Self-improvement doesn’t have to be accomplished in huge, Herculean steps.
As you may have noticed, I’m a big believer in self-improvement. After all, most of getting better at dating is about treating one’s life as a holistic system, rather than sex and dating being a discrete aspect of yourself, cut off from everything else. Nine times out of ten, most of the problems people have in their dating lives come from issues in their lives as a whole, and improving your life improves your skill with others. Whether it’s fixing your outlook on life,learning how to interact better with others, standing up for yourself, dressing better or just living a better lifestyle, getting better with women means getting better with life in general.
A happy life brings a happy wife. Or husband. Or girlfriends. Or boyfriends. Or any other permutation you may care to think of.
But just because you’re trying to improve your life doesn’t mean that everything is a Herculean task that requires completely upending your entire life or coming to the sudden and dramatic realization that everything you’ve known is wrong. Sometimes simple changes can spur major improvements to your quality of life and your happiness.
1) Want to Improve At Something? Make a Plan?
One of the problems that people tend to run into when they want to improve at something is that they get as far as “Man, it’d be nice if I could be better at X.” Which is nice in concept, but if you have no idea how to improve then you’re doing the self-help equivalent of trying to complete a cross-country road trip and only navigating by the power of Zen.
You need more than a vague idea of what you’d like to do, you need a detailed plan on how to achieve it. Malcom Gladwell’s proverbial 10,000 hours to mastery is only half the story; just spending time on something isn’t enough, you have to be deliberate practice. If you want to get better at basketball, you can’t just shoot 10,000 hours worth of free-throws, you need to know just what it’s going to take to get better… and how you’re going to achieve it.
Let’s take a completely self-serving idea and say that you want to get better at dating. There’s more than just going up to random women and asking them out. You want to identify the areas where you’re having problems and come up with a plan on how you’re going to address them. Do you have a hard time dealing with approach anxiety? Then you need to plan how you’re going to overcome that. Are you good at starting conversations, but not so good at getting her interested in a date? Then you need to plan how you’re going to work on developing more chemistry.
This goes for any goal: decide what, exactly, are you planning on trying to achieve and how you plan to go about doing it. If you want to get better at a sport, are you going to seek out private coaching? Are you going to set up a schedule so that you can get in batting practice or starting a training regimen at the gym so that you can get your endurance up and score more basketgoals? (I’m not good at sports.)
You need to make sure you have a specific goal; a vague goal is a great way to feel like you’ve accomplished something without actually doing much. You want something you can measure, and progress you can track. You’re going to eat better? OK, so you give up your daily candy bar from the office vending machine. Boom: you’re eating better. A more specific goal would be “I’m going to make a point to eat fresh vegetables twice a day and keep my sugar intake below X grams per day” – easily quantifiable and measurable, but also something that will have far more of an impact on your overall health.
Speaking of goals:
2) Give Yourself a (Public) Deadline
When you’ve given yourself a goal that you’re working towards, then you also want to give yourself a deadline. Otherwise, there’s really no reason for you to work towards that goal. It’s easy to say “I want to run my own business… someday,” because you’ll always have a perfectly legitimate excuse as to why you can’t start now and someday never comes.
Picking a deadline gives you a definitive date by which you will want to have achieved your goal, and the feeling of that due date coming closer and closer is an excellent motivator. The further away something is, whether it’s a sales-goal or your declaration to bench-press your body weight by the end of the year, the less we think of it. As that goal gets closer, it starts to occupy more of our every day thoughts. This is known as “Goal Looms Larger” effect (psychologists aren’t the greatest at naming things…) – and you can use it to your advantage to spur yourself into getting up off your ass and actually completing the things you’ve always wanted to do but can’t quite get started.
But hey, if the only person who knows about the deadline is you… who cares, right?
That’s why it’s good to make it a public deadline – then you’re making yourself functionally accountable to other people. If you declare on Facebook that you’re going to, say, start a film-review blog by December and nothing’s happened by January, people’re going to notice and ask you about it. Sharing your progress towards a goal via social media is a remarkably effective way to keep yourself motivated; this is part of why so many exercise apps link to your Facebook page or track you on their own social network (the other part is $$$).
If you need more motivation than just public approval (or you don’t want to spam your friends on Facebook with how many miles you’ve run and zombie mobs you’ve avoided) then perhaps you need to put your money where your mouth is. Public accountability sites like Stickk.com let you select a goal, pick a referee to report to and then put down money as a stake to keep you motivated. If you don’t make your goal, then your stake goes to a designated recipient – someone you’d rather not money go to in your name. It’s remarkable how much you can get done when not doing so means that you’re giving $500 to an National Organization for Marriage or Focus on the Family.
3) Be Positive
I talk a lot about maintaining a positive outlook on life on this site… and for good reason. Your attitude towards just about anything is an indicator of future results. Negative thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you’ve convinced yourself that there’s no way you could do X or guys like you don’t get to do Y, then you’ll quickly find that you’re right… because you’ve ensured that you’re going to fail. You miss out on opportunities because you automatically discount them. You focus on only the worst possible outcomes as though they were the only possible result. Plus: negative people are less attractive and make worse first impressions. There’s a reason why we don’t associate Eeyore with “sex machine”, you know.
But there’s more to being positive than just making a better first impression. A positive outlook has tangible effects on your mental and physical health. Optimists are better able to handle stress – when confronted with a disappointment, they’re more likely to focus on how to overcome the problem rather than dwelling on the things they can’t change. Being positive improves your immune system – scientists have found that people with a negative outlook have a weaker immune response to a flue vaccine, for example. The Mayo Clinic has also found that optimists and positive people have increased lifespans, suffer less from cardiovascular problems and are less prone to depression.
The easiest way to be more positive is to make it a habit. A negative outlook on life is a habit, which means it can be overcome and replaced. One of the best ways to do this is via the 7 Day Positivity Challenge. The challenge is simple: you spend 7 days choosing to look at the positive side of everything, avoiding negative thoughts. You focus on the positive or useful side of everything and everyone rather than allowing negative thoughts the way you might anyway. If you have a negative thought, then you start over from day 1 again. It’s a difficult challenge – most people need to restart several times before they manage to make it. It becomes a way of training yourself to realize that you have a choice in how you see the world… and you can choose to see the good instead of the relentlessly negative.
4) Invest In Yourself
One thing that you need to keep in mind: at the end of the day, you are your primary product. You are the common denominator in everything in your life, the one thing that’s going to be constant no matter what else happens through your entire lifespan. But all too often, we tend to neglect ourselves. We sacrifice our health in the name of pleasure by drugging ourselves with sugar and salt and fat. We sacrifice our appearance or our dreams – often in the name of buying some gewgaw to fill the holes in our lives.
You need to treat your life like an investment – and that means putting money towards things that will pay you dividends in the long run. You’re investing in yourself with an eye towards greater future returns.
One of the most obvious areas for investment is clothing. Clothes are one area where you tend to get what you pay for. Clothes are one of the first things that people notice about us; they directly influence how people see us and what they think about us…so why wouldn’t you make an effort to put your best face forward as it were? You don’t need to be dressed in head to toe Dolce and Gabanna, but you should be willing to save up and shell out for one specific item on occasion. A well tailored suit, for example, or quality dress shoes will serve you well over many, many years. The suit alone can be one of the most versatile outfits in your closet, allowing you to dress up or down as needed.
Another area that people don’t tend to think of when it comes to making investments would be in travel. Travel is an excellent way to broaden your horizons and explore not just other cities or countries or cultures but your own life. It forces you out of your comfort zone and to confront aspects of yourself you never realized were there. It exposes you to the wonders of other cultures but also the universal humanity that unites us all. You find yourself experiencing things you’ve only dreamed about and visiting places you’ve only ever seen on TV or read about in books. You get a chance to see history brought to life in a way that nothing else can reproduce. Plus: it’s great for collecting stories. If I had never inherited my grandmother’s love of travel, I never would have seen the sunset from the top of Ta Phrom temple in Cambodia or witnessed the beauty of the Olduvai Gorge or the majesty of Michaelangelo’s David. I never would’ve visited the clay warriors of Xian or took a boat through the canals of Singapore.
I also wouldn’t have had lunch in a live minefield, been chased by marauding elephants or had knives thrown at me by Chinese acrobats, for that matter.
It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but it should be something that will materially improve your life – a class you’ve always wanted to take, for example. It should be something that will make a positive change over time.
Don’t take this as license to buy yourself treats every few weeks; save up for the important things. An investment is something that will affect your whole life.
5) Be Grateful
Want to be happier? Want to help yourself be a more positive, more creative person? Want to cut the negativity and bitterness out of your life?
You need to practice gratitude.
As bad as you think your life may be right now, the very fact that you’re reading this means that you’ve had an amazing life. You’re better educated than the vast majority of people on this planet. You have access to the collective knowledge of the entire goddamn world at your fingertips. You have access to food and resources and a lifestyle that people around the world literally kill for.
Scientists and psychologists have long documented that gratitude is intrinsically tied to happiness and well-being; people who are happier also are more grateful and appreciative, not just for what they have, but for others as well. Just as smiling can make a person happier, the act of practicing gratitude and appreciation makes you more aware of just how lucky you are but improves your mood and outlook on life. It increases social ties between friends and family and makes you a more attractive, charismatic person. It helps you realize that even when things are bad, that you can always strive to make them better. Love life is on the rocks? You’re living in a time and place where sex is more accepted and widely available than ever before; it wasn’t that pre-marital sex was a potential death sentence. Still is in some places, in fact. The fact that women and men can mingle openly, that homosexuality is increasingly de-stigmatized and that racial social mingling is the accepted norm means that you have more opportunities to find the love of your life – or at least the next 15 minutes. Your life may not be where you want it to be, but even with the current economic downturn, this is still one of the first generations where social mobility is possible at all and you have the chance to improve that previous generations never did.
No matter how dark things can be – and they can be pretty damn dark – you have been blessed with far more than you may realize. To go into schmaltz for a second, just because you’re flat on your back doesn’t mean you can’t still see the stars. Even when things are bad, it’s important to recognize how much beauty there is in the world too. Hold on to that realization.Practicing gratitude is how you escape the darkness in your life. It’s how you pull yourself out of that pit and make things better. Recognizing your blessings means being able to act upon them; stewing in bitterness and envy and hate gets you nowhere.
Every day, find something to be grateful for and express it. Tell somebody in your life how much you appreciate them and how you’re grateful to have them in your life or for something they’ve done for you. You may not have a lot but you can turn it into more than it seems1.
Practice some simple gratitude every day and watch just how much better your life becomes.
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove