In a way, I am a sort of expert in “self-improvement”. Not the actual act of self-improving, I just happen to be able to summarize about every other book in your local store’s self-help section. It is not something I am proud of, but life is a bumpy road and we find ourselves in seemingly helpless situations where we are willing to search underneath any rock for a clue. Don’t get me wrong; I have certainly gotten better at motivating myself towards more productive and useful actions. Pop psychology, NLP, hypnosis, meditation, various other self-help books – I’ve tried it all, and every one has their own success stories. However, I’ve noticed there are some aspects of self-improvement that are so commonsense, yet overlooked – like quantifying your progress!
The single most important thing to improving your self, next to taking action, is knowing how to measure change. If you measure your success just based on how good or bad you feel about a situation, then you may be misguiding yourself. In the realm of true self-improvement, there will be times when you are making great leaps in progress but feel shitty, and other times where you will feel great but aren’t making any progress at all.
It is important to follow your heart, but more importantly you need to rely on the skills of your mind and rational thought. Emotions and feelings are an inevitable part of life (and there are times where they must be embraced) but recognize that they can also sometimes muddy our vision. Be an empiricist, measure what you can see, and be aware that a scientist is only as good as his method of observation.
How do you quantify your progress? Well, to put it simply, you assign numbers to the attributes and skills you want to improve. But it gets a bit more complicated then that. How do you think a weightlifter knows he is improving? Some days he wakes up and he feels energized, other times he wakes up and feels sore, but the weightlifter knows he is only as good as his performance – how much can he lift – there is no other reasonable way to measure the success of a weightlifter. He knows he is improving because he can lift X more weight than he could have the month before. That’s progress that has to be followed and documented in a journal or diary.
This example is very intuitive to most, but then people don’t follow how the lesson applies to all kinds of self-improvement, whether it is being social, studying habits, eating healthy, learning the guitar, how to throw a baseball, or any other skill. Everything can be translated into numbers – and as the old adage goes: numbers don’t lie.
With that understood, you can’t simply choose any kind of measurement, there is going to need to be some thought put into this beforehand! First ask yourself what exactly you want to improve. This may be something simple and direct such as “how fast I can throw a baseball” or it could be something more complicated and multi-dimensional such as “becoming a better pitcher” (which includes a variety of “subskills”, not just how fast you can throw). If you find yourself saying you want to be better at something, a quality, then it may take a bit of creativity in coming up with the most effective way to quantify your measurements. You may need to play around with your measuring “formula” or “equation” before finding something that maximizes your output. For example, becoming a better pitcher, there are a variety of things you may want to pay attention to: win/loss ratio, earned run average (ERA), innings pitched, etc. These are in-game statistics, but there are also things you can work on outside of the game: hours practiced a week. During practice you can break down your focus into more specific attributes: throw faster, throw more strikes (better accuracy), less hanging curveballs, less wild pitches. A professional pitcher also knows they need to watch videos of batters and come up with a pitching strategy for all the big hitters in the league. The more complicated the skill becomes, the harder it can be to measure it exactly, but there are always ways to apply numbers. A good pitcher may dedicate 3 hours a week toward watching footage. When an important game is coming up they can increase it to 5-6 hours.
You can always measure the time you spend doing an activity. In that sense, all self-improvement is quantifiable.
Once you have figured out the basics write them down somewhere. Figure out which subskills you want to work on, the best way to measure them, how often you will measure them. Then set goals. Where do you want to be in a week, month, year? Build a rough outline: I one time created a self-improvement program in Microsoft Excel that I stuck to for a full two years – with great success! On top of all your measurements, keep a diary and journal entry where you can let out the emotional side of your improving. Here you can discuss how you feel, what mental blocks may be holding you back, and your ideas for overcoming them. Having qualitative data can greatly improve the insights from your quantitative data.
Before I complete this segment, let me mention another great thing about numbers: they are very suggestive. Even if you never liked math, our minds love numbers. Numbers actually help to make our improvements feel more real. When we see that we can run an extra mile this week than we could the previous one – it is that much more satisfying. This knowledge can motivate us to go further, literally…to go that extra mile, that extra hour, that one less piece of cake, or one less cigarette. Numbers are a direct language to the subconscious mind, and they communicate very simple messages (are you improving or not improving?).
So the next time you are filling out your latest self-improvement log in your diary try to take out the yardstick and write down some numbers. Stay consistent, bring out your best scientist, and see the payoff.