Tell me if this sounds familiar:
You read a new book, start a new course, or set a New Year’s resolution. You get excited and motivated to grow, sure that your new lifestyle will stick this time.
And then a few weeks later, you lose your steam. You just can’t generate the same level of excitement you started with.
The truth is, the people who experience radical growth over their lives are not the ones who hyper-charge their motivation when they start something new. They are the ones who gradually build their capacity for continuous personal growth so they can iteratively get 1% better.
Kaizen is a Japanese term often used in business, meaning continuous change for the better – an ongoing endeavor for incremental improvement. This concept can be applied to the mind just as easily.
There are a number of techniques for increasing your capacity to grow throughout your life, and these are some of the most worthwhile investments you can make.
1. Design Your Environment
One thing you can do now that will keep working for you continuously (no willpower required) is to alter your environment.
Look around at how your living space is arranged. What behaviors does it promote and what does it neglect or discourage? Would you say the physical space you spend your time in is representative of the person you would like to be? Your digital environments shape you as well.
The websites you visit regularly, the podcasts you subscribe to, and the apps you keep on your phone will shape you. If you want to be less distracted, disable the notifications and unsubscribe from the email newsletters that you don’t feel push you in the direction of your ideals, and consider subscribing to those that do.
Another crucial way to design yourself through your environment is by surrounding yourself with people who have priorities, traits, or practices you would like to cultivate in yourself.
Statistically, the more overweight people in your social circles, the more likely you are to become overweight. So if you want to become more fit, you’ll be swimming against the current if you haven’t embedded yourself in active environments or built connections with people who prioritize fitness.
The character traits of the people around you will rub off on you as well, so people who are honest, narcissistic, altruistic, or manipulative will gradually shape you in the direction of those traits. So the act of designing your environment is literally the act of designing yourself.
2. Study Your Biases
If you are like most people, you look around and see others who are confused, dogmatic, and irrational. You, on the other hand, have mostly found the correct beliefs and learned to think clearly. If everyone else would just listen to you, the world would be a much better place.
But the truth is that we are all deeply biased and have blind spots that prevent us from seeing our own thinking errors.
The tricky thing about cognitive biases is that one little distortion in your thinking won’t just cause you to make a single mistake. It will continue to cause mistakes for the rest of your life – unless you can find it and program it out.
If you want to overcome self-limiting biases, the first and most obvious step is to familiarize yourself with the most common biases found across the human race. Here are some examples:
Confirmation bias is responsible for the fact that we tend to look only for information that confirms our existing theories, beliefs, and worldview at the expense of those that conflict with them.
The bandwagon effect refers to our tendency to come to conclusions and make decisions based on what is popular, though we often find ways to rationalize these decisions to ourselves.
The fundamental attribution error causes us to attribute our own positive behaviors and successes to our individual character while blaming our negative behaviors and failures, and the successes of others, on luck and circumstance.
These are just a few examples of biases – you can find a more exhaustive list here, and a nice diagram here. Biases can be stubborn, but if you can learn to identify and remove a particular bias, the quality of your decisions will be improved throughout your life.
3. Practice Asceticism
Over the course of our lives, we develop dependencies that could be compared to addictions. We start to need a glass of wine to relax after work, need our Tempur-Pedic bed to get to sleep, or need a six-figure income to be content in our lives.
You will not have time for continuous personal growth if your life is dominated by trying to satisfy your elaborate requirements.
Weird as it may seem, we often learn about ourselves by observing our own behaviors, so if all of our behaviors suggest to us that money, for example, is the highest good, we very well may start to believe it.
To counter the effect of acquired dependencies, we can use the practice of asceticism, or voluntary discomfort, to intentionally deprive ourselves of some desired and attainable object.
The practice has been used by some to serve as self-punishment, which has led some to quickly write it off. But the useful purpose of asceticism is to decrease our ongoing desires and bring contentment into closer reach.
Simply choose something on which you feel you are overly reliant, and intentionally limit or sacrifice that desire. If you find yourself unable to endure basic economy flights, enjoy camping trips, or are unhappy whenever the thermostat is not set to the perfect temperature, you have become overly-reliant on comfort. Counter this dependency by sleeping on the floor for a night or walking barefoot on a gravel road.
If it is pleasure you crave, you can temporarily deprive yourself of food (fasting), sex, or a drug to down-regulate the desire. Minor acts of social sacrifice, such as neglecting an opportunity to signal something positive about yourself, can decrease your desire for status, approval, and validation. And giving away all but the most necessary possessions in the spirit of minimalism can down-regulate the innate desire to accumulate and horde.
Would anyone who thought pleasure was the ultimate good deliberately put herself in an uncomfortable position? Would anyone who thought social status were the highest good neglect his social media accounts? Would anyone who thought money were the highest good turn down, or even give away, a large sum of money? You teach yourself what is important to you through your behaviors, so behave wisely.
For every type of perpetual desire you are able to remove, you remove complication from your life. If you can snip out these burdensome lifestyle addictions, you can make room in your life for growth.
4. Design Your Consequences
Every time you take an action, there is a consequence that gives your brain some kind of reward or punishment.
It may seem strange to suggest we can “design” the consequences of our actions, but there are many ways to ensure that the right behaviors are reinforced and the wrong ones are discouraged. And putting these consequences in place will take away the need to be motivated all the time to achieve your goals.
You can leverage your desire for money by making the commitment to give money to your friend every day you fail to practice an instrument you want to learn. Simply make a deposit to a trusted friend that you can only get back if you meet your specific behavioral goal. This way, the consequence for slacking off will be a financial loss, making it harder to justify.
By publicly announcing the behavioral changes you intend to make, you can use your social drives to raise the stakes of failure. By getting a personal trainer or workout partner, you can add accountability to your habits and make it so that failing to go to the gym may cause you to face the judgment of others.
As I write this, I’m using an online tool called Focusmate which calls itself a virtual coworking tool. It sets up roughly hour long video sessions between strangers trying to accomplish their own goals, and asks each person to work silently, only sharing their goal at the beginning and how well they did at the end. It’s a surprisingly powerful productivity tool, and it works because it stacks consequences of social approval or disapproval onto our personal goals.
A method known as temptation bundling allows us to stack enjoyable activities onto our defined goals. Whether you love fantasy football, bubble baths, or dressing up like a pirate, you can structure your plans so you only allow yourself to do these things after completing a particular disciplined activity. This will slowly cause you to associate the positive behavior with the indulgence until you begin to crave the positive activity itself.
One of the most interesting ways to take advantage of your reward system is by creating a token economy. Create some kind of token, be it a poker chip, a paper clip, or a check mark in your notebook. Assign a particular value to the token, and give yourself one immediately every time you perform a predetermined action. You can say that a token equals a coffee, a concert, or one episode of your favorite streaming show. Over time, the token will become so closely associated with the reward that it will serve as a powerful reward itself.
Make it so the path to growth is also the path of least resistance, and you will never burn out on your goals again.
5. Log Your Thoughts and Emotions
Bad emotional habits are just like biases – they will be continually triggered throughout your life if you don’t find ways to program them out. According to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the most effective therapeutic method ever devised, negative emotions are caused by automatic and distorted thoughts. So if we can notice and correct our flawed thinking, we can remove problematic emotions.
One of the most effective methods for removing these bad emotional patterns is to keep a log in the form of a notepad or a smartphone app. Try to take a note of every unwanted emotion you notice – anything from minor annoyance to severe anxiety. Every time you log an emotion, take a note of the situation which triggered it, and if possible, the chain of thoughts which came immediately before it.
The simple act of keeping a log should cause you to notice many more of these emotions and patterns than you normally would. You will find that certain lines of reasoning dominate your emotional experience. You may find that a certain kind of mistaken reasoning is responsible for a huge percentage of your daily struggles.
Once you find a potentially distorted belief at the root of your emotions, you can investigate how accurate it really is. Positive psychology researcher Courtney Ackerman offers some basic questions to ask:
Is this thought realistic?
Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?
What is the evidence for this thought?
Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?
Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when it’s really more complicated?
Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
If you can correct the mistaken reasoning, you can permanently reprogram the undesired emotion.
By learning to quickly recognize and refute your emotional distortions, you can build the habit of short-circuiting this tendency automatically, programming it out for good. Then you are free to focus your efforts on setting new goals and taking action.
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Featured photo credit: Nana Kim via unsplash.com