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Shiny Self-Improvement Syndrome & the Problem with Big Goals

fist in air at sunset

Last week I was near the end of a call with a client and he said, “Yeah, I need to get better at that,” and it caught my attention. I wondered how many times a day does he tell himself he needs to get better at something? And then, let’s be honest, I wondered how many times a day I say that to myself.

My default perspective is to go through my day with a “How can I improve this?” lens, which can easily slide into a “What’s wrong with this?” lens. Here’s what I’ve noticed: When my view of the world is a constant belief of “I need to get better at this,” then I’m almost always coming up short. It’s easy for me to get overwhelmed when I’m using this viewfinder. While on the surface it sounds like something that would be motivating, for me it really isn’t. It’s a judgment against how I’m currently living, and I seem to apply it to nearly every aspect of my life.

I see this with many high-performers: they are constantly chasing improvements, but the goal post is always moving. When my day is a constant barrage of “I need to get better at _____,” guess what eventually happens? I burn out. It's not a problem of willpower; it's a problem of prioritization: there is none.

So that phrase and all variations of it can actually be counterproductive. And this might be exactly what my ego wants because when I’m overwhelmed, I don’t make decisions and I don’t take action. Too many ideas or ways to improve leads to paralysis by analysis.

I’m all for growing and developing, but without some process of prioritization, I can easily overwhelm myself with all the areas I want to improve in. Without clarity, life becomes an endless chase.

Clarity: How do you get it?

In order to find clarity, recognize that it’s a process of reflection, as well as trial and error. Sometimes doing the wrong thing is what gives us clarity. I highly recommend you read Brendon Burchard’s High Performance Habits. The first habit is “Seeking clarity” and in the book he outlines a pretty thorough process of creating clarity. Here are a few questions to get you started.

1. Where are you now in these areas of your life: career, family and social relationships, skills and service?

2. Where do you want to be in each of those areas? Why?

3. What’s driving you and your desire to improve? Think about it. If you achieve improvement in these areas, how will your life be different? How will your life be exactly the same?

4. What do you need to get from A to B? If your current “I need to get better at ___” doesn’t help you get there, then take it off the list.

If you can’t answer these questions then you’re not even ready for a goal. In fact, I’d argue that the desire to improve is actually counterproductive because it leads to burnout rather than progress. Here’s how you avoid burnout.

1% Improvement

One goal, one improvement at a time, one percent improvement a day. It’s critical that the goal is, according to Leo Babauta “So easy, you can’t say no.” Seems silly, right? But consistency is more important than setting a big goal and being inconsistent at tackling it. It’s not that you shouldn’t tackle hard goals; but rather, choose the very small, easy-to-do task that will lead you in the direction of the big goal. Motivation is hard to generate over a long period of time so make it so easy you can’t say no.

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits and the brains behind this concept of a one percent improvement, committing to the small gain over time has exponential payoffs. Like 37.78 times better. Compare that to the results you get from inconsistent application of effort.

I'll tell you what happens to me: I get worse. I gain back all the weight I gained. I get injured. I give up and get no results, or even worse results.

Notice what happens when you try to choose a small habit to change, a one percent improvement. Does your ego rear its ugly head? Mine sure does. My ego tells me things like, “Oh, come on, that little change won’t make a difference. That’s pathetic. Surely you can set your sights higher than that.”

Last fall I implemented a small change: invite one person to coffee/day. The results did not roll in immediately, and I had to resist the temptation to give up. That’s the challenge in choosing a small habit: giving up too soon and switching gears. But I’ve already seen the results: as I mentioned in my newsletter last week, it took 2 weeks to fill all my complimentary coaching sessions for February. Last year it took two months to fill 15 spots. That’s the power of small gains.

What’s the small, easy change you can make that your ego rebels at? Yep, that’s the one. Until you’ve tried this one percent improvement, you don’t really know whether it will work or not, right? It’s so easy, you might as well give it a go.

What’s your one percent improvement? One area of life, one percent improvement daily. That’s it. Let me know how it goes.

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