Do you claim health is important to you–then skip the gym for 6 weeks? Do you believe being productive is important, but work only on the night before a deadline? Do you believe relationships are important, but let your social life stagnate? How do you close that gap between what you value and how you behave?
Blogging has helped me close that gap by forcing me to walk my talk. I’m far from perfect. Like everyone, I make mistakes and often fail to live up to the things I consider important. But writing has made it easier to stay consistent with those values instead of falling into excuses.
Progress, Not Perfection
Imperfections are part of life. I think it’s sad that some people feel that because being perfectly consistent with your values is impossible, that there is no point trying to debug the inconsistencies. Some self-improvement cynicism is the result of demanding the impossible, expecting perfection instead of progress.
My goal has been to notice gaps between my philosophy of life and my behaviors. I’m certainly nowhere near perfection, but even in just a few years of deliberately pursuing this strategy, I’ve made improvements. Here are a few of the inconsistencies I’ve debugged over the past few years:
- From Slob to Productive. Productivity and organization were important to me, but I was a messy, undisciplined procrastinator. Focusing on building the right habits and training myself has almost completely closed this gap.
- Unhealthy to Fit. My health and energy levels were important to me, but until a few years ago, I rarely exercised and didn’t have great eating habits. Fast forward to today and I eat a vegetarian diet while exercising regularly.
- Non-reader to Literary Glutton. I would have read less than a dozen books in 2002 or 2003. Over the last few years I’ve averaged about 50-70 books each year.
- Night Owl to Early Riser. After reading about the potential benefits of waking up early for productivity, I made the switch from waking up at 7:30-8:00 back to 5:30.
- Unconscious Spender to Budget Maker. After seeing how my finances weren’t being guided, I put in place a more thorough system for recording and budgeting my expenses.
- Occasional Downloader to Abstainer. I’m against downloading music (illegally). But laziness in this belief meant that music would sometimes wind up on my hard drive from less than reputable sources. I stopped adding new music to my library that wasn’t paid in full several months ago. Recently I took the final step of cleaning my harddrive and MP3 player of any remaining music.
- Shy to Extroverted. A few years ago my social life was nearly a zero. I had only a few close friends and wasn’t as outgoing as I’d like to be. Now I have many friends and enjoy being spontaneous in meeting new people.
I point out these changes because none were instantaneous. Even after I had decided my beliefs on an issue, it took work to change my behaviors. The moment I declared productivity important to myself, I was still a slob. It took a few years of effort to reach the point I’m at today.
From an outside perspective, however, nobody sees that effort. I still get comments from readers that assume I was somehow born productive, early-rising or health-conscious. They don’t see the failed attempts I had in implementing GTD, the days I slept right through my alarm or the four failed thirty day trials I went through before exercising stuck.
I need to take some of the blame for this, because I generally only write about my self-improvement efforts after the fact. Since self-improvement involves so many missteps and dead-ends, I don’t usually find it useful to write about something until I’ve made significant progress in it myself. You only have to look at the current ups and downs of my dating life to see why I don’t share too much advice on that yet.
How to Gradually Debug Your Inconsistencies
Unlike a computer program, your software can never have zero-defects. Instead, try to think of self-improvement as trying to reach 98% bug-free. You will inevitably fail to meet your values some of the time, but those errors won’t matter too much in the long run.
In order to effectively debug your inconsistencies, you need the right tools. There are many different strategies to debug, but I’d like to share a few tools that were “Aha!” moments for myself. These tools were the difference between using a scalpel and a blunt club for my own debugging:
- 30 Day Trials. Commit to an idea for thirty days, every day. If you mess up on Day 29, you go back to the start. This tool has been invaluable for me in changing many different habits. I’ve probably done over two dozen of these since I first heard of them from Steve Pavlina.
- Writing out Goals. A goal doesn’t matter unless it is on paper. This applies to simple goals like “Exercise tomorrow” as much as it applies to big goals like “Become a millionaire.” Before I started writing out my goals, it was only my emotional compass that would decide whether something would get done that day.
- Breaking Down Fears. If something terrifies you, chop it into pieces you can swallow. Public speaking was an area I took one speech at a time, taking on larger audiences and more difficult presentations. Training your courage like a muscle was a better strategy for me than relying on willpower.
I’m still finding new tools, but the fact that this list is small shows that self-improvement doesn’t need to be overly complicated. One good tool, if practiced, can debug a large range of problems.
Nobody can be perfect. But there is still immense value you can get from debugging those inconsistencies. Making the gap between your walk and your talk a little bit smaller.