I love self-help. I know it’s fashionable to criticize personal development gurus nowadays and all, but it’s helped me in countless ways and has the potential to help you too.
Not only that, but in great contrast to the psychological theories of the past which have suggested that our personality is fixed and unchangeable, more and more research is showing that we can improve. It is possible. No longer are we believed to be a product of our genes or our upbringing, but the sculptors of our destiny. Our brains are literally plastic — malleable balls of dough that we can shape and color however we wish.
Personal development has enormous potential, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to work. You read all of the books, take the courses, practice the habits, but sometimes, you just can’t seem to make any lasting changes. You fall back into the same old ways and routines.
You may find yourself right back at square one from time-to-time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that self-help isn’t working—it might just mean that you’re doing it wrong.
More Than Just Words On Paper
Many of us want to alter aspects of our lives that we’re not completely happy with. It could be anything. Perhaps we want to become more confident or learn how to be a better leader. Maybe we want to get in shape and start eating healthier. The specifics don’t matter. The point is that we’ve been driven to the mystical and inspiring realm of self-improvement for one reason and one reason only: we want to change.
A couple of nights ago I was reading a book called How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie for the third time. It’s a classic, and I’d recommend it to anybody. Carnegie doesn’t teach us mind games or magic tricks to hypnotize people into what we want them to do, in contrast to what his provocative title seems to suggest. He offers simple tips for making more meaningful connections with people in our work and lives.
The thing is, this was my third shot at reading the book. The first couple of times I’d retained some knowledge, but not all of it. I wanted more — and I wanted to figure out how to actually use the information I was digesting. And that’s when I realized something critical.
Throughout all of these years I’ve been spending reading books about self-help and watching Tony Robbins talk about how to become a kick-ass superhero of a human being, I was missing one vital ingredient.
It’s not about the information, about the words on the paper or even about the learning. The most important part of making changes is tracking your progress, because if you don’t, you’re only going to stay the same — even if you don’t realize it.
Tracking and Adjusting
Making long-lasting changes to your life is difficult. Those habits that define you are pretty deeply rooted by now, and every time you repeat them, you strengthen them.
There are many thousands of fantastic books and resources out there all about how to change for the better — but it’s about more than simply digesting information. To make real changes, we have to start tracking our progress and then making adjustments accordingly.
What do I mean? Let’s take a quote out of the book I mentioned earlier and put into practice the skill I’m talking about: converting information into positive change.
“Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn — and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”
Carnegie spends an entire chapter discussing the futility of criticism — about how it makes little sense to chastise people and how condemnation only results in resentment rather than change.
There I was, laying in the bath digesting those very words. ‘Don’t criticize. Got it.’ For the next 24 hours, I made a conscious effort not to criticize, but before long I was back to my old self, quick to condemn and complain. The information I’d learned was useful until it escaped my consciousness and I’d forgotten all about it.
What was going wrong? At the time I had no idea, but now it’s crystal clear. I was learning new things and trying to retain my knowledge, but I wasn’t tracking my progress. I wasn’t keeping tabs on whether or not I was actually refraining from criticism, putting into practice the information I’d learned. Whenever I remembered not to criticize, which was rarely, I wouldn’t. But soon I’d forget and carry on being my usual critical self.
Instead of simply vowing never to criticize again and inevitably failing to stick to my promises, would it not be far better if, after every day, I noted every instance of criticism down in a private journal, followed by a description of a healthier course of action I could have taken?
Then, rather than making empty vows in my head that carried little weight, I’d be calibrating my actions and creating a system for positive change. I’d be aware of all the times I screwed up and ensure not to do so tomorrow.
I’m talking about creating a measured framework for success rather than simply reading quotes and books and expecting to magically transform into somebody entirely different. That’s just not how it works.
Personal development is something we’re all capable of doing. With thousands of books, courses and free resources at our fingertips, we all have the information we need to change. But information isn’t enough.
Instead of merely digesting information, we need to start tracking our progress. It’s critical that we observe ourselves and our actions along the way in order to ensure that we’re still moving in the right direction.
If you’re running, record the number of miles you’re covering every week and aim to increase those over time. If you’re looking to become more mindful, keep a journal and note down those times that you were fully present and those where you were just going through the motions. If you’re trying to increase your confidence levels, plan to do something socially uncomfortable once every day and make a note of how you did.
The only way we can truly make long-lasting changes is to keep observing how we’re doing. After all, we can’t expect to change who we are if we don’t really know ourselves and our habits.
We have to start becoming aware of our progress. It’s not enough to take in information or receive advice openly.
We have to start making changes and recalibrating our actions where necessary. Only then can we be sure that we’re on track, progressing along our quest to become happier and healthier versions of ourselves.