How to get off the self-improvement roller-coaster

Self improvement can be such a roller-coaster. Big ups, big downs and some stomach-churning fear in between. But unlike real-life roller-coasters, most of our self improvement goals fail to deliver on their promise — being better than when we started out.

We make New Year's resolutions. Or something happens in our lives and we resolve to make a change. We set SMART goals - specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. We create a plan, specific things we have to do every day and firm deadlines with a stern warning to ourselves that we have to achieve these if we want to be better.

We do this in business as well. We resolve to get better at sales. We go on sales courses, we create a block of time every day devoted to sales and we jump in with enthusiasm the first day, the second day, the third.

We do this with our health. We resolve to lose weight and get ripped. In the gym 5 days a week, we say. An hour a day, only an hour, with a varied cardio and weights program. We'll start slow and build up, and in 30 days we'll have lost 10 pounds or more and we'll be able to see that 6-pack in the making.

And we do this with our relationships. We resolve to spend more time with our loved ones, take weekends off and be present in the moment so they can see we love them. When we start out, we feel great.

But more often than not, we fail

We're so enthusiastic with our new goals and the promise of the "new me" that we jump in without abandon. Scheduling an hour a day in the gym is quite achievable, we think - until we realise that it's not just an hour, it's actually two hours getting our gym clothes together, packing the gym bag, making sure we have the protein shake, driving there, changing, exercising, then shower, get dressed and back home…

So the hour gym is actually a two-hour commitment.

That hour a day focused on sales? It starts out great too, and we stick with it for a few days, a week or maybe two. But then some crisis happens and we have to drop everything to deal with it, promising ourselves that of course we'll make up that hour later in the day, or tomorrow. But the crisis drags on and before we know it our good intentions are out the window.

All of these failures have one thing in common - we set the goal so high that we're making it easy for ourselves to fail. The thing that we're chasing is far away; we know that we have to work at it for weeks or months of even years - and when we set out we're happy to commit to that. But when we slip up (as we will inevitably do), we're likely to not just slip but also give it up. We can't sustain the pace.

The one percent game

So let's change the game. Instead of setting out an hour (ok, 2 hours) a day for gym, let's create a different kind of goal to get fit.

Let's resolve to get better just 1% per day.

So, instead of having to carve out two hours per day for the gym, set a baseline. Your baseline must be easy to achieve and not take too long to do. For example, my baseline for exercise is 20 push-ups, 20 sit-ups and 20 air squats every day. (I chose these because I don't have a lot of time and I want to be able to do this when I travel as well - so they're all body weight exercises.)

Then I'm going to get better just one percent per day. That means that I'll be doing 20 of each exercise for the first 3 days, then 21 for 5 days, then 22 for 4 days, and so on. (I'm a nerd, I made a spreadsheet).

If I keep this up, I'll be doing 27 reps by day 30 - not a big deal. And if I keep it up some more I will be doing 36 by day 60 and 49 by day 90. And if I really want to accelerate I can do this twice a day, or even three times; it only takes a few minutes.

Let's see how this works for sales. You should already know that you get better at sales by doing things like marketing, but you also need to reach out to prospects and talk to them. You may also want to maintain your brand awareness by engaging on social media platforms like LinkedIn. So instead of blocking out an hour a day focused on sales, decide what you need to do to improve your sales by one percent.

Let's say that means you have to call two prospects and comment on three social media posts today. Do that, and you've improved by one percent today. Tomorrow, you have to do the same, and around day 10 you have to call 3 prospects and comment on 3 social media posts a day.

That's not too difficult, is it? And it doesn't have to take an hour, and every day you've improved by 1%. Compound that and you'll get 100% better in 70 days or 200% better than where you started from in 111 days. That's just under 4 months.

Why this works

There's nothing wrong with setting big goals and making big commitments to reach them. But we fail at these large ambitions to regularly that there has to be a better way.

Improving by one percent per day is a better way. Here's why:

Making small improvements every day leads to big changes over time. This is not new - in fact the Japanese applied and perfected these principles in what they call kaizen. Big changes require big effort, a project manager and change management; small changes are easy and don't disrupt as much.

Getting better one percent per day does not mean you have to allocate large chunks of time to get it done. When you've done what you need to do to get one percent better, you're done - whether it took 5 minutes or an hour (or even two).

It's easier to make it a habit. Habits are difficult enough to build, but to be successful at something difficult we have to make a habit of getting better at it. Focusing on one percent per day means that we're starting off slowly and easily, making it easier to keep doing it every day, and before we know it we've built a new habit.

Combining large goals and 1% per day

You can easily integrate large goals with the 1% method - and give yourself a lot better chance to actually reach the goal.

So set your big goals the way you usually do, but leave out how long it will take you to get there. Instead, figure out what you need to do better to reach the goal.

In my exercise example, I didn't set a goal to get really fit and ripped by a certain date. Instead, I just determined there were three exercises I had to do to get in reasonable shape, and I then resolved to get better at those one percent per day.

Similarly, if you want to double your sales, you can certainly set that as a goal. If you attached a time constraint to that your chances of succeeding are probably not that great because you can't always control what happens in the time period you allowed yourself.

But if you improve just 1% per day you will have achieved your goal within 70 days. Let's say that you're also going to take weekends off, so you will be improving your sales by one percent every weekday. You're still only 14 weeks away from doubling your sales - that's three and a half months. And you just have to get one percent better each day.

Can you really get 300 times better in a year?

Well, if I did increase my push-ups by one percent per day for a year I would have reached over 3,600% or 360 times what I started out from. But that's also 756 pushups, sit-ups and squats every day. In theory that can be done, but practically I'm not that interested - if I can do 100 per day (which I should reach about 162 days in) I will be happy. Or maybe when I get there I will be enjoying it so much that I will be changing my goal to 200 per day.

But that's not the point. The point is that making small improvements every day is a lot easier to do and a lot easier to maintain than making big changes. In the process of improving just one percent per day you're also building habits; things you do every day that become easier to do as they become part of your life.

Eventually, your chances of succeeding are so much greater when you're just aiming to get 1% better each day.


So let's pull this together:

  • Big goals are more likely to fail because they require big change.
  • Improving just one percent per day is a lot easier to do and maintain.
  • You can combine big goals and one percent per day.
  • Improving by 1% per day will double your performance every 70 days.

What you can do now

The idea of the 1% per day improvement is certainly not new, but I only recently discovered how powerful it can be when I adopted it into my exercise regime. I haven't been on the new regime that long, but it's a heck of a lot easier to get it done every day (and even look forward to it) than anything else I've tried before.

You can do the same with anything where you need to get better. Here's the recipe:

  • Choose your goal (but don't put a time constraint on it).
  • Figure out the specific things you need to do (and get better at) to achieve that goal.
  • Get better at each one of those - just one percent per day.

One of the biggest benefits that I've found with the one percent approach is in my mindset. Previously, big goals would be a burden because they were so far away. Now, just one percent a day seems easy to achieve. And it's a pleasure to do it, rather than a difficult thing.

I'd love to hear if this helps you - if you do adopt this, drop me a note and let me know.

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