This year I made better-than-usual progress in developing into the person I think I ought to be. I cultivated strong exercise and meditation habits, donated 10% of my income, met my savings goals, curbed sugar and alcohol consumption, blogged regularly, and lost 10 pounds. While this increased progress was enabled by having a stable, repetitive daily life as my canvas, there were several key changes in how I thought about personal development that were also instrumental:
Pursue goals methodically
This year I decided that I am an effective adult capable of achieving desires if I pursue them in a methodical, scientific method. That is, I would create hypotheses, try them out, and reflect on the results. This was a helpful perspective to take because it allowed me to let go of past baggage—e.g., “Oh I’ve tried meditation before, but it never sticks”—and see that I had not yet trialed all the possibilities. Obviously I was missing some strategy or insight that was keeping me from achieving my goal, so I must pursue and discover that missing piece. Had I tried every different meditation technique? Maybe one would work for me better than the others and thus motivate me to stick with the habit. Having many past failures made me believe I was closer to solving the problem, not more likely to fail again.
The key to goal achievement is daily action
Before I was frustrated by desiring a goal but only having brief moments of inspiration when I pursued it. This year I instead let these brief moments of inspiration act as beacons to guide my daily action. Now if I have a moment of inspiration about doing something, I put a daily activity related to it in my habits app so I can monitor if my daily actions are leading to the goal or not.
Pursue “forever habits”
I reflected more on this here, but basically I adopted a long-term approach to habit development, realizing there are recurring, permanent themes around what I think I should do, so I should just hack away at making these practices habits. Again, this hacking away takes doing experiments to figure out what works. I always want to limit my alcohol consumption, but I am not sure what is the best habit to apply. Should I stop drinking completely? Drink only at social events? Drink only on weekends? What if I just track my number of glasses of alcohol consumed and try to decrease it every month? By doing experiments for a set period of time, I explore which approach meets my needs and is sustainable in the long term.
Act on impulses to change
Instead of listening to the nagging thoughts telling me I needed to exercise or stop eating sugar, I decided to just do the thing the nagging thoughts wanted. Likewise, instead of entertaining fantasies about waking up early and working on my most important projects, I just did it. I tried to be conscious of these suggestions and follow through on them quickly instead of waiting months or years to heed their advice.
Sit with discomfort
This year I realized that my greatest limitation was a reluctance to sitting with uncomfortable emotions. For example, I would regularly turn down opportunities simply because those situations made me uncomfortable. I also perpetuated social media, sugar, and alcohol consumption due to an unconscious default decision to distract from these emotions. I realized that if I could simply be with the emotions without hiding from them, I would solve a host of problems and become a more resilient and capable person.
But sitting with uncomfortable emotions is difficult. Often these emotions come from a wellspring of unintegrated experiences (i.e., trauma), and there are powerful psychological forces within blocking their resolution. I’m not sure what the solution is other than to just hack at it with different approaches. For example, with fasting you can’t turn to food to distract yourself from emotions. With cold exposure, I practice allowing myself to feel extreme sensation. With meditation, I gain a little more leverage on recognizing the avoidance mechanism.
I noticed that there were several habits—fasting, exercise, and cold exposure—that seemed to create exceptional results in many areas of my life all at once. For example, while I was only looking to cold exposure to improve my mood, it also seemed to deepen sleep and bolster resilience to sickness and stress. I discovered that fasting, exercise, and cold exposure are all activities that promote neurogenesis. While I don’t have enough understanding of neuroscience to conceive how behavior change is linked to brain development, I decided to explore whatever promotes or protects neurogenesis. For example, sugar and alcohol oppose neurogenesis, so I decided to explore limiting consumption of each.
In the next post, I chronicle the personal development experiments that yielded good results this year.