Is Continuous Self-improvement a Skill that Can Be Learned?
Yes and no.
No, because it’s not a skill. You cannot say that being a great doctor or a great basketball player is a skill. It’s a whole skillset that makes a person a doctor or player. There are many skills that mesh into being a person who continuously grows.
It’s not a habit as well, at least not in the literal sense of this word. It’s not a single activity that you repeat over and over again. But in the broad term, yes, it’s a habit, “a settled or regular tendency or practice; a usual way of behaving.” However, if we pick this meaning, it comes back to being someone who is dedicated to self-improvement.
And yes, you can learn that, because becoming someone is learning, isn’t it? No one was born a great doctor, pilot or a basketball player. Also, cultivating specific habits isbecoming. According to the word’s etymology, your habits denote who you are.
So, the best way to learn continuous self-improvement is to cultivate appropriate habits.
I. Habits of the Mind.
Who you become is more about your attitude than your action. You wouldn’t have let an overwhelming majority of first-year medicine students to make a surgery of your kid, would you? But in five years or so, this young man or woman will become a highly skilled surgeon… if they have the appropriate mindset that will push them through their studies.
At the beginning, we are all newbies and we fail often. But if you have the proper attitude, you will not stay failed.
Several habits that directly or indirectly help with keeping your mind on the course of self-improvement are:
- Cultivating vision.
You won’t become someone else on a whim, there has to be a deeper purpose in your quest or you will not persevere.
I repeat my personal mission statement every day. I was on a progress fair in September, an event dedicated to personal development. I spoke with several coaches, authors, and entrepreneurs who had a stand. Every single one of them had their own mission statement.
Ask around, ask your workmates, neighbors, and family if they have their mission statement. I bet the ratio of people knowing their mission will be much lower among your peers (if it’s above zero, it’s already decent).
There are other ways of cultivating vision. Every day I read a few sentences from three books that shaped my personal philosophy, skim through about 100 quotes that helped in solidifying my worldview and look at my vision board.
The exact method is secondary. The must-have is to regularly refer to your vision of continued growth.
There is a zillion of benefits of meditation. You can focus better, your health is better and so on. But I consider the foremost advantage of meditation that you become more self-aware.
It’s so hard to get a grip on what’s going in your mind for normal Westerners (and with the globalization of the culture we all slowly became Westerners). Meditation deals with that. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and try not to think. Good luck.
Because you focus on nothing else and your thoughts emerge spontaneously, you cannot help but notice them. At last. It may be the first time that you are conscious of how they arise. Such self-knowledge is necessary if you want to improve, otherwise your subconscious beliefs and habits can torpedo all your good intentions.
It is like a mix of cultivating the vision (purpose) and meditation (self-awareness) with a divine element. A great mix, if you ask me.
II. Habits of the Body.
You need to be in a decent shape to improve continuously. It doesn’t mean you have to be 100% healthy. Some great people in the history were crippled in a way or another (e.g. Maya Angelou, Hellen Keller). It’s simply so much easier to grow when your body doesn’t hamper your progress.
- Sleep well.
Only about 2% of the population have genes that allow them to function optimally with 6 and less hours of sleep a day. The rest of us need more.
Sleep needs are individual. Doctors say we should sleep 8 hours a day. Scientists found that in primitive cultures, where people don’t screw with their daily rhythms with artificial light, humans sleep 6.5-7.3 hours on average. Keep in mind that those folks also suffer much less stress than urban dwellers, live in an unpolluted environment and don’t eat processed foods. They also get a healthy dose of physical activities.
In modern culture, our minds and bodies experience much more of those negative factors and get too little the positive ones. Thus, we need more sleep to absorb all the ‘damage’ of our lifestyle.
- Eat well.
Almost all diets are BS. One rule is true in every diet: don’t eat processed food. Of course, it’s close to impossible nowadays, but you should aim to minimize processed foods in your diet to the bare minimum.
Which foods are processed? Generally, those that weren’t alive a couple of days ago, or if they were processed, it was done by natural means. E.g. grain or groats that were dried.
- Move well.
Sitting is a new smoking. I know best by myself. I sit almost every day over 10 hours a day.
Walking is a natural physical activity for humans and we don’t do that enough. Smuggle short and intensive exercises into your day. I do that with pushups, dips, and pull-ups. Move, move, move. Being a potato coach may not be a shortcut to death, but surely it’s a shortcut to low-quality life a few decades down the road.
Physical activity is connected with creativity. Almost every artist and entrepreneur admit that they got the best ideas while running, walking or working out.
III. Habits Mastery.
The fastest way to become dedicated to personal development is to create new habits, like the ones I instanced above. The fastest and most reliable way to develop a habit is to keep tracking of it, especially at the initial stage. Good habits don’t develop on their own, you need to put some conscious effort into it.
- Don’t break the streak.
This is the basic level of habit tracking applicable practically for every habit. Whether you want to exercise, eat more vegetables, write 400 words a day, speak to a stranger or do a random act of kindness, you should have in place a practice of checking on yourself at the end of the day if you have done what you resolved for, or not.
It’s a powerful motivational technique. If you do something once and notice it, it’s not a big deal. But if you continue the next day and keep a record, that’s another story. You start to be attached to the outcome. If you build a streak of several days with your new habit, you will be more likely to continue. And each day you make the streak longer and your motivation grows too.
- Keep a log.
This adds another level to your tracking. It’s not necessary nor wise to keep such a log for every habit you want to develop, because it puts an additional workload on your shoulders.
Keeping a log not only tells you if you have done your discipline but also how you’ve done it. It provides motivation, but also information.
I keep a writing log. Writing is an important part of my life and I want to keep sure I’m on track with this habit. In my writing log, I note down the length and topic of each of my writing sessions.
Thanks to this log I can tell my writing speed. I can also tell that since I started it in September 2013 my writing speed almost doubled and I write as fast in Polish and in English. Those data would’ve been unattainable for me if I haven’t kept the log.
The rule of thumb is that your tracking cannot hamper your habit development. Keep it stupid simple!
If you exercise every day in your home gym, keep a wall calendar there and mark on it each day when you completed your workout. If you track your expenses, keep a pocket notepad with you and write down each purchase as soon as you make it. If you track your calories, have a Fitness Pal app on your mobile and put your entries right after a meal.
Tracking and doing your habit cannot be separated in time and space or it won’t work. Also, it must fit your lifestyle. Mingle your habit in your tracking into one activity. If you don’t have a smartphone, you obviously cannot have a Fitness Pal app on your mobile.
Keep it simple, don’t complicate and you will develop your habit faster and it will be more solid.
Continuous self-improvement is not a skill, it’s a lifestyle, it’s who you are. If you want to modify who you are, modify your habits.
Your attitude is more important than any other aspect, but you shouldn’t neglect your body. Your body is your support system. Without good shape and health, your growth is hanging on a thin thread instead of being reliably supported.
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