This long-read is our master class in what self-improvement looks like.
What is Self-Improvement?
It may seem like a silly question to ask: what is self-improvement?
And yet, if you're serious about building a better life for yourself, getting clear on the definition is absolutely critical. There are numerous paths one can take when looking into self-improvement, and each one is going to have its own set of guiding principles and outlook. Just do a quick Google search. You'll see dozens of resources for:
- self-improvement books
- self-improvement blogs
- self-improvement podcasts
- self-improvement groups
- self-improvement programs
- self-improvement products
and the list goes on and on and on and on and on. For each person writing or speaking about self-improvement, a different approach is going to be advised.
In a nutshell, the resources you need are out there and abundant. However, if you're not clear with yourself about what it is that you want to get out of self-improvement, you run the risk of bouncing around from resource to resource without really covering any ground.
That's why we advise being very clear about what you're wanting to get out of self-improvement and to clearly define what you're doing.
There's no one-size-fits-all definition, so don't be afraid to tweak and experiment to see what works for you, but here is what we recommend as a framework for thinking about self-improvement:
You are responsible for how you live your life, and you, therefore, have the ability to change how you live. Your thoughts and habits are important and will shape the direction of your life, so it's necessary to shape them as well. Thus, self-improvement is the process of learning from the past, living and investing in the present moment, and being optimistic and proactive about shaping your future.
These are the core principles that we operate upon when writing self-improvement content because we believe it provides a strong framework for conceptualizing and then executing on changing your life for the better.
From a cultural standpoint, we've often been taught the conflicting ideas that men have to be dominant and in control while also being subject to their nature and urges as men. This is one reason why we think our definition of self-improvement is so important; we believe that these conflicting messages can get skewed and set guys up for failure if they're not broken down and recontextualized.
We want guys to reframe this notion to understand that the control and dominance you exert is over your own actions, thoughts, and habits. Additionally, you aren't subject to your nature and urges, but can learn to understand how your urges coincide with your long-term goals. As you recognize these goals and get better at mastering your thoughts and actions, you can use them to then pursue those long-term goals, creating a healthy cycle of recognizing what you want and directing your actions to attain it.
Self-Determination and Personal Development
At the heart of our approach to self-improvement is self-determination, which we can define as "the combination of skills, knowledge, and beliefs that enable a person to engage in goal-directed, self-regulated, autonomous behavior."
Essentially, self-determination means that you are able to remain in control of both your behavior and your outcomes.
To be clear, there are many factors that impact your ability to reach your goals that are outside of your control. It would be naive and condescending to think that all guys begin at the same starting point or have access to the same opportunities. Issues of class, race, and privilege have a dramatic impact on one's worldview and their ease of access to resources.
Instead, what we recognize with self-determination is that when it comes to the aspects of your life that you can control or exert influence over, you have the skills and ability to do so.
As simple as it sounds, it's harder than you might think. Most of us move through our daily routines, bouncing from one activity to the next without much critical thought for what it is that we're doing. Breaking from these routines can seem to be an insurmountable task. That may sound like a hyperbole, but it's actually not. When we're tasked with school or work, taking care of our apartments or houses, maintaining a social life, having a romantic life, getting in exercise, and eating a balanced diet already, taking on more work or more tasks to start making major improvements isn't easy.
We're essentially dealing with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Often, self-improvement efforts appeal to our higher-order desires that go above and beyond the baseline of our daily lives. It's our nature to first ensure that our most basic needs are met before we pursue those tasks and efforts that enrich– rather than ensure– our livelihood. And one of the challenging parts of modern life is that the tasks that fulfill our basic needs of shelter, food, water, and physical safety can be incredibly time consuming and emotionally draining. For most of us, meeting these needs means working a stressful career (or two or three). If you're anything like me, by the time you've finished working, your body and mind are so fatigued that you just want to rest and recover for a bit. To leave work and immediately start thinking about all of the little things we could be doing as a part of our self-improvement efforts is daunting. Some days, it doesn't feel like it would be worth it. We feel like our current lives are good enough, and that we don't need to go above and beyond.
That's where focusing on self-determination is so important. Before we can invest our time and energy into making significant efforts to improve ourselves, we have to be committed to the idea that we have control over our situations, and that small changes today can have a huge payoff tomorrow.
We need to think about personal development like we would a financial investment. For example, if you started investing $75 per month into a Roth IRA at 20, never increased your monthly contribution, and had an average annual rate of return of 7%, by the time you retired at 65, you will have contributed about $40,000. But, your Roth IRA will be worth over $285,000.
The same concept is true of our self-improvement efforts. Just as $75 per month isn't that much money in the grand scheme of things but it's enough that it's noticeable and requires commitment on our part, by putting a bit of effort and commitment to our goals over time, we can have a significant pay off down the road.
In order to know how to invest our time and efforts though, we need to be smart about where we're putting our energy. As you take inventory of the parts of your life that you do have control over, it's then time to start using that knowledge to formulate a strategy and plan for your personal growth.
Setting SMART Goals for Personal Growth
The best way to guarantee success in setting goals is to be very intentional about how you formulate and commit to them.
Not all goals are made the same. For example, consider the differences between the following:
I want to make more money
Over the next nine months, I want to increase my annual income by $5,000 or more by receiving a promotion or new position at my current company. I will do this by identifying skill gaps and seeking out training, expanding my internal network by taking on collaborative projects, and working closely with my manager on a career growth plan.
Not only is the second goal more fleshed out, but it also gets into the specifics of what the goal is and how it is going to be accomplished.
By default, many of us tend to think in terms of that first goal. We picture the outcome and get focused on that without spending much time thinking about how we're going to get there, why we want to get there, or when we're going to get there.
It's perhaps a bit passe at this point, but using the SMART framework is still a great tool for thinking about how to structure your goals.
Is your goal vague? If so, your energy is going to be scattered and misdirected. Ask yourself what you want to achieve, where you want it, how you want it, who else is involved, and why you want to achieve it.
Saying that you want to "get stronger" doesn't give you something to measure. Saying that you want to increase your bench press by 50 pounds within a certain number of days is measurable. Make sure you can track and quantify your progress.
Is your goal attainable? That means investigating whether the goal really is acceptable to you. You weigh the effort, time and other costs your goal will take against the profits and the other obligations and priorities you have in life.
Ask yourself if the goals that you're setting accurately reflect what you want long-term. You can set a goal for anything, but if you're not pursuing something that fits in with your personality and core identity, you may be spending time and energy on something that's not going to ultimately benefit you.
Give yourself deadlines. If you don't set a specific time window within which you have to complete your goals, it'll be easy to continue putting them off. Keeping your goals time-constrained helps hold you accountable for working on them. Have rewards and punishments for
meetingor missing these deadlines.
Hold Yourself Accountable to Your Goals
Once you've set goals for yourself, being held accountable to them is key. If you're determined to go about it alone, then setting rewards and punishments for meeting goals is necessary, but there's also a pretty wide margin of error there, particularly since there's nothing stopping you from not enforcing any type of reward system.
Because of this, we highly recommend relying upon the support and assistance of others with holding you accountable. A mentor or close friend is ideal, but make sure that the person you select is someone who can be very open and honest with you about your challenges or shortcomings.
Creating a System of Success
Once you have your goals clearly outlined and established, your next step is to begin working toward them.
The way that we work toward our goals is every bit as important as how we set our goals. All too often, when we have a goal in mind, we go about it by just setting aside a little bit of time to chip away at it a couple of times each week. For example, we:
- Set aside two or three hours each week to go to the gym.
- Cram in working on our manuscripts between chores.
- Put a weekly date night on our calendars.
- Scroll through job postings before we fall asleep.
While these efforts can be helpful for chipping away at our goals and making progress, they ultimately leave a lot up to chance. Worst of all they allow us to remain spread us too thin and give us the false sense of making progress.
If we are truly going to make meaningful progress, we have to look for ways to create systems, or structures, of success in our daily lives so that we are continually making progress toward the attainment of our self-improvement goals.
You might think this sounds like an impossibility. After all, there are responsibilities like work or school that you can't neglect for the sake of working on other goals. Doing so would be irresponsible and unwise.
And yet, what we advise is absolutely possible, responsible, and will help to cultivate rapid acceleration when it comes to reaching your goals. To do this, you need to focus on making microadjustments to your daily schedule so that your efforts build off of each other and have a compounded impact.
Consider the following situation:
Let's say that your goal is to get a new job with a higher salary than what you're currently making. The least effective approach would be to look at websites like Indeed during your free time and apply for jobs periodically. A system of success looks quite different for this type of situation. With a success system, you may start your day by doing some journaling and making note of what it is that you're looking for in a new job and making a list of potential industries or roles that would meet those goals. During your lunch break, rather than getting on Facebook, you research these roles and connect with people in similar roles at companies you're interested in on LinkedIn. After work, you do a little research to see if there are any local organizations or events for people in that industry, and rather than using your weekend to binge watch Game of Thrones, you attend a meetup for that group/ organization. As you get more acquainted with the role and people in the role, you reassess whether or not you think it's still a good match. If it is, you start looking for ways to leverage your current role and experiences toward the pursuit of this new role and include those details in your morning journaling.
By swapping out a few small components of your schedule, you'll be making rapid progress toward your goal. In the above example, it just requires getting up fifteen minutes earlier to write in a journal, exchanging Facebook for LinkedIn in your free time, and using your weekends or other downtimes to network. Each adjustment to your routine is pretty minor on its own, and things you may think to do naturally while you're hunting for a new job. But when you do these in conjunction, they build upon each other and propel you forward faster than if you just did
Depending upon the particular goal and the nuances of it, your structure of success may take a variety of different forms, but what's important is that you're making microadjustments that remove actions that don't serve you and replace them with fulfilling actions that do serve you in the long run.
Taking Self-Improvement to the Next Level with Reflection and Analysis
Over time, being able to pinpoint the microadjustments you need to make as you work to pursue your goals will become easier and easier. This means that not only will you be making progress rapidly, but you'll also get better at setting and pursuing your goals, meaning that it will become progressively easier to reshape whatever area of your life you desire.
To ensure that you're continuously growing and progressing, we highly recommend creating a feedback loop for yourself.
As you're working toward your goals– and as you attain them– take some time to reflect and recognize what is working, what isn't working, and what unexpected challenges you've faced along the way. We highly recommend writing them down as you go, as that will help you to remember them learn from them as you face similar challenges in the future.
This will help to cultivate mindfulness, which will give you insight into the way in which you operate. Being able to foresee challenges or adjust your routines based upon your growing sense of self-awareness is hugely beneficial. Plus, you'll be amazed at the amount of progress you've made from point A to point B as you look back on these notes. Recognizing this growth lends itself well to creating a sense of accomplishment and optimism, which only feed into the cycle of successfully setting and pursuing goals as you work on your self-improvement.
Create a Community of Growth and Sustenance
It should also be noted that success does not occur in a vacuum, and it rarely occurs alone. We have the aphorism "it's not what you know but who you know" to embody this idea– the people around us often shape our outcomes as much as our own efforts do.
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means that people who don't necessarily deserve or haven't worked for success seem to be handed it because they were born into an environment that was filled with already-successful people. At the same time, however, it means that if you surround yourself by people who lift you up and challenge you to always be doing better, then that's what's going to happen.
People are innately social creatures, and we thrive or struggle based upon the community we keep. Whether it's peer pressure, positive reinforcement, or plain old competition, we are very much so defined by our circle of influence. Consider these statistics:
- According to a study done by the American Society of Training and Development, you have approximately a 65% of completing a goal if you commit to someone. If you have specific appointments and check-ins with that person, your likelihood of completing your goal goes up to as much as 95%, meaning that you're nearly twice as likely to complete a goal if you have a system of accountability compared to doing something on your own.
- As cited in this study by Brent LJ, Chang SW, Gariépy JF, and Platt ML, "Socially isolated people are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, and elevated blood pressure. One recent meta-analysis found a 50% increased likelihood of survival for people with stronger social relationships, even after controlling for age, sex, health, and cause of death."
- Diverse, collaborative workplaces were found to be about 19% more innovative than workplaces that were considered to not be diverse (as measured by cross-sample of employee population).
The people you surround yourself with– especially when you're actively seeking out and socializing with folks of different backgrounds from your own– are powerful tools for growth. That's one of the reasons why we write so much about the role of diversity, friendships among men, and community as a whole. Your chances of reaching the goals you want to reach are much greater when you've built your circle of influence around common goals.
Further Reading and Resources
The resources below are the ones that we have found to be the most beneficial as you continue to work on and pursue your goals.
As a heads up/ for full disclosure, we've included links to some books and other resources on Amazon. If you purchase anything through the links we've provided, Self-Himprovement earns a small commission. This helps us continue to operate and expand, and we will only recommend a resource if it is one that we recognize as hugely beneficial, and we're never going to recommend low-quality resources just to make a buck.
Plus, we'll be actively updating the resources below as we uncover and explore more resources that we think you may find helpful.