Take a good look at your life. What do you see? I hope love, happiness, and fulfillment. But chances are that you’ll also see things you are unhappy about. Potentially, in more than one area of your life.
You can improve your life
Do you see room to improve your life? I know for sure that I have lots of room for improvement. It’s not that my life is bad. It’s that it is within my power to change several elements I find lacking.
You can’t change, or even improve, everything. So my focus has been on continually becoming more until a better version of myself emerges. One that can handle what I can’t change, while diligently working towards what I can.
The question is how do you go about sorting yourself? A few months ago I put nine steps to improve myself and my life into practice.
I can already see serious improvements. Some are measurable improvements, while others are harder to quantify, but they feel just as real.
Life is a hill. You can either move forward, with effort, or fall backward. These steps are leading me in the right direction towards the peak of my mountain. It might not be the tallest mountain, but it’s my mountain to climb. Progress against my previous self is all I can ever ask for.
The approach I outline here may or may not work for you, but it’s worth considering. This is an initial lay of the land. Over time, I will expand on each of these points in its own post, and link to each of them from here as I publish them. If interested, subscribe to avoid missing them.
Step 1: Identify what is lacking in the nine key areas of life
As cliche as it may sound, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that you have one. If you want to improve your life, you first must identify what’s wrong with it.
Take a 360 panoramic x-ray of your life and write down things you don’t like in various dimensions of your life. Problems that, if solved, would improve your life. For example, my weight is something I’m not happy about, and it falls under the Health dimension of my life.
The nine common dimensions are:
- Health (including mental health)
- Spirituality (even if you are not religious)
If these dimensions don’t resonate with you, feel free to adapt them by removing and adding as it pertains to your own life.
Don’t focus on the professional sphere and money alone. It’s easy to overlook dimensions, like relationship based ones, that affect our happiness and well-being.
In fact, don’t underestimate the importance of leisure either. “I love traveling, but never get a chance to do it”, could be a legitimate source of dissatisfaction in one’s life.
Spend some time thinking about this exercise. Write “lacks” down under each dimension, as they come to mind.
At this stage, don’t concern yourself too much on whether it’s realistic to change them. If they make you unhappy, write them down.
Step 2: Set one or two goals for each important area of your life
Now that you know what makes you unhappy, it’s time to create some goals to address them.
Can you do something about them? Improve the situation somehow? You may discover that you genuinely can’t solve some of these problems. That’s OK. Focus on creating goals for the inadequacies in your life that can be addressed.
In a way, goals are overrated, at least when compared to the system of actions you’ll adopt to achieve them. But they play a necessary function, as they act as a compass that directs your limited time and energy.
When possible err on the side of creating goals that are SMART. That is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
For example, in step 1 under the Health dimension, I wrote that I’m unhappy about my weight. A SMART goal to address this current deficiency in my being would be: Weigh 175 lbs by my 40th birthday.
It’s specific. It’s measurable as I can step on the scale to verify it. It’s achievable based on the amount of weight I need to lose in the given time frame. It’s relevant to my desire to become healthier, live longer, and become the best version of myself I can be. And it’s time-bound, as I’m not saying I want to weigh 175 lbs eventually, someday. I set a specific date.
Assigning a deadline to your short to medium term goals is important, or they can easily become mere wishes.
Write these goals down, don’t keep them in your head. In fact, place them somewhere visible (whether physically or digitally).
Step 3: Under each goal, write your WHY
Write a small paragraph under each goal you defined in step 2, to express WHY you want to accomplish each goal. It’s perfectly natural for this why to include the pain point or lack you identified in step 1.
Ask yourself, how will achieving this goal affect my life, the lives of those you love, your community, or even the world at large? And how will missing the mark continue to make my life worse?
Why we do things is much more important than how. The old adage, where there is a will, there’s a way, is right on the money. If your why is strong, you’ll figure out the how.
Formalizing your why in writing and coming back to it later can be a powerful reminder whenever you feel weak or ready to give up.
Step 4: Define a list of actions that you need to take
The collection of actions you take to achieve your goals is your system. The most important part of the equation. So, for each goal, define a list of actions that could help you achieve that goal.
Do a brain dump here, and feel free to add anything that comes to mind that might be helpful.
For the weight loss goal I outlined above, one-off actions would be buying a reliable bathroom scale to weigh myself, a kitchen scale to count calories more accurately, a measuring tape for body measurements, a book of healthy recipes, etc.
Routine actions would be logging the food I eat (daily), ensuring I’m below my caloric and carbohydrate target (daily), taking my vitamins (daily), exercising for one hour (every workday), weigh myself (weekly), taking measurements (monthly), buying protein powder (bimonthly), and so on.
You’ll have plenty of one-off items on that list, but pay particular attention to the recurring tasks. The tasks you do daily and weekly.Actions repeated daily, either positive or negative ones, compound quickly. These habits will move you towards your goals and shape who you’ll become as a person.
Remember, your success depends on you becoming more.
Step 5: Assign priorities to these tasks
Now that you have an extensive list in your TODO list program (or physical notebook), you must understand that your aim is not to do everything on it.
If you went to town with the brainstorming phase in step 4, it will be virtually impossible for you to do everything on the list.
Your goal is to have these actions dumped out of your brain, which is great at processing information, but not at storing it indefinitely. Effective, successful people prioritize ruthlessly when allocating how they spend their time.
So your next step is to assign priorities to the tasks you defined.
I like to use three levels of priorities:
- Must do
- Should do
- Nice to do
Depending on the software you’re using, you might simply use high priority, medium priority, and low priority, respectively.
Must do actions are those that will have a big impact on your future. They are big seeds you plant in the garden of your life. Tasks that offer a significant contribution towards the given goal you’ve defined or which have serious consequences if they’re not completed.
Should do actions have similar outcomes but to a much lesser extent. So while there are consequences if they’re ignored, these ramifications are not apt to be life-altering or goal derailing. You won’t gain weight, lose your job, or let your best friend down over failing to complete them.
Nice to do actions are those with little impact and virtually no consequences. Most actions in people’s TODO lists tend to be of the should do and nice to do kind when examined closely.
Nice to do actions can be deleted or you can keep them on the list. Just don’t feel bad if you never get around to executing them. They won’t improve your life much anyway.
Step 6: Plan your day ahead
For each day, either the night before (ideally) or the morning of, select items from your list which are due today, or are highly important, and assign them to your TODO for the day.
In practice, this day plan should mostly have scheduled appointments, urgent tasks (of various degree of importance) that can’t be delegated, and must do actions.
If you’re consistent, focusing on important tasks before they reach the point of becoming urgent will lead to far fewer urgent tasks down the road. You end up having a proactive life rather than a reactive one in which you are firefighting emerging crises right, left and center (this prioritization approach was an Ike Eisenhower favorite).
Optionally, have a weekly list as well (as a software developer, I call them Sprints to borrow from the SCRUM methodology nomenclature). Each day you can then select tasks from the shorter weekly list, rather than your entire huge TODO list.
Either way, within a given week, you should pull in some must do items from each goal, so as to make progress in each area every week.
Step 7: Take action on your plan for the day
It’s time to execute.
Focus on nothing else until urgent and must do actions have been completed.
I would take a page from Brian Tracy’s Eat that Frog! and give your most important tasks your full attention first. Include reserving the most productive time of your day to them (whenever that is, for many people it’s during the morning hours, but there are night owls out there).
Don’t touch should do and nice to do items that might be on our daily plan until all urgent and must do items have been executed. Stephen Covey of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has a great analogy for this concept, as shown quite practically in this video.
Schedule blocks of time in your calendar to work on tasks. To keep overhead low, you don’t even need to assign specific tasks to your calendar. Just reserve 1-hour blocks for specific dimensions (e.g., Health, Friends, etc) and then use that time to execute the relevant tasks on your daily plan.
If you have the authority to do so, schedule less important actions (e.g., appointments and certain meetings) during less productive slots of your day.
Step 8: Review your system weekly
Each week, review your goals, WHY paragraphs, and the backlog of actions in your TODO list.
Take a moment to look back at what you accomplished during the week. Clean up tasks that are no longer relevant or for which you’ve changed your mind.We live much of our lives in an almost automated unconscious state. It’s important to introspect a little and gain insight into how we are doing, by sitting down to review our progress.
Each week, I like to write down what I accomplished and what I could have done better, for each of my current goals in a beautiful physical notebook.
There is something to be said about slowing down the process by writing down your accomplishments with pen and paper. It’s almost a sacred ritual. (I keep a daily journal through digital means, however.)
Use whatever works best for you, as long as you take a moment to appreciate all the hard work you put in and reflect on what could be done better next week.
As you make progress on your goals, you might begin to adjust some of the tasks and routines. This weekly review is a good time to make such changes.
I also use this time to prepare my sprint, my weekly list of items I’d like to tackle the next week. I usually have some leftovers from the previous week, but I always add more tasks on top of them.
Step 9: Trust the process
Execute the plan. Have faith that if you follow the plan to the letter, you will succeed.
You’re taking personal responsibility. You defined a clear system of actions to achieve clear goals that are directly associated with pain points or deficiencies in your life. Don’t waste your time second-guessing yourself. If you stick with it, you will improve your life.
Don’t overthink it. Execute the plan. Just do it.
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