Friday, January 3, 2014

Self-improvement and Micro-transactions

Have you ever tried to improve yourself? Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution or maybe you discovered an aspect of your life that needed fixing. Either way, you decided it was time for a change.

How did it go? Were you able to stick to it and better yourself or did your commitment waver?

If you gave up, don't worry: you’re in good company. Turns out, most people suck at sticking to their resolutions. Which begs the question: why is self-improvement such a struggle? Why do distractions and excuses inevitably steer us away from the path leading to our better self? Do we lack discipline? Are we lazy? Is it true that people simply cannot change?

In The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield describes a force which "obstructs movement from a lower sphere to a higher." According to Pressfield, this force "kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a high station morally, ethically, or spiritually."

A nice overview of Pressfield's book, for anyone interested

Pressfield calls this force Resistance and while his book is aimed largely at the plight of the artist, its principles apply equally to the pursuit of self-improvement. When we try to evolve, to grow, to become better people, Resistance rises to meet us. But where does it come from?

"Resistance is not a peripheral opponent," Pressfield says. "Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within."

Resistance employs many tricks when derailing our plans for self-improvement but there is one in particular which I find fascinating: "Resistance gets us to plunge into a project with an overambitious and unrealistic timetable for its completion.”

By pushing us to go overboard, to go from nothing to everything at a moment's notice, Resistance is setting us up to fail. It knows that abrupt and radical changes are unsustainable so it convinces us that there is no other way to change. It scoffs at moderation, tells us we need to do more, faster, and harder,  or else

Don’t listen to Resistance. Change can't be enacted in broad strokes; it must be assimilated piecemeal, little by little.

Self-improvement is a transaction: you invest time, resources, and effort in order to enact change. The bigger the change, the bigger the investment required; the bigger the investment, the harder it is to sustain over a long period of time. 

Instead of setting lofty goals for yourself, start small. 

Think micro-transactions.

Whatever your goal—to lose 20 pounds, quit cigarettes, learn to control your temper—break it down into a series of small, manageable goals and spread them out over a long period of time.

Be patient. You don't have to lose 20 pounds or quit smoking or master your temper right away; in fact, if you try to rush it, you’ll probably fail.

Enacting positive changes in oneself requires planning, effort, and repetition. It requires time and patience. It also requires a rational mind.

For example: don't start a new diet after a month of holiday gluttony; instead, start by improving one facet of your diet. Don't buy a gym membership if you haven't worked out for a year: instead, start with brisk walks or light jogging. 

Ease yourself into change.

By setting realistic goals, you increase your likelihood of success. By making small changes to your life, you trick yourself into thinking you're not changing anything at all. Self-improvement stops feeling like work. Focus on one simple goal at a time; once you crush it, set another goal in your sights and crush that one too.

Self-improvement feeds on itself. The more you improve yourself, the easier it becomes to improve yourself. The little changes add up. They creep up on you. You go months without noticing any change at all; then you step on the scale and can't believe the number. You realize you haven’t lost your temper in weeks. You can't remember the last time you felt stressed or down in the dumps.

Warning: micro-transactions are slow to yield results initially so it's crucial that you acknowledge your progress, not matter how minor. You have to pay attention and give yourself props anytime you notice a change, no matter how small. Otherwise you'll get discouraged and Resistance will start whispering in your ear again. 

Lost a pound? Be proud of yourself.  Smoking one pack a week instead of two? Celebrate. Seriously. Acknowledging success fuels your motivation. These little victories are a preview of things to come. They're street signs pointing you in the right direction. 

And remember: if you fail, don't dwell on it or let it get you down. The only true failure in life is not learning from your failures. Find the lesson hidden in your setback, adjust, and get back on that horse.

/rant over

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