Self-improvement Always Begins with Self-Awareness

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“What gets measured gets managed.” Peter Drucker

I am a firm believer in Peter Drucker’s management principle. Anyone that has ever kept a financial spending log or food log knows that they changed their spending or eating behavior when they created a record of the activity. We naturally start making better decisions and identifying patterns in our behavior. Monitoring an activity forces, us to pay more attention to it. We naturally start making better choices because we can’t ignore our bad ones. If we aren’t mindful of our choices, we will unconsciously fall into habitual patterns of behavior. The concept is so simple yet potent, I am amazed at how many people don’t use this principle to improve their personal or professional performance.

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I think a simple notepad is a self-improvement powerhouse. It is one of the most powerful self-improvement tools in existence; when it is used to record an activity. Logging an activity creates greater awareness. Awareness is the first step in changing our behavior. When we record an activity, it forces us to become more mindful of our decisions, big and small. Often it is the small, seemingly insignificant decisions that are sabotaging us.

Eating that cookie in the breakroom, losing valuable time by allowing yourself to become distracted, skipping a workout, or staying up late watching TV instead of getting a good night’s sleep. Anyone of these decisions by themselves isn’t devastating, but their accumulative effects are.

Whatever it is you want to improve, your time management, your leadership, your relationships, your business, your eating patterns, your exercise consistency, or your spending, you must track it. Be relentless. Track everything related to the behavior you want to improve. Awareness is the first step toward transformation.

“Real transformation requires real honesty. If you want to move forward — get real with yourself. Change will never happen if you lack the ability and courage to see yourself for who you really are. Begin to elevate yourself today. Try to make better decisions.” — Bryant McGill

Bad habits are the result of cognitive neglect and mindless actions. The danger of bad habits is that we aren’t really involved in the decision-making process. We encounter the cue, and we begin to execute the routine, our conscious mind essentially goes to sleep until we receive the reward which reinforces the behavior. When we fall prey to bad habits, our mind is essentially operating at the level of the animals. One of our greatest gifts as human beings is our ability to connect what we are doing in the present to the results it will produce in the future. Our ability to value future rewards as much as immediate rewards will determine how much we will accomplish in our lifetime.

Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert says “What’s so curious about human beings is that we can look deeply into the future, foresee disaster, and still do nothing in the present to stop it. The majority of people on this planet are overwhelmed with concerns about their immediate well being.” He says that most of us have a hard time relating to our future self. We treat our future selves like a stranger, so when we are given a choice that will benefit our future self or present self, we have an overwhelming bias to take care of our immediate needs. You might not think this applies to you, in that case, he would tell you, “If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.”

The more we discount future rewards, the more likely we are to act impulsively and develop bad habits; because bad habits always produce immediate gratification, while productive habits rarely do. The reason the “Marshmallow Test” was so predictive of the future behavior of the study’s participants in the decades that followed is that it provided a direct measurement of the child’s ability to delay gratification.

Our ability to value future rewards as much as immediate ones will determine if we are going to invest in our future or squander it with impulsive actions. The future is either purchased by the present or stolen by it. Bad habits are thieves that rob us of our future one day at a time. The only way we can protect our future is by replacing bad habits with good habits. It is simple, but it isn’t easy. It requires diligence and effort. Progress is always intentional.

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Our original reward system was based on food. Food wasn’t always available, like it is now, so our dopamine system was wired to seek immediate gratification. When our body senses a drop in blood sugar levels, a potentially life-threatening condition, our dopamine system is activated, and our desire to eat is palpable. This triggering mechanism is why small frequent meals, high in protein and slow digesting carbohydrates can significantly reduce cravings by keeping blood sugar levels stable.

Once our dopamine system is activated, any food could restore our blood sugar levels, but our primitive brain has been conditioned to seek high sugar foods since they will produce the most immediate rise in blood sugar levels. A failure to plan and have healthy snack options available, like an apple, will leave you susceptible to whatever junk food someone brought into the office. Instead of satisfying your craving with a nutritious 60-calorie apple, you end up eating an unhealthy 400-calorie donut, kolache, breakfast burrito, or cookie.

We didn’t begin cultivating crops and planning for the future until our newer prefrontal cortex was developed. It is our prefrontal cortex that is responsible for human beings ability to think of the future in a meaningful way. Before it’s development, any reward that was more than a few minutes away, wasn’t a consideration. As you have learned, our Elephant, which is driven to seek immediate gratification is able to easily overpower the Rider when the Rider has not prepared the Path or is uncertain what direction to lead the Elephant.

The smaller Rider cannot hope to overcome the two-ton Elephant through brute force and willpower, but he can steer the Elephant away from the temptation through preparation. He can shape the Path by removing temptations, when possible, having healthy snacks available always, and using future discounting to his advantage.

Our primitive rewards system treats any reward that is 10-minutes away like a future reward. Instead of our Rider telling our Elephant “No, you cannot have it” which would cause our mind to focus on the reward until our willpower is drained to exhaustion, in a phenomenon clinical psychologist call ironic rebound. Ironic rebound theory explains why our mind tends to focus on any thought we try to push away.

It is much easier and more effective to tell our Elephant, “Ok, you can have it, but you have to wait for 10-minutes.” This technique avoids our mind’s tendency to focus on the reward and cools our desires by making the reward feel like a future reward instead of an immediate one. Chances are in 10-minutes you will no longer feel the impulse.[i] Even if you do, you have still strengthened your willpower by overcoming the immediate temptation. Over time, this technique will significantly reduce the number and severity of your willpower lapses. Remember not to be overly critical of yourself when you give in to temptation because it will lead to stress eating. When we are struggling to overcome a bad habit and beat ourselves up about a willpower failure, our stressed-out mind will seek immediate relief, often from the very behavior, we are trying to curb. It isn’t logical, but it is all too human. Emotions can easily overcome reason.

Awareness prevents us from mindlessly falling into bad habits. The problem with most bad habits is that their negative consequences aren’t immediate. If you took one bite from a cookie and immediately gained 5-pounds, you wouldn’t take another bite. If you took one puff from a cigarette and instantly experienced health problems, you would put it down, but of course, these bad habits only produce immediate pleasure without any immediate consequences. If we aren’t mindful of their long-term cumulative effects, it is easy to convince ourselves it is just one cookie, one cigarette.

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The self-deceit is especially insidious because there is a basis of truth and logic to the argument. One isolated indiscretion is negligible, it is what we do habitually that matters, but of course, in this case, the behavior is a bad habit, so it does matter. Gretchen Rubin, calls this excuse “the one-coin loophole.” In Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, the argument of the growing heap is made, “If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.” What is implied is that while a single coin cannot make one rich, the accumulation of many coins is the only way to become rich.[ii]

Our actions are like the coins in Erasmus’s essay. One visit to the gym or sticking to our meal plan for a single day is inconsequential to our health, but the habit of going to the gym and controlling our food intake is invaluable. I’ll start logging my food intake tomorrow. It’s Sarah’s birthday, I’ll enjoy a piece of cake and start recording my food again next week. It’s just one workout. A year from now, what I did today won’t matter. It’s only one piece of cake. One beer won’t make a difference. Why work on that report today, when the deadline is three weeks away?

People enjoy using the one-coin excuse so often on themselves, that they will use it on other people. Numerous times people have told me that I could skip my lunch hour workout or eat a cookie in the breakroom. They are correct. I could skip the gym or eat the cookie, but I know that it is the habit of going to the gym and resisting the cookie that is important to my health and happiness. Nothing tastes better than looking lean and feeling strong. When you develop the exercise habit, it becomes a positive addiction. I hate missing a workout. I do skip the gym occasionally to bond with colleagues over lunch, but I usually plan ahead by exercising in the morning. I have noticed that I am always dragging in the afternoon when I miss a workout. Regular exercise is addictive because it makes you feel fantastic; improving your mood, focus, and energy.

Every day we are given the gift of choice. Each day our habits can create the future we want, or rob us of it. The only constant in life is change. Habits determine our direction. We can choose to embrace good habits that move us steadily toward our goals, or bad habits that take us further and further off course. The choice is usually between instant gratification and future accomplishment. When we develop good habits, time is our friend, but when we allow bad habits to persist, time works against us. “You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight.” Jim Rohn We are who we are and where we are because of our past decisions and habits. If we want to improve our circumstances, we must improve the quality of our decisions and habits.

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If you really want to change a behavior track it for at least a week. A month would be even better. As you have already learned, it takes approximately 66-days on average to make a new habit sustainable, not the 21-days that most were taught. Habit formation timelines vary depending on how difficult the behavior is perceived to be by the individual. The more difficult the action, the longer the habit takes to form. Making improvements in any area requires measurement, but you must measure the right metrics.

Many people make the mistake of only measuring their desired outcome when attempting to achieve a goal. The other common mistake is not to set a deadline. Effective leaders set stretch goals for their organization that need to be reached within a specified time frame. A goal needs to have a deadline. A deadline helps create a sense of urgency. Deadlines help establish priorities and prevent procrastination. After setting goals, they look at lead and lag indicators. Lead indicators are daily actions we can take to achieve our long-term goal, measured by lag indicators. For example, generating sales leads might be a lead indicator, while the lag indicator would be an increase in sales revenue. Fat loss lead indicators are your daily caloric intake and total daily protein intake. The lag indicators are your weekly body weight averages and average body fat percentages. If you want to achieve a goal, your progress must be measurable.

“If you want it, measure it. If you can’t measure it, forget it.” Peter Drucker

Everything and anything you want to improve must be measurable. You might think some things can’t be measured, like building employee loyalty, but I would argue it can. If a leader wants to build loyalty in their organization, they could decide that twice a week they are going to visit two employees whose managers say they have been doing a great job and paying them a compliment for their excellent work. She could then inquire as to how they are doing and ask if there are any resources they need, including training, to help them be even more effective. Tracking her consistency would be the lead indicators, and quarterly feedback from culture surveys would be the lag indicator. Loyalty is a two-way street. Showing employees that the leadership values their contribution, and is committed to their professional development is how you earn loyalty.

If you want employees to care about the company, the company leadership has to show they care about the employees. Companies like Kimberly Clark inspire strong employee loyalty by coming up with imaginative ways of avoiding layoffs during times of declining revenue. In one instance, they were able to convince 80 of 100 production workers to change roles so they could avoid laying them off. These employees became marketers that added millions of dollars to the company’s annual sales.[iii] Companies that inspire loyalty from their employees enjoy less employee turnover which leads to a better trained, more productive workforce. I don’t want to stray too far from the topic of getting in shape, I just wanted to demonstrate that almost anything can be measured and that anything that can be measured can be improved.

Whatever you want to change or improve you must find a way to measure your progress. You simply need to find an impactful activity you can do each day, a lead indicator and track your consistency. Next, find a way to measure the impact it is having, the lag indicator. More often than not, these small daily activities will take time to produce results; but if you selected impactful daily activities and executed them consistently, they will produce outstanding results. That is the power of compounding effort. Small efforts repeated can create miracles. “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” Ovid

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Success is a numbers game. Consistency is the key. If you want to become more consistent at doing something, you must track it. Tracking your consistency will cause you to become more consistent. Simple, but how many people actually keep track of their consistency. When I want to adopt a new behavior like performing 30-minutes of professional reading each day, I track it. I keep a simple scorecard on my desk to register how many times each month I complete the task. I only take a minute each day to score my day based on my goals, but the impact is profound.

I can look at the scorecard and immediately see which behaviors I am doing well at adopting and which ones need improvement. Not tracking your performance is like playing a game without keeping score. I know that some people do this so they can protect their little snowflakes from life’s disappointments as long as possible, but I am not a fan of this codling. Life has winners and losers, and kids need to know how they are performing. Life keeps score. The sooner they learn that, the better. You need to keep score as well. You need to know how you are doing. You need to see if you’re making progress or neglecting to make progress. I use the word neglect intentionally. Being consistent requires diligence. When people say; I would do it if I had more time. I tell them to forget it. There isn’t any more time.

We all get 24-hours each day. When the clock hits midnight that wraps it up. I don’t care who you are, a billionaire or a beggar, we all get 24-hours each day to do what is meaningful to us. Today is your life in miniature. What you consistently do is what makes you who you are. What you do consistently will determine where you will be, 3-months from now, 3-years from now. If you don’t make time to do the things that are necessary to get better, then you just aren’t going to get better.

We make time for our priorities; we make excuses for everything else. You need to know where you are succeeding and where you need to improve. If you want to improve your running, keep track of your performance and set goals to reduce your time covering a fixed distance. Simple, but how many people go running each day without keeping track of their average time covering their route?

If you want a new salesperson to make, 10 sales calls a week, on Friday you should invite him into your office and ask, “So how many calls did you make?” When he begins to provide an explanation, you gently explain that that will not fit in your box. You need a number. That number will tell you everything you need to know. His work ethic, his attitude, his drive, his ambition, and what you can expect from him in the future. If for example, he made twenty calls, you have made an excellent hiring decision, but if he only made three calls, well, you’ll need to have a little talk and see what you can do to motivate him to do better. In most cases, workers will improve their performance because they know it is being tracked by management.

Goals must be measurable so you can gauge your progress toward them. Your progress must be so simple that anyone could look at where you are and determine if you are making progress. Your progress has to be calculable. If you can’t measure your progress toward a goal forget it. Consistency is easy to measure. There are apps available that can help you form new habits. Strides, Streaks, Fabulous, and Toodledo, are just a few of the habit-forming apps available. The Strides app is particularly useful at developing new habits because it allows you to program action triggers. You can schedule multiple reminders for each task, and the app tracks your consistency.

We must master consistency. The one trait every successful person, business, or organization has in common is consistency. A restaurant that is hit or miss with the quality of food it serves will be out of business soon and rightfully so. It isn’t what you occasionally do that matters; it is what you do consistently that will make you better. You are what you repeatedly do. Positive actions, repeated every day produce massive results over time. The smallest, seemingly insignificant actions repeated out of habit will produce profound results when given enough time. That is the positive side of disciplined consistency. The negative is also true. Small seemingly unimportant neglects, over time, create a crisis. One bad decision doesn’t normally cause a Bankruptcies. It is typically the result of many bad decisions repeated for months and years.
5-love languages.jpgDivorce is usually the result of months and years of neglect as well. The decision to divorce might be triggered by one event, but it is all the small neglects over time that leads to the dissolution of the marriage. Relationships require effort. Probably the best book on the topic is Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts, which has sold over five million copies. Often the couples in his book were able to transform their relationships by learning their spouses love language and developing the habit of expressing love to their partner a couple of times a week. In a matter of weeks they can refill their spouses “love tank;” not with a single grand gesture, but with small seemingly inconsequential acts of affection consistently repeated. These seemingly small gestures produced remarkable results in marriages that were on the brink of divorce. Small doesn’t remain small when it accumulates.

Snowflakes accumulate to form colossal valley glaciers. As a child, Warren Buffet observed that when you rolled a snowball, it grew. He applied this metaphor to money. He saw a dollar today as being worth $10 in the future due to the compounding effect of interest over time. He used this philosophy to avoid wasteful spending in his youth. His unique perspective on money is one reason he was able to accumulate so much wealth. When every dollar you spend today is seen as ten dollars in the future, you realize the cost of a $4 coffee is really $40. This metaphor is the origin of his Biography’s title, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life.

Albert Einstein said, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it earns it… he who doesn’t… pays it.” Darren Hardy, publisher and editorial director of Success magazine, provides a great example of the importance of saving early in life in his excellent book, The Compound Effect. One person begins investing $250 a month, at the age of 23 and does this until the age of 40. Her friend invests the same amount each month but doesn’t begin investing until the age of 40. He continues until the age of 67, which is the average retirement age. If both saw a return of 8% on their investment, she would have accumulated a little over a $1,000,000, while he would have accumulated less than $300,000, because he started late. He would have less than one third her accumulated wealth despite investing for 10 more years than she did and contributing $27,000 more than she did. [iv]

Poor people pay interest, and the wealthy earn it. You can make large sums of money, but if you don’t save or invest any of it, you will never accumulate wealth. Look at all the professional athletes, performers, and lottery winners that end up broke. It was because they didn’t have the discipline to manage their money correctly. It has been said that if you took all the money in the world, divided it up equally among everyone, it would soon end up in the same pockets. Darren Hardy’s mentor Jim Rohn routinely recommended people purchase and read Richest Man in Babylon by George Clason.

Jim said that typically only 10% of the people would purchase the book and read it, despite the book being very inexpensive, and easy to read at one sitting. The book explains in simple terms by way of storytelling how to become wealthy, and yet most people will not bother. He struggled to understand why so few people would invest the small amount of time and money required to learn the fundamentals of accumulating wealth. He explained it this way, what is easy to do is easy not to do. He said the average person will not bother to read the book or apply the information.

Don’t be average. The best way to be successful is to do what unsuccessful people won’t do. If you aren’t financially independent, I also recommend you pick up the book. My 9-year old daughter read it in just a few minutes. I want her to understand how she can become wealthy. I want compound interest and time to work for her. Wealthy people make money work hard for them, while poor people work hard for their money. Successful people adopt good habits that make time work for them, while unsuccessful people develop bad habits that make time work against them.  Learn to make time and money work for you.

“In the confrontation between the stream and the rock the stream always wins not through strength but by perseverance.”  Buddha

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Habits produce results similar to the “flywheel effect” that Jim Collins describes in his best seller, Good to Great. When you begin adopting a new habit, it takes a lot of energy, like putting a massive flywheel that is motionless into motion. When you first push on the huge metal disk horizontally mounted on an axle, it barely moves. The motion is almost imperceptible, but push after push it begins to pick up momentum. Effort, upon effort, the massive disk builds more and more momentum until it is generating huge amounts of energy. Twitter was unsuccessful for its first couple of years, but its creators just kept at it, and eventually it picked-up and then exploded. Success is the result of consistency and grit; small effort, upon small effort. These efforts produce small, unremarkable results, but over time, they accumulate until a breakthrough occurs. Jim Collins describes the success of the Good to Great companies this way in his book, “There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process—step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel—that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.[v]

What separates successful people from unsuccessful people is consistency. People that are in excellent physical condition are not a special breed. The only thing that separates them is that they have mastered consistency. Consistency is the game. Being fit has to do with exercising regularly. Being lean has to do with consistently controlling your food intake, so you don’t exceed your energy requirements. You should do both, but you need to understand that you cannot out exercise a bad diet. If you want to get leaner, you must begin eating less food than your body is burning each day. I wish I could tell you that as long as you work out every day for an hour, you can eat all you want, but that would be a lie. I don’t wish to mislead you.

For years I carried an extra 10 pounds of body fat. I exercised consistently, but I didn’t track my eating. It wasn’t until I started tracking my food intake that I lost those last few pounds. My experience is not unique; anyone that has achieved a lean physique did it by monitoring their food intake. I don’t know anyone that got lean through exercise alone.

Exercise helps you get lean and look better. Strength training helps create a harder looking physique so you can avoid that skinny fat look that cardio only exercise programs produce, but it isn’t the primary driver of body composition improvements. Weight loss is always driven by energy balance.

Cardio and strength training both burn calories, but strength training helps you maintain and build muscle while restricting calories, so it is much more effective at creating a better-looking physique. A common mistake I see people making when trying to gain muscle or lose fat is focusing on their exercise program.

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Weight gain and weight loss are controlled by calories in vs. calories out. When you want to gain or lose weight, focus primarily on your diet; how many calories and how much protein you consume everyday. When you want to improve performance, focus on setting performance goals and varying the intensity of your workouts so that an intense period of training is followed by an intense period of recovery. Everything matters, but some things matter more than others. You cannot outrun a bad diet. You can train with an all-out effort all the time, or you’ll experience mental and physical burnout and increase your likelihood of injury. Consistency is more important than intensity.  “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules.” Anthony Trollope

[i] Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Avery; Reprint edition (December 31, 2013)

[ii] Gretchen Rubin, Strategy of Loophole-Spotting #10: the One-Coin Loophole. January 31, 2014.

[iii] Elizabeth M. Fowler, Careers; When Job Security Is Provided, The New York Times, Published: October 10, 1984.

[iv] Darren Hardy, The Compound Effect, Vanguard Press; Csm edition (October 2, 2012).

[v] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t, HarperBusiness; 1st edition (October 16, 2001).)

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Self-improvement Always Begins with Self-Awareness

    1. “Every battle is won or lost before it’s ever fought. If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” Sun Tzu.
      Physiologists say we have one brain but two minds. In my 2nd Edition of The Fat Loss Habit, readers will learn about both minds; their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies so you will be able to win every battle. The book will be released later this year, in the mean time, I hope you enjoy my blog post. All the Best, Jeff

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