My ultimate secret weapon for self improvement
25 June 2017 | 27 April 2018learning self improvement journaling
Are you aware of your problems?
Once upon a time in a land not very far away (in fact, it’s the very same we live in), a small boy and his Gameboy grew up. He didn’t have many hobbies: gaming. He didn’t have many friends. Playing outside is okay as long as the 4 AA batteries are fully charged and the sun isn’t shining too bright and the playing is confined to one square meter. As the boy grew up, his taste for music didn’t broaden: it narrowed. Teachers said he couldn’t draw or run or swim properly, so he naturally assumed he couldn’t draw or run or swim properly. Twenty years later, that boy who became a man still has a hard time unthinking he cannot draw or run or swim.
That is called a creative scar and can be very deadly. If someone ever says to you “haha, you can’t X”, chances are that you’ll tend to believe that person. Effects? Next time you’ll think twice before doing X again. No way someone will laugh at you for doing something silly, right? So forget X, let’s try Y instead. But why should you? Because one or two persons who have no idea what X is all about claim to know if you are good at it or not?
The problem gets worse if you are not aware that you have in facts such a scar. If you’re not aware, then how on earth are you going to do something about it? The answer is you won’t. You’re stuck in the “Unconsciously incompetent” stage of competency. A diagram from Wikipedia might help to sketch the situation a bit:
Unconsciously incompetent: The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit.
There are a lot like-minded diagrams or flow charts or resumes out there that try to tell you the same. The Shu, Ha, Ri learning principles of martial arts explained here assume that you are willing to improve meaning you’d already be in the consciously incompetent stage.
Okay, so how do you move from the bottom part of the pyramid all the way to the top? That’s where self improvement comes into play.
Unlocking your consciousness
That boy how grew up to be a Nintendo fanboy has a blog and you’re reading it. His music taste has broadened a lot, he’s no longer a black and white thinker but started seeing shades of gray (50?). I do not know exactly when this all happened but I’ll tell you it did not happen in a day or a week. It took me at least 7 years. In august 2010, I bought a cheap Moleskine notebook knock-off and started jotting down some notes. Those things typically included:
- Lists. I love lists. Your favorite (gameboy) game? Top 5 good food! What about movies? Birthday wanted lists etc etc.
- Regrets. Too bad I don’t have many friends to play boardgames with.
- Wishes. I’d love to run 10km once. Wow, that seems highly unlikely, as I remember someone said I can’t run. Still… Would be cool. Like to visit Japan someday. Or walk on the Great Wall of China, why not.
- Brain dumps. A Momentary Lapse of Reason. How I feel on a given moment.
Somehow, thanks to lots and lots and lots of writing, I started to become more aware of my own thoughts and feelings. In that time I read a lot of self help books - 9 out of 10 were junk, but I kept small summaries in my notebook. Somehow, some quotes or key giveaways still lingered in my extended analog memory, ready to be reread and executed. I always liked to write - otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this article right here - but using a pen and ink to write down thoughts felt great. I finally had a way to track what I was doing or should be doing.
Of course concepts like journaling aren’t new at all: Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote down how he should behave centuries ago. Great minds like Wittgenstein, John Locke and Seneca also loved writing. The medium was and is a great fit for rapid note taking - whether it’s ideas or feelings, that doesn’t really matter. As long as you do something with it afterwards. Or not - that’s okay too.
So I did not try to reinvent the wheel: I merely looked and copied what worked for me. That very same thing might not work for you at all - you might be one of those digital whizz kids that like to use Evernote or Google Keep. I’m more of an analog guy: it enables me to sketch, write, make mind maps and paste pictures. But what should you do with your piece of work?
The Quantified Self
My favorite American Timothy Ferris has the answer to that. It’s called “quantify yourself”: don’t just gather data but also normalize it, tune it, change yourself, push yourself, re-gather data and analyze it further. Since the sudden increase in popularity on smart watches, it’s rather easy for anyone to keep track of their health. Steps per day, sleep cycle, calories intake, you name it and your trusty watch will track it for you. There’s even a conference on Quantified Self full of (technology) enthusiasts eager to share their experience with recording and adjusting stuff to make the world a better place.
But tracking itself isn’t enough. Tim Ferris monitors his own body in extreme detail: after taking vitamins, before and after a workout, … Then he alters his daily routine. It’s called modern self optimization. Tim is all about improving yourself and he even hosts an extreme successful podcast called the Tim Ferris Show. Subjects as “Maximizing Strength, Improving Mindset, and Becoming the World’s Fittest Man” are not uncommon on the show, it’s certainly worth checking out. Tim is also a fan of “morning pages” in the morning: 5 minutes of writing in your journal before you do anything else. Except for getting out of bed (and maybe meditating) of course.
It is possible to become world-class in just about anything in six months or less. Armed with the right framework, you can seemingly perform miracles, whether with Spanish, swimming, or anything in between.
David Allen’s Getting Things Done, or GTD, works more or less the same: there are clear differences between recording thoughts and executing them. When you surf to the webpage of GTD, you’re greeted with this lovely quote from David himself:
Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
That is a powerful way of saying you should have a system that holds those ideas. In GTD, you re-read your captured ideas once or twice a week and decide what to do with them. Did you change your mind? Scratch those notes or throw away the loose page. Did you connect one idea with another, but is it still ripening like a nicely aged bottle of wine? Then connect them and add additional thoughts. But again, the key part is re-reading and re-prioritizing everything. If something you think about involves work that is less than 10 minutes, you have the option to execute it right there instead of taking note of it.
Those notes in my journal set me on track to identify what I wanted to do the most and helped me actually realize them. I’ll list some examples here because I like to list stuff, not because I like to brag what I did. Maybe I also do, but it’s to show you what a person is capable of - if you have the willpower to sit through some emotional and physical pain.
- My P.E. teacher used to laugh at my pathetic attempts to run. Now I run 10km.
- The only books I loved to read were fantasy to escape from this world. Now I run a lot of non-fiction books on any subject.
- I decided that I should finally learn to draw.
- After falling in love with sourdough bread, I decided to follow a three year long night class to become a professional baker, and did an intensive internship, combined with my full-time job.
These examples might sound trivial to you, but mean the world to me. Everything wasn’t a simple “okay let’s do that” thought but came up organically by tracking what I was thinking on a given moment. When I notice I complain a lot about my bad drawing skills, I might - finally - do something about that.
Before journaling, I simply had no idea!
One of the most influential (on a personal level) books I’ve read is Where good ideas come from by Steven Johnson. One particular chapter struck me as very helpful. Steven talks about the collision of ideas by pairing them up “by accident”. It’s called serendipity. Imagine going to the library with one or two books in your mind to search for. When you enter the library, a few books are displayed as ‘new’ and you pick up one of them and start reading the cover. Browsing like that makes you connect the dots and eventually stumble upon new, interesting and exciting stuff. I usually go back home with other books than I intended to and never regret the decision after reading them.
The same is true for your bag of ideas that you call your journal. The more ideas that are compressed together on the A5 pages (in my case), the higher the chances that you’ll come up with something new based on those ideas. Again, one clear requirement is re-reading what you’ve written down. Some people like order and try to keep separate journals on ideas for the house, things from work and emotional thoughts. I am not one of those: I like my journals to be as organic as possible: let it grow, I say. I write whatever comes to me, and the next day the next thought is written down beside the previous one. Everything underneath each other. That might not work for you - just try some things and see what you like. Digital tools make tagging and searching a lot easier but require you to keep your cellphone closeby. I just happen to like fountain pens a lot more than cellphones.
Thanks to the serendipitous work of my journals, I got interested in a lot of subjects that I thought were not something for me. Let’s take up another list:
- I like cooking. After a few journals, I like cooking and bread baking and fermenting and I’m now a vegetarian.
- I like drawing. After a few journals, I would like to know more about book binding, calligraphy and turning my own wooden fountain pen.
- I like learning. Now I like teaching, philosophy and Buddhism.
Thanks to a chain of new ideas and things to try out, you get to discover new ideas and things to try out. It’s an adventure, and it never stops.
More on learning how to learn in the earlier samurai learning mindset blog post.
Responsibility - for yourself
Chances are you’ve already heard from Christopher Avery’s Responsibility Process ™. I won’t go into detail here but the model consists of different components that actually match the competency model I mentioned above: there’s denial (you’re not aware of any problems), there’s justify/blame (you’re aware but not willing to do something about it), there’s obligation/shame (you’re doing something about it because you have to) and finally there’s responsibility. Writing down thoughts feels like stepping through that model - at least in the beginning, it does. You’re not sure you’re ready to admit that you might benefit from writing at all. But after your first or second small success you feel obliged to continue.
Nobody can help you like you can help yourself. And you can’t help others, if you don’t help yourself first. There is no Growing Smart Together if there is no Growing Smart Alone. It’s your responsibility to get the best out of yourself - how you do it is up to you. I am happy with my secret weapon: journaling. It has proven to be extremely effective for the past seven years now. Marcus Aurelius wrote down:
Being in contact with the God inside you, and serving him honestly.
That’s exactly what it feels like.
There are a lot of techniques involved in efficient journaling I like to save for a future blog post to be linked here. (Update: it’s here!) But in practice, it all boils down to just starting to write. Do what works for you. If you decide to buy a journal, consider scanning in pages after it’s full. I archive everything in Evernote but that requires tagging manually and soaks op a lot of hours. GTD is a nice way to keep track of things to do - if you’re the kind of person who likes TODOs. I also like pasting pictures, doodling and sketching and even scrap-booking. Whatever that works.
Travel journals, details of book reviews, course summaries you’ve followed, loose notes, gardening schemes, … It’s all there waiting for you to discover. Have fun connecting the dots!