The Core Principles of Self-Improvement.

Mark Cuban— billionaire businessman, Dallas Mavericks owner, and venture capitalist— was recently asked in an interview regarding contestants on his show, “Shark Tank” what's the number one reason people do not succeed in their entrepreneurial ventures. His answer? Not a “lack of brains” but “a lack of effort.”

Research has backed this up, showing that one of the strongest indicators of a person’s future success and well-being is their current level of grit, as in the ability to stick with a project despite setbacks and failures. The difference between failure and success is the difference between knowing what to do and doing it. There are many miserable and unaccomplished people that have a very good idea of exactly what would make them feel better yet take little or no action towards it. Has this ever been you? Is this you today?

Most of the time, highly successful people are not geniuses but simply willing to put in the daily work necessary to move from idea to action to reality So what practical information can science offer on motivating oneself into action on that nagging task that just never seems to get done? A lot. The power of inertia. Getting started is often the hardest part.

Like pushing a car, once you get it moving a little, it’s easy to keep it moving. The following task is known in professional psychology circles as “motivational interviewing” and is proven to help individuals move from concept to action.

How to do it:

1. Think of something that you have recently wanted to do but had trouble starting. Now in a few sentences, write down the answer to the following questions:   A) By not starting this, what are you missing losing? What is it costing you now and a year from now?   B) If you do start it, what could you gain? Now? A year from now?

Research has shown that the simple act of contemplating and writing the benefits of something makes you more likely to do it. In fact, a study of people who wanted to lose weight exemplifies the power of just thinking about a specific goal. Out of the group, half of the people only acknowledged wanting to lose weight while the other half did a cost/benefit analysis like the one above. Amazingly, five times more people lost weight in the second group than the first!

2. Next, you’re going to take a step, however small, towards doing it—right now! Identify one thing you can do in the next few minutes or hours to move you slightly closer to your goal. For example, if it's to find a better job, get online and spend 30 minutes browsing help wanted ads and save the top three or four. As we will explore in detail in the next section, big changes are easiest and still very effective when they begin with a small action.

3. After completing your first small step, write it down and check it off as proof that you are not an incapable and hopelessly lazy person but rather someone who is serious about getting what they want. People who track their past accomplishments feel high levels of motivation and are more likely to continue achieving their plans in the future.

4. Finally, commit yourself to a time and place when you will make your next small step. Write it down in contract form and sign it, so it looks like this:

“I _____________________________ promise to ______________________ on_______________ date at ___________O’Clock.


Do all of these exercises on the same sheet of paper and review it immediately before taking your next small step.When you come up against a task that you should do but have trouble doing, get into the habit of asking yourself the questions above: what will I gain by doing this and lose by not doing it? Then run through the 4-part sequence and enjoy the reward of getting things done!

Think Small

So you’ve decided to make changes and have set some new goals for yourself. How do you get from here to there is the next question. The best answer is found in the cliche yet true saying, “the journey of 1000 miles begins with one step." Magnificent accomplishments come from first making small changes; this concept is astonishingly potent. The power of small actions to generate huge changes is one of the big new concepts to come out of psychology research. The small changes will grow into increasingly larger ones, because just as an athlete must slowly warm up their body before a big competition, so must any person gradually warm up their brains to big new habits and lifestyles.

Small Steps Break Down Resistance

This technique is about easing our habits in the direction we want. Big sudden changes create resistance from within. They shock the system and make it scream for the good ol' days. Small, gradual changes break down resistance by sneaking a new habit into your routine. Want a real life example of how this psychology works in each of us without you even knowing? Researchers approached a neighborhood in Southern California and asked each homeowner if they would be willing to display a small sign that read “Be a safe driver” in their front window. Homeowners in another similar neighborhood were not asked to display the sign. Two weeks later the researchers approached both neighborhoods and asked if they could now place large billboards in each person’s front yard, and even showed example pictures to indicate just how huge the billboards were. Out of the people who had NOT been asked to display the small sign, only 17 percent agreed to display the obnoxiously large billboard. But how many of the other group were willing to do it? A whopping 76 percent! While one group found the big billboard too much to handle, the other didn't mind it after getting used to a similar but smaller sign.

Your mind is just like these neighborhoods--let it warm up to the small signs so it will accept the big billboards.How-to: Having defined your goals, now you must define your path to them.

  1. Write down one small thing that you’ll do for the next week to move you closer to your goal. If your goal is to lose weight, you might commit to exercising for 15 minutes every day or skipping dessert at night. The point is to make the change something that is easily accomplished. Sudden and massive changes sound nice, but their difficulty makes them unlikely to maintain, leading most people to give up early. Gradual change is comfortable and easy. In a week, you’ll have moved slightly closer to your goal and more importantly built up a small measure of confidence in your ability to make lasting improvements.

  2. For the second week, maintain the changes you set in week one, but add slightly more to them. If your goal was to spend more time with your family, maybe in week one you committed to reading a story to your kids before bed each night, and in week two you add having family dinners twice a week. This building process is applicable almost infinitely. As time goes on the benefits of the accumulated changes will become more noticeable, and your confidence in being able to maintain them will blossom.

Expect to struggle.

There will be times when you doubt and want to quite. That means you're on the right path, keep going! Most things worth having require some pain along the way. One of the greatest sins of the self-help industry is fostering the notion that change is always easy when you know how to do it. This can be true, but more often than not, significant change requires significant work. If you’re not willing to work much, don’t expect much result.

The Science of Struggle.

Experts have discovered that when people expect a task to be easy, they are less likely to achieve it. This is because as soon as they run into a difficulty, which is inevitable, they are unprepared to handle it. By telling yourself that “change is easy,” you’re establishing an expectation that is not grounded in reality and thus doomed to fail.

Think of your expectations like your immune system: the primary way our immune system stays strong is being exposed to the dirty reality which is our environment. This allows it to practice building defenses to the many weaker viruses and bacteria which live around us and thereby be prepared to defend us against the more serious attacks. Had you grown up in sterile clean rooms, stepping out into public would be a dangerously overwhelming shock to your system. Likewise, if you only expose your expectations to sterile notions of “easy,” “quick,” and “painless,” you will soon be overrun by reality and defeated by your unprepared mind.

The trick to achieving your dreams and desires is not finding the path of least resistance; rather it’s preparing for the realistic challenges which will meet you along the way you are meant to take. Scared yet? Take a breath--It’s not always going to feel like boot camp. There will be many quick and relatively easy techniques along the way, and they will deliver fast improvements to your quality of life, but some of the best techniques also require long-term commitment and endurance to carry you through, over, and around the natural obstacles of life. But with preparation, even these are completely manageable. I want to share with you the quality that many scientists believe is the best predictor of personal success. Can you guess what it is? It’s not intelligence; it’s not your ability to socialize well. It turns out that whether you test military cadets at Annapolis, students taking the SAT, or just about any other group, the best predictor of long-term success is Grit: the habit of persevering on your task, even when it is unpleasant and an ugly struggle.

Cultivating a gritty mentality will be one of the principal activities you need for lasting joy.

How to do it: Research indicates that just anticipating potential threats to your goals can make you more likely to achieve them. So that’s where we’ll start. If you don’t already have a medium to long-term goal in mind, this is an excellent opportunity to brainstorm. On a sheet of paper, write down whatever comes to mind as possible goals for positive changes you’d like to make for yourself.Next, we’re going to focus on one of those. Choose it now. Chances are, you've thought about this thing often. In your head, analytically walk yourself through the steps you’ll need to accomplish your goal. Break it into as many pieces as you can. The more, the better because that gives you small, concrete and specific actions to take.

Write down each step. For every step, identify at least one realistic obstacle that might arise, but more is better. These could be qualities within yourself, your environment, other people, timing, or anything else.

Congratulations! Just by completing this simple exercise, you’ve made yourself statistically more likely to achieve your goal! Kind of awesome, right? We’re going to take it one step further, though. Of the potential obstacles you identified, pick out the three which you consider most likely to occur and/or hinder your success.

For each of these, perform the following pattern:

  1. In your mind, walk through the obstacle occurring and your best response to it.

  2. Next, in real life, walk through the obstacle occurring and your response to it. Depending on your goal and obstacle, you may have different levels of ability to accurately reproduce it, but do your best. At the very least, act out the actions and words you would take in response to it. If you can employ props or other people for realism, all the better. The point here is to practice your response in a controlled environment that closely replicates the actual possible scenario.

Example: My goal is to maintain my patience and calm when my partner gets upset with me. A possible obstacle to this would be my desire to defend my ego. In response, when my partner starts getting upset, I will ask for a moment to myself, move to another room, and sit quietly while I tell myself “losing my cool will only make more stress."The conscious actions you take leading up to your desired actions can make or break your success.

If the modern study of psychology has revealed any trend, it is that each of us human beings is prone to illogical, poorly calculated, emotionally charged acts of irrationality when we least expect it. These are formally known as cognitive biases. One of the more common biases we each hold is the belief in the present moment that our future ability to resist temptation or act in line with our virtues will be as strong or stronger than it is now. When an alcoholic in the midst of a binge tells himself that “this is the last one. Tomorrow I will be done and stay done!” or "I don't feel like I need to drink, so I'll be fine just having one drink later," he is committing the bias of overestimating his future mental strength. You don't have to be an alcoholic to do this--just a human.

The truth is, tomorrow will not be different. If you had trouble resisting the bottle tonight, you will give in again tomorrow unless something changes. If you couldn’t find the motivation to go jogging this morning, why think you’ll be out there bright and early on the next? The desire to change does not automatically produce change.This is a very miserable truth of humanity, but fortunately, positive change is possible, though it often happens gradually. Like a new bowler who will slowly improve their technique, putting up the side bumpers to force the ball in the right direction is the best way to start. So here’s how you put bumpers on your habits:

  1. How to do it: anticipate your weaknesses and don’t give them a chance

  2. give a boost to the type of actions you desire to become habitual. If you drink too much and want to make tomorrow a fresh day of sobriety, drain every bottle of alcohol in the house and don’t even let yourself walk down that treacherous isle of the store. No matter how weak your will power, you just can’t get hammered if there’s no booze within reach. The lazy would-be jogger can put her running shoes and outfit next to her before she goes to sleep.

Better yet, put them on the other side of the room…right on top of your alarm clock which you have also just moved to force you to get out of bed when it goes off.The beauty of this practice is that it not only makes your desired habit more likely to occur but also easier to do.

Instead of having a mental battle within your skull between the good angel and the bad angel every time you need to do something healthy, take the chance ahead of time to hog-tie the evil angel and give the good angel a cup of coffee.To use this step, you must have the maturity to admit to yourself that you are sometimes weak against temptation, but after you recognize this you’ll have the clarity to stack the odds in your favor.Here are some commonly used “bumpers” that work very well.

Use them, but make some of your own too:

  • Eliminate the temptation from your house. At the very least, only buy small quantities.

  • Substitute your naughty craving with something healthy. When you feel like smoking, call a friend instead or listen to a good song.

  • Place things that remind you of your new activity in strategic locations. Make it impossible not to notice what you should be doing.

  • Involve other people. If you and a friend both pledge to go jogging together each morning, it’ll be much harder to cheat.

Making Your Own Bumpers In establishing your own bumpers, answer the following questions:

  1. What events, thoughts, or actions leading up to the performance of my desired habit might be making it harder to achieve? How can I minimize these?

  2. How can I make my desired habit more visible to myself?

  3. It will be easier to stick to my habit if I first___________________________________

Change doesn't have to be agonizing if you use the core principles to your advantage. You don't have to be a titan of willpower or a Buddhist monk to control your mind and your life, just show up, do the work, and the results will follow.

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