Self-Improvement Year Zero – Post by Michael Hanafin
Self-Improvement Year Zero
One person’s journey into the world of self-development through podcasts, reading and most of all doing.
My journey began 12 months ago so this seems an auspicious time to reflect. I hope something here will resonate if you are starting on this path or already well on the way.
A change of job prompted me to begin. Before then, I allowed my employer’s training catalogue plus opportunities to learn from global colleagues cater to my self-improvement needs. Moving to a much smaller company (where opportunities to both add value and learn from others were more limited than I expected), I took ownership of my own personal and professional development.
You don’t need to wait for a life change like a new job or a calendar milestone – you are free to decide that today will be the day I make one small step.
To start I adopted one habit then built on that a step at a time. That habit and the follow-ons are described later but first I outline the framework I used.
I decided I needed 3 things:
I narrowed it down to 4 themes or ‘Pillars’ to focus on and planned possible activities and tasks for each:
- Other (i.e. Family/Relationships)
This allowed me to aim for balance in allocating time to each. By putting them in list format, I had a simple visual indicator of whether I was tending more towards some areas rather than others (which is not a bad thing – not all may need equal attention). In the cases where something mapped to more than one pillar, I picked the pillar it felt more at home in.
Activities and tasks could be either tangible (exercise, cook something, do something at work or outside, journal keeping), online (research, blogs, podcasts) or reading books.
I found a “trialling” mindset to be valuable at this stage. If I adopted a new habit I tested it for 4 to 6 weeks after which I would either jettison it, modify it or keep it.
I did try a further categorisation of each item into “Read” “Test” “Review” “Do” (inspired by Deming’s Plan Do Check Act cycle) but quickly felt this was too much, I was overthinking and over-complicating (nothing new there!).
I time-boxed 3 hours every 2nd Sunday and for the first 3 months while planning, researching and shaping what I was going to do and how to do it, I did these sessions in my local coffee shop. As I got into the thick of it and out of the initial planning mode, I retired instead to my spare room but the name I first gave this quality time has stuck for me – even now I often refer to this time as a “Starbucks Session”.
To determine my direction, I first needed to define my values. As a complement to my values list, I also developed a personal mission statement. Finally, to guide how I implement my decisions and choices, I figured a set of principles would be useful.
I derived my values by narrowing down from two sets of lists found online. The 1% Better blog post on this topic was helpful. I ended up with 5 and in their current incarnation, they are:
- Making a Difference
- Inner Harmony
My mission statement is currently:
- Maintain a conscious balance of Family, Health, Work
- Keep Faith and broader spirituality an intrinsic part of life
- Add real value and make a difference in my day job
- As much as possible, operate in a mindful flow state with clarity
- Be in control of finances, providing for present and future needs
My principles remain in draft format at the time of writing. I will write these to enable me to fulfil my mission statement and adhere to my values.
My notes on what that list might look like are as follows:
- Practice Meditation
- Balance self, family, work and health
- Always ask What matters most?
- What would <name of inspirational role model> do?
- Engage with what I do with attention, compassion and non-judgment
- Practice gratitude
- Continue spiritual path
- Don’t force it – take purposeful pauses as required, embrace ambiguity and unknowing, non-attachment to results
- See the opportunity that is my life in 10 years (think of this from Seth Godin)
- Respond, not react
- Act like the person I would like to have reporting to me, be married to, have as a father
You will notice that values, mission statement and principles become more verbose and descriptive. There should be some natural overlap between them also.
A word here on goals. We are often encouraged to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound). I also discovered value in having longer-term goals that are not entirely SMART. This type of goal may be impossible to completely define at this stage and may demand some blue-sky thinking. At a minimum, your goals should be ART (trusting the SM to come in time) and remember that for visionary goals you need to be open-minded on what is Achievable. Don’t be afraid to have a stretch target that you cannot quite see how to reach yet.
The Starting Point
I had failed to establish a meditation practice on two previous occasions. The first was before the advent of apps, the latter following a recommendation on a course I did at work.
Now, I looked again at meditation and saw that it could be the launching pad for everything I was trying to achieve (even though I did not know precisely what this was yet!). The promise of having the mental space to better consider the impact of what I choose to do, how I think and how I make decisions was very appealing.
I reasoned that the worst that could happen was that I would gain some valuable “me time” every day. What I discovered was that, contrary to my expectations, my daily practice began to bear fruit after only a couple of weeks. It was the tip of the tip of the iceberg but rewarding enough to persevere with a guided meditation practice.
The Next Steps
Adopting one positive habit has a domino effect – you will find yourself wanting to add another once you establish that first one.
I saw the seeds of my next habit in the improvement opportunity of my first. A lot of the self-improvement texts talk about the merits of a morning routine. I saw that this would ensure I do my meditation at an optimal time plus give me a window to add something else.
Over time I started to rise earlier and earlier, setting the alarm for 6 a.m. and eventually getting it back to 5 a.m. (well, 5.05 to be accurate). The next addition was diet-related, dusting off the blender to make a healthy early morning smoothie. I stuck with the same recipe daily, finding that doing the same over and over again helped break down any mental resistance – I did not need to think about what to buy or how to make it, just do it.
It’s at this stage that a significant step change occurred. I had a meditation practice and a morning routine. I had also started journaling – using the Bullet Journal method – allowing me to reflect, to plan future activities and to record any inspirational quotes or writings I noticed. Exercise was missing. I found the “Couch to 5k” protocol and started following that 3 times/week. I found it well-paced and being time-based rather than distance-based meant I could slow down if necessary. Like meditation, running had failed to stick on previous attempts but now became ingrained.
I struggle to say which activity has had the most impact – meditation or exercise. There are mental health benefits to exercise along with the feeling of reward when running towards a glowing sunset on a Friday evening at the start of a weekend. I endorse the use of positive language here – exercise is something you get to do (i.e. a reward or benefit), not something you have to do.
Meditation has given me a toolkit to manage life’s opportunities and issues, a toolkit that will grow over time. I see it as a foundational practice for me now.
Throughout all this (meditation, morning routine, exercise, Sunday morning reading/reflection sessions) I found the encouragement and learnings from podcasts invaluable. I built up a stable of regulars to which I return, including of course 1% Better. Joining a community like the ROTG Slack community with its monthly challenges and supportive membership has also been a great help to maintain a “What else can I do?” mindset.
Progress has not been perfect – meditation has not been daily, I replaced the smoothie with overnight oats (which did not stick, no pun intended) and family life means my bi-weekly time blocking does not always happen. On the plus side, I now know I have a mindset that is fixed on this course, flexible to adapt to circumstances and recognising of the rewards it can bring.
When progress is slow, I remind myself of what I have done and that it is an ongoing way of life with natural ebbs and flows (and not a short-term project).
Here’s to the next 12 months.
About The Author
Mike Hanafin works as a technology project manager, with grey hair gathered in both the software and life sciences industries. When not asking checking questions like “What value am I bringing to my role?”, Mike is finding joy in his ongoing self-improvement mission (whose ultimate goal is to maintain a healthy work-life balance by dissolving the work-life distinction) and inching out of his introvert comfort zone (which has mood lighting and a copious supply of fiction and jazz). Always wanting to write but never getting to it, Mike is making an early/late New Year’s Resolution to share more of what he has learned (and has yet to learn).
If you’re interested in having being a guest post on the blog page or submitting some learnings for a community focused podcast episode, get in touch directly with me – [email protected] or sign up to the growing 1% Better community on Slack – Link to this here