeling of joy to be alive.  Add whatever ideals, rituals, sayings, guides, or enlightened masters you have, bring them into your meditation any way that feels good to you.

In a lot of ways daily meditation isn’t about trying to attain something, or make me better at meditation, many days the quality of my meditation can be quite poor (trust me, my crazy monkey mind is really good at keeping me ever-distracted).  The reason I keep up a meditation habit is I want to set a good tone for my initial daily mental state.  I find if I keep meditating my days are about 10% better.  Which is totally worth it.

Part 2 – 7 minute workout
Next I do the Scientific 7 Minute workout as featured in the New York Times.

There is an iOS app I use everyday for this which you can find here.   There are similar apps for Android, but I haven’t personally tried them.

This is a popular, scientifically balanced workout that is a great natural way to raise your energy and make your body feel good.  Just like I use meditation to start my mental state with a positive tone, I also want to start my physical state with a positive tone.  I find this workout is energizing enough that I do not need coffee, and the endorphin rush will raise my mood.  Working out first thing in the morning also makes my days 10% better.

This is a challenging workout that will get your heart rate up, and definitely work a variety of muscle groups.  Since this is often the only excretes I do all day, I try to maximize the 7 minute workout by adding wrist weights and then doing different arm movements when possible.  And as previously mentioned, I listen to a podcast I enjoy while doing the seven minute workout – usually TED Radio Hour.

I like the seven minute workout because it’s short enough that I have no good excuse not to do it.  Therefore it has become a habit.  By the time it would take you to drive to the gym, I’m already done with this workout.  If you’re saying to yourself you don’t have time in your day to do this, you are full of it.

Part 3 – Reading Something Inspiring
I recommend reading a short passage from a book you find inspiring early in the day.  It could be a spiritual book, a Walt Whitman poem, or an inspiring blog post.  Basically any text that speaks to you.  I focus on short pieces, like a page or two, or even a paragraph.  Having some good input early in the day can help set a good mind state for the rest of your day.

Part 4 – Journaling
I journal for 11 minutes after my reading.  Sometimes what I read will inspire what I write about that day, some days I’ll write about something else on my mind, or write down what happened to me the previous day.  I personally use the program Evernote as my journal, though some like an app like Day One and of course the old pencil and paper works as well.

However you choose to write, what I find truly essential is first writing in my journal 3 things I am thankful for.  So I start every journal entry like this:
“1.  I’m thankful for playing board games with friends yesterday.
2.  I’m thankful for my getting a doctor appointment
3.  I’m thankful I have such a helpful Mother”

I fill in 3 things that I’m thankful for that usually happened to me the previous day.  It’s good to feel gratitude, but it’s also just good to write down good things that happen to you.  Often times people only journal when bad crap is happening to them, but it can lead your journals to have an unbalanced negative view of your life.  Starting your journal on 3 positive things can help balance this tendency.

After that I just write whatever is on my mind.  If nothing is on my mind I will just automatically write like a dadaist.  Once my eleven minute timer is done I sum up my last point.

Just like reading something inspiring helps to start your day with good mental input, writing a journal and including things you are thankful for helps start your day with good mental output.  I think picking a nice place to do this reading and writing can also be beneficial, perhaps sitting outside if you can.

Writing a journal can really help clarify your thoughts about the progress you are trying to make.  Personal change is an ongoing conversation with yourself, and the journaling is where this conversation really develops.

The final part of the hour of power is writing down a short list of your goals of the day.  Which takes us to…

5. Write Stuff Down, Especially Your 5 Daily Goals

The GTD philosophy is good to be acquainted with, but the main thing to take from it is to write your thoughts down.  There’s many ways to do this from post it notes to a small note book in your pocket.  I personally use an application called Things on my iPhone and laptop which costs money (I hear Wunderlist is a good free alternative).

Whatever the tool you use, what is important is starting the habit of writing things down.  Whenever you have an idea you want to do, instantly write it done.  I know my brain well enough that it will forget things quickly in the wayward stream-of-continuous that are my days.  Need to buy toothpaste – write it down on my shopping list instantly.  Have a funny idea – write it down in my funny idea list.    Whatever you are planing to do, write it down in a place you will see and can review easily and often.

At the end of my Hour of Power of meditation, exercising, reading and writing.  I should be feeling pretty good.  I then take out a post-it note and write down the 5 things I would like to accomplish that day.  I might look at my larger to do list.  I might look at the previous day’s list.
I pick the 5 things that I feel are important for me to work on this day, be they chores, work tasks, things I would like to improve or study.

I don’t aim for perfection, I find perfectionism can stop you in your tracks when it comes to life and productivity.  I aim to work with myself as I am, not as I ideally would hope myself to be. Do I finish all 5 things on my list everyday?  Nope.  I aim to get 3 of them done.

After I have written down the 5 things I hope to get done that day, I have a sense of purpose that will guide me, and then I make sure to put that post it note somewhere I will see it to remind me throughout the rest of the day.  Then I eat breakfast.

6. Give Yourself Points – My Glorious Spreadsheet of Being more Awesome

task graffle
I’m usually trying to integrate good habits into my daily life, but while intrinsic motivation would be ideal,  sometime I need a bit of extrinsic reward for doing good things.  This is where my point system comes into play.

I have created a big spreadsheet called the Taskomatic where I list all the things I can do in a day that will bring about positive results for me.  I assign these things varying points depending on how likely I will actually do them.  The things I find easy to do are worth 1 point, whereas tasks I am not so inclined to do are worth more points.  And then if I do them I get to satisfyingly click a check box and get points for doing them.

What do I do with these points?  I redeem them for rewards I enjoy.
I pick a variety of rewards – sugar, TV, alcohol, ice cream, an hour video games, etc.
Things I prize more (or I shouldn’t do excessively like ice cream) are worth more points.  So it lets me feel like I’ve earned my daily pleasures by my daily good works.

I created this spreadsheet with Apple’s program Numbers, though I believe it would be super easy to recreate for anyone who is a Microsoft Excel Ninja.  Click on the picture above to get an overview of how the system works.

Feel free to download my Numbers template here,
[if someone out there can make an Excel or Google Spreadsheet version, please let me know and I will link it.]

7.  Mono-tasking and Timers

To say it plainly, Multi-tasking is bullshit and it doesn’t really work if you want to actually do good work.  So I strive to focus on one thing at a time.  While you might think you can watch TV, and listen to a podcast, and read your twitter stream, and write a great blog post at the same time, in fact you’ll be doing all of those things poorly.  Your work will be shitty, and your entertainment will not truly entertain you.  Work when you work and play when you play, mixing the two worsens both.

So now that we are working on one thing at a time, the next question is how long do I have to work on this one thing?
I find I cannot focus on things for very long before my mind burns out or I want to shift what I’m doing.  So I’m a fan of using Timers to both measure how long I work, and also then measure how much I play.
The popular Pomodoro Technique is a timer based program that has much more info on this mono-task timer work style.

You can find the work to play ratio that works best for you, whether it’s 45 minutes work / to 15 minutes play or 30min/30min  or 2 houra/1 hour.  It might also be good to turn off your internet connection while your Work timer is going if that applies.
The most important thing is that your timer is visible and easy to use.  Many people like an egg timer, or a digital timer.  I use a timer built into my Mac’s Menu Bar called Menubar Countdown

Focusing on one thing at a time, and setting a set amount of time to work on it, is better than constantly shifting your focus indefinitely.   Once the timer rings, take a break.  Do something you enjoy, go for a walk, read, etc.   A break can help freshen your mind for when you set your timer again and get back to work.

8 Environment and Visibility

I find I work better in some places than others.   It can be nice to separate productive spaces and leisure spaces if possible.   Though I often work from home, I actually suck at working from home.  There’s so many distractions in every corner.  If I have the option I actually often work better in coffee shops or libraries.  It might be a good idea to mix up your work environment and see if some spaces get you in a more productive mood or not.  Some activities might be better to do outdoors, some might be better to do in a space with no internet reception.

Another thing to think about is visibility.  The more things in your nearby area that can distract you, the more likely you’ll get distracted by them.  The prime distractors of our age are our phones and iPads and televisions.  Orient yourself and your devices in such a way that you minimize visual distraction.  Put your phone behind you if possible, or even in another room when you need to really get stuff done.

Along with objects that you want be be invisible, there are other things you want to be more visible.   Some things you might want to have in your visual field are the list of tasks you want to accomplish that day, your timer, and perhaps your self improvement spreadsheet.

So to summarize, find a good place to work, and take distractions out of your visual field.  Fill your workspace only with that which you should be focusing on.

9.  Monthly Personal Goals

With all the focus on productivity for the sake of maximizing work and getting things done, it can be easy to get caught up in checking off all your endless to-do list items, but completely forget about doing other projects that you personally enjoy.  Or perhaps there are projects you should do to stretch yourself, but you don’t make time for them because you have to many other responsibilities piling up.

Well being a busy body ain’t going to fulfill your real desires to create things that matter to you.  All humans have creative potential.  We are all capable of manifesting something on this planet unique only to us.  It’s important to ask yourself what would you really like to create, and then actually do it.  And not do it by some uncertain future, but get it done by the end of the month.

Besides a monthly deadline, what helps is to pick projects that you can manage in a month, and also not get caught up worrying about them being any good to the larger world.  Just make things you want to make, and give yourself permission to make things that might be bad.  It’s really okay.  No one really cares anyway.  Share it with the world regardless.  This blog post is this months creative activity for me.   I bet 12 people will read it.  It’s more about working your creative muscle and you’ll just feel better for having produced something.

I’ve taken on giving myself little creative projects that are due by the end of each month.  Now these aren’t projects I am required to do for work or someone else, these are projects that push me to be creative in new ways.  One month I might do a short story, or a sculpture, an art video, or create an exercise video, or make a video game level.  I keep it small, and I try to keep myself to creating one small thing a month just for me.

10.  Evaluate the Objective Good

I find it is good to step back and look at your daily activities.  I break down my activities into one of four categories:

1. I enjoy and it’s objectively good for me
2. I enjoy and it’s objectively bad for me
3. I don’t enjoy and it’s objectively good for me
4. I don’t enjoy and it’s objectively bad for me.

Some examples from my life:
Enjoy + Obj. Good = Running, Deep Breathing, Taking Classes, Reading
Enjoy + Obj. Bad = Eating Junk Food, Watching TV, Playing Games on my iphone
Don’t Enjoy + Obj. Good = Writing, Cleaning Room, Lifting Weights, Doing My Taxes
Don’t Enjoy + Obj. Bad = Wasting Time on the Internet, Being Indecisive, Judging Others

Write down your activities and behavior for a few days, and then try to put your activities into these categories.
Simply put – try to do more of the Category 1 things that you enjoy and that are objectively good for you.  Do less of the Category 4 things that you don’t enjoy and are objectively bad for you.  Find a balance between Categories 2 and 3 (maybe by tinkering with your self improvement spreadsheet)

In Conclusion:

These are the systems I’ve setup for myself.  Sometimes I’m better at using them then others, but I feel they are steps in the right direction for me.   So if there’s something you can use, great.  I wish you luck in integrating them into your own system that works for you.  And if you didn’t find this useful, then go on and get down with your bad self.

2 thoughts on “10 Tricks for Actual Self Improvement

  1. Awesome article. It’s relly refreshing to read a productivity/self-improvement article that actually gives some actionable tasks and how-to’s instead of just generic blahblah. Thanks for that. I try to contribute my part by building a tool to support habits, journaling etc.). Would be glad if people like you would check it out.

  2. I absolutely agree with the other poster that this article is SO helpful and inspiring because it offers specific advice rather than generic “be better” drivel. I also love how relatable the poster seems to be, its like you read my mind!!

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