How to Master the Art of Improvement

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The quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. – James Clear

How often do we set wild, ambitious goals for ourselves, hoping for life-altering changes, only to quickly give up once we realize we can’t achieve overnight success? We convince ourselves that any monumental success must always require a Herculean effort. Whether it’s starting your own business, losing weight, running a marathon, paying off debt, writing a book, or any other goal, we put so much pressure on ourselves that unless we succeed in a manner that isn’t classified as “life-changing,” we’re a failure.

It’s time to get off the self-improvement roller coaster. To do so, we’re going to need to embrace the philosophy of slight, continuous improvement.

While I will touch upon the importance of habits related to achieving success with your goals and life in general, that topic deserves a separate post, so I will not do a deep dive here.

After analyzing 800 million activities, the fitness tracker, Strava, estimates that most people abandon their New Year’s resolutions by January 19.1 Just 19 days after kicking off whatever earth-shattering goals they had planned for themselves — BOOM, it’s done – dead.

That’s pretty sad. It’s so easy to fall victim to the “let’s try to get better at everything at all once” mentality. And while the naivety of the ambition is commendable, this is not the path to success.

If you want to change your life, you must start by changing your behavior.

It’s human nature: our hearts are in the right place, yet we lack the habits necessary to accomplish new goals. Countless sayings capture this common predicament, but here are a few of the most recognizable.

“You must learn to crawl before you can walk.”
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
“Don’t put the cart before the horse.”

Being 100 percent transparent, I consistently struggle with this. As a Type A individual, my ambition wants to accomplish everything NOW. Don’t misunderstand; I’m not (usually) looking for a “silver bullet,” shortcut, or “hack” to lessen the effort involved in achieving the desired outcome. I’m willing to put in the sweat equity, but still, I want those results as quickly as possible.

Those of you who share this trait know what I’m talking about. It is undoubtedly a blessing and a curse. It provides me with the obsessive drive to accomplish tasks and goals. Still, it often has taunted me with the temptation of setting unrealistic (or sustainable) timelines or spreading myself too thin by attempting to tackle too many multi-faceted projects. The result is never pretty.

A little after I began my journey back into health and fitness, I decided to start participating in obstacle course racing – Spartan Races, to be specific. I had occasionally been running, but mostly shorter intervals during my regular workouts. I certainly hadn’t been doing anything considered long-distance.

You can likely already see where the story is going, but please humor me while indulging you further.

I can’t honestly remember all the details that led to me falling into this typical runner’s trap. While I think I did some research and found a running training plan, I thought I knew better in typical Ben fashion. Yep, once again, the ego gets in the way – we’ll write a post about that later.

For you runners out there, it’s common knowledge that the cardinal sin of endurance running is adding too much mileage too soon. While my lesson is not unique, it doesn’t make it any less painful (literally).

I continued to log mile after mile, fighting through the pain and discomfort, thinking surely with enough determination and grit, this was just a stage, but I’d work through. The arrogance of this guy.

Even saying it now, I find myself shaking my head, partially in disgust and partially in embarrassment. I kept thinking, “I got this,” and I got it all right – I got a stress fracture in my right ankle that took a year and a half to heal. (Insert face-palm emoji here.)

Was it worth it? Absolutely not. Was I arrogant, ignorant, stubborn, proud, and let my ego get in the way? Without a doubt.

The Marines have a saying, “everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

So why do our attempts to better ourselves so frequently fail? There are a few reasons:

Focusing on the big goal overwhelms us into inaction.

As humans, we’ve been brainwashed to believe that unless we’re attempting monumental, Empire State-sized goals, we’re not trying hard enough. It’s not enough to dominate our own life — we want to dominate the world. Sounds ridiculous, right? The challenge becomes that in most instances, the more ambitious our goals, the greater the likelihood of becoming overwhelmed to the point of inaction.

In our brains, fear and stress are met with the same physical and mental responses. What we may initially classify as a “stressor” our brain might label as fear. Why is this important?

When our brains encounter “scary,” the brain goes into “fight-flight-freeze” mode, and you’re often stuck in that “deer in the headlights” position. Because while BIG goals can be awe-inspiring, they often freeze us in our tracks before we get off the starting line. There’s also a little phenomenon known as “Analysis Paralysis” but that, too, is for another day.

It’s unlikely that setting a goal of running your first marathon (26.2 miles, mind you) when you’ve rarely clocked a single mile in the past ten years is anything less than daunting. Frankly, if you’re not somewhat intimidated by the goal, you’re a bit naive and out of touch with reality, and while it’s rather cute, you’re in for an obscene wake-up call.

We’re still looking for that magic pill.

As legend has it, Alexander the Great undid the world’s most intricate knot. Here’s what happened: The Gordian Knot held a royal ox-cart to a post and remained tied for hundreds of years. Then, in 333 BC, Alexander came along and tried to undo the knot. He, like the hundreds before him, couldn’t loosen it. Did he leave it for others to solve? Of course not! He’s Alexander the Great! He took his sword and solved the problem then and there.

We haven’t stopped swinging swords — and looking for easier, quicker, more immediate solutions to life’s problems — since. Why untie a knot when you can cut it with a sword? 2

It’s a “pain paradox” described by the author of “Take the Stairs,” Rory Vaden. The short-term easy leads to the long-term difficult, while the short-term difficult leads to the long-term easy. The paradox is what we thought was the easy way, or the magic bullet is often the way that leads us down a path that couldn’t be more opposite of easy. And on the other end, the things we thought most difficult, the challenges that appear to be toughest and most rigorous, are the very things that lead us to a life of ease that we all seek.3

Choices that are easy in the short term are very often in direct conflict with what makes life easy in the long term.– Rory Vaden

The problem lies in the reality that as humans, we’re genetically predisposed to look for the shortcut, the path of least resistance. And while this isn’t inherently a bad thing, it often leads us to become so hyperfocused looking for the “hack” or “quick fix” that we avoid tackling the work in the first place. Instead of putting our head down and plowing ahead on whatever needs to be done, we spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to determine how this complex task could be made easier.

I won’t delve deeper into the potential pitfalls of hacking your way through life; we’ll save that for another day. (Are you sensing a pattern…? A lot of posts to come! I hope you’ll stick around!)

The truth is there’s no magic pill, no quick fix, no hack or shortcut that will breed success or allow you to accomplish anything of lasting value.  Thinking otherwise flatters the part of us who’s lazy, who always wants to take the path of least resistance, who loves feeling superior to the “idiots” who are taking the hard way.

Yet, despite all our technological advancements, life remains stubbornly resistant to hacking. You do not get to cheat death. You do not get to escape being human. You cannot circumvent the universal law, which dictates that all goals require work, time, pain, and suffering to attain. The obstacle remains the way.4

We stopped doing the things that brought us success in the first place.

One of the biggest reasons people fail to accomplish their goals is they view the goal as a destination with a “finish line” instead of a process or journey. The goal should be to align yourself with new habits that, day by day, will get you one step closer to your goal.

If we’re so driven and focused on the result, we’ll frequently lack the clarity and discipline to make the incremental progress necessary to reach the finish line. It’s one of the reasons roughly 85-95% of people who lose weight end up putting it all back on. You read that correctly – staggering, isn’t it?

We take the first step and work diligently, and we begin to see results. This excites us, and so naturally, we think, gosh, this is a cakewalk. I got this! But amid our personal backslapping, we would do well to heed Napoleon’s warning: “The greatest danger occurs at the moment of victory.”

One of the most common pitfalls I hear (and have experienced personally) is failed attempts at weight loss. Monday through Friday, you are crushing it. You do your meal prep, count your calories, drink your daily gallon of water, exercise, and skip the booze. You nail it!

Then comes Friday night happy hour with the friends from work…

What starts as one drink quickly snowballs into 4, topped off with a dozen wings, fries, and a 5th to wash it all down. As if that wasn’t enough, now you’re into the weekend where, naturally, you can ease up a bit, right? I mean, you were spot-on all week. Now’s the time to cheat a little and enjoy the fruits of your labor, right? Yeah, not so much.

I’ll spare you the details and technicality of why this process will fail – EVERY SINGLE TIME, but suffice to say, not only did you erase the benefits for which you worked so hard during the week, you likely tipped the scale in the opposite direction. (Whoops.)

Self-improvement isn’t a destination – it’s not a finish line we ever cross. You’re never done. Even if you have some success, if you want to maintain it, you’ll want to keep doing those things that brought you success in the first place.

Get 1% Better Each Day

One approach to continuous, incremental improvement is called kaizen. It originated in Japan, and the word translates to mean change (kai) for good (zen). Kaizen is based on the philosophical belief that everything can be improved, that nothing is ever seen as a status quo.5

Where there are continuous efforts to improve, results will follow, even in small, often imperceptible changes. Over time, these incremental changes add up to substantial changes over the long term, without going through any drastic, life-altering modifications.

Thus the introduction of the 1% philosophy. 

Instead of trying to make radical changes in a short amount of time, you need to focus on small improvements every day that will gradually lead to the change you want.

Each day, focus on getting 1% better in whatever it is you’re trying to improve. That’s it—just 1%.

I know, I know, why should you only strive for a 1% improvement when you could alter the course of your life, fix all your shortcomings and change the world overnight? Shouldn’t you strive for more? Isn’t 1% the lazy, easy way to self-improvement? While your ambition is commendable, I can all but guarantee that if you try to accomplish too much, too soon, you’ll fail every time.

Take a simple idea and take it seriously.
– Charles Munger

Charles (Charlie) Munger couldn’t have said it better. The idea of improving 1% each day couldn’t be more straightforward, and yet, because of its simplicity, many people dismiss its life-changing possibilities.

When it comes to developing and maintaining a new habit, frequency matters more than intensity. If you do something frequently, a compounding effect will start to take place. Everyone is familiar with the concept of compound interest as it relates to finances. Well, think of this as the compound interest of your life; and it’s equally as powerful.

While it’s exciting to think about the opportunity that improving 1% each day provides, it’s also nice to be reminded of the alternative. If you’re not putting yourself in a position to improve each day, you’re either stagnant or, worse yet, your moving backward.

We need to accept the fact that we’ll have days where we’re not making improvements. We’re tired, overextended, the 3-month-old was up all night and crushed our chances of that morning workout – whatever. It’s life; things will get thrown at you and are out of your control.

Accept it, move on, and be better tomorrow. Don’t let your circumstances justify your excuses for living a mediocre life. You’re better than that.

The more you take control of this goal, this new mindset, the more you own your life and the better chance you have of maintaining a sustainable rate of improvement – 1%.

What If I Miss a Day?

Remind yourself; you are striving for progress, not perfection. Don’t let yourself get discouraged to the point of inaction by missing a day. It’s going to happen, I promise. The sooner you accept that missed days are a part of the process, the sooner you can embrace them as a step along the journey of progress.

Far too often, people fail and become discouraged, allowing the discouragement to quickly morph into a state of resentment. Sadly, many people eventually throw in the towel altogether.

Before you start, let go of the idea that you will ever achieve 100% perfection. It doesn’t happen, it won’t happen – not for me, not for you, not for anyone. Don’t make that your goal. Release yourself of that burden.

James Clear says, “never miss twice. If you miss one day, try to get back on track as quickly as possible.”6 Simple, but a good reminder. I also like the idea that “once is a mistake. Twice is a pattern. Three times is a habit.” It flips the positive concept of habit formation and turns it upside down. Don’t let your inaction become a habit.

Steve Jobs said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path.”7

You know what works; do more of it. You know the areas of your life that need improvement; fix them. Make a list, write it down, and place it somewhere you’ll see it throughout the day.

Don’t worry about failures; worry about missing out on all you’re capable of if you never try.

You can do it.
You will do it.
You must do it.


1 | A Study of 800 Million Activities Predicts Most New Year’s Resolutions Will Be Abandoned on January 19: How to Create New Habits That Actually Stick (Jeff Haden, Inc Magazine)
2 | The Pitfalls of Life Hacking (Art of Manliness)
| Take the Stairs (Rory Vaden)
4 | Stop Hacking Your Life (Art of Manliness)
5 | Kaizen: Gaining the Full Benefits of Continuous Improvement (Mind Tools)
6 | Automic Habits (James Clear)
7 | Steve Jobs – Stanford Commencement Speech (2005)