Realizing Your Ideals with Constant, Incremental Improvements

We all have ideals of how we should spend our days, but few of us live up to those ideals. For example, if you’re anything like me, you probably want to wake up early, work with intense focus, meditate, exercise, cook a healthy meal, work on those personal projects you’ve been putting off for weeks (painting, learning an instrument, speaking a new language, etc.), and end each day with ample time for guilt-free play.

In practice, however, we often fall short of realizing this ideal day. Left unchecked, here’s what a typical day might look like for many of us with lofty ambitions and flexible schedules (e.g., grad students, entrepreneurs, authors): We hit the snooze button as many times as we can afford before waking up and starting the day in a frenzied anxiety. This anxiety leads us to succumb to unhealthy micro-distractions while we work: e.g., checking social media, snacking or grabbing an Nth cup of coffee. In turn, these distractions lead to guilt, which leads to even more anxiety. Soon, it’s mid-afternoon and we feel that we need to make up for our anxiety-driven inefficiency by putting in more anxiety-driven work hours. Then it’s 10pm and we’re too exhausted and disgusted with ourselves to think about doing anything else “productive”. So, we binge watch our favorite shows or YouTube videos and stay up as late as our conscience will allow.

Getting from a typical day to the ideal day seems like a pipe dream. What’s holding us back? My suspicion is that it’s at least two things.

First, change is overwhelming. There are too many things to alter to get from the present state to the ideal state and we don’t know where to start. On top of that, we already feel like we’re at our limit: How can we add any other responsibilities to our day? Furthermore, we are creatures of habit [1], and breaking bad habits requires full commitment. So, we avoid change and hope that one day we will find enough reprieve to completely overhaul our lives.

Second, when we finally do decide to make changes, we overcommit and set ourselves up for failure. We make goals for ourselves that are often too difficult to reach and leave ourselves no room for failure or improvement. For example, when we finally work up the motivation  to exercise, we resolve to exercise for an hour 5 days a week — quite a challenge, when we’re used to exercising for 0 hours, 0 days a week. Then, if we fail to reach those goals, we get discouraged and think the problem is with us. So, we avoid trying again.

An astute reader will notice that these two points are interrelated. We think that change must be drastic, which, in turn, leads to the belief that change is overwhelming. So, what can we do? First, it is important to work with your psyche. You’re making the rules for yourself, so why set yourself up for failure? Rig the game so that it’s impossible for you to lose.

In other words, realize that change does not need to be drastic: It can start as the tiniest trickle and, through constant improvement, grow into a flood [2]. So, instead of resolving to exercise for one hour 5 days a week, we might start by resolving to exercise for 1 minute every day. In practice, we’ll do a lot more than that, of course. But if it’s raining one day, or you have a big deadline, and you just cannot spare the time or energy to go the gym, you can still win by doing a few pushups and jumping jacks.

Before long, a week will have passed and you will have exercised every single day (even if only for a minute). And it will feel great. You’ll think to yourself: “That was easy! I can even do this for 5 minutes every day.” Then, maybe 10 minutes. In a few months, you might indeed get to the one hour a day, 5 days a week that you have always wanted. Or, maybe you will realize that you do not need to exercise that much to be happy. Either way, you will have realized your ideal and you will feel better about yourself.

Once you have adopted a mindset of making progressive, incremental improvements, change becomes much easier. It is all a matter of making a decision to change and following through.

In a follow up post, I’m will share my exact strategy [3] for adopting this mindset into my own life. Using this strategy, in just the past 2 weeks I have: started waking up at 6 am, created this blog, started developing an iOS application I have been meaning to develop for months, practiced transcendental meditation for 10-15 minutes every day, practiced Japanese for 10-15 minutes everyday, kept my room clean, cooked several healthy meals, exercised for 30-45 minutes 5 times each week, upheld an 18/6 intermittent fasting regimen, wrote the first two-thirds (~50 edited pages) of my thesis proposal, and made steady progress on four different research projects.

All that said, I want to conclude by emphasizing that I’m not here to suggest that you should be more productive. In fact, I feel that the need for ever-increasing productivity is dangerous [4]. I only want to share my experiences in personal development. I hope the strategies I introduce in this blog will help you realize your ideals, but you should also periodically reflect on those ideals to decide if they are what you really want.

If you have any of your own strategies for personal development that you would like to share, please do so. I am always curious to know how others pursue success.


[1] I hope to eventually write a more comprehensive post about habits. Much of what I’ve learned comes from personal development blogs and reading Charles Duhigg’s, The Power of Habit, which I highly recommend.

[2] In his book, The Motivation Hacker, Nick Winter talks about “success spirals”: Goals that start so small they are effectively impossible to fail, which in turn builds confidence and habitual routines, and can then grow into progressively larger and larger goals. This concept is incredibly powerful, and has helped me a lot in my own personal development.

[3] Originally, I was just going to share my strategy on this post. But this post is already way too long.

[4] Think about what weight training to failure all day, every day would do to your body. Why do we think the pushing ourselves to be productive all day, every day would be any better for our minds?

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