Your life is tough.
Maybe you’re not unhappy, but you’ve got more problems than you’d like.
You feel overwhelmed at times — even with projects you enjoy. Your work, family, social life, athletics, and everything else seems like too much.
You’re not sure how to handle it all.
You’ve got a vague idea of your goals, dreams, and desires, but you’re not sure exactly what you want your life to be like or how to get there.
Like everyone, you want to be better at everything.
Maybe you want to…
- Lose fat.
- Gain muscle.
- Get stronger.
- Become faster.
- Be more productive.
- Recover from a nagging injury.
- Solve a chronic health problem.
- Spend more time with your family and friends.
- Start dating again.
You’re interested in self-improvement, but you’re not sure what you want to improve first or how to improve it.
Here is the simplest, easiest, and most effective way to do just that.
The Last Self-Improvement System You’ll Ever Need
- Set a goal.
- Decide what you need to do to achieve your goal.
- Prioritize the actions with the highest return on investment to reach your goal.
- Decide what activities will hinder or distract you from achieving your goal, and figure out how to avoid them.
- Find the easiest and most sustainable ways to implement the actions that will help you reach your goals.
- Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
Let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.
Be warned. Each of these steps is progressively harder than the last. No one said this was going to be easy. The point of this entire system is to do what’s necessary — not necessarily what’s easy.
Doing even the first step will often be enough to get you further than you’ve ever been before in terms of reaching your goals. Going through the whole process can change your life (yes, that sounds a little hyped — deal with it).
1. Set a goal.
Specific time-oriented goals aren’t always necessary or beneficial.
If you really want to improve something, however, they are.
If you have no idea what you want to improve, then pick whatever is bothering you the most about yourself.
If you have a vague idea of what you want to achieve, then make it more specific.
Let’s say your goal is “to be leaner.”
Decide what weight you’d like to reach, how many pounds you’ll need to lose, and when you’d like to arrive at your target weight. Write your goal on a piece of paper and put it somewhere you’ll see it regularly.
Remember, this is true for everything and anything you really want to improve about yourself — not just weight loss.
2. Decide how to reach your goal.
After you’ve set a goal, you need to define what steps are required to reach your goal. Some people call these “objectives” or “benchmarks,” but I call them “targets” since I like guns.
Whatever you call them, you need to decide what smaller steps are needed to achieve your primary goal.
This is where people generally start to go wrong.
Deciding what to focus on — what you’re actually going to do, requires you to understand the relationship between cause and effect. Put simply, humans suck at this.
If your desired effect is to lose weight, you need to understand exactly what will cause you to lose weight.
Here’s the most important thing to understand about this entire process:
The scientific method is the only system that lets us understand cause and effect. When we’re talking about health, nutrition, and medicine, you need randomized controlled trials to really see what actions will cause your desired effects (e.g. strength training causing muscle growth).(1)
Unfortunately, you don’t always have this kind of good evidence in sufficient amounts. Sometimes there aren’t any randomized trials to answer a specific question, or the available evidence has too many limitations and variables.
Your next best option is to rely on deductive reasoning and logic to base your decisions on what’s called “prior plausibility.” You decide what actions to take based on indirect evidence and how likely it is for something to occur based on previous observations.
The problem with most self-help/self-improvement information is that it’s usually based on anecdote. Someone has a problem, someone solves their problem, and they tell others how they did it.
For example, someone is overweight, they eat a low-carb diet, they tell everyone that the key to weight loss is cutting carbs, and that calories are a scam. Then they try to support their unscientific claim with irrelevant or low-quality research, while ignoring evidence that conflicts with their ideas.
This person is confusing cause and effect, which leads them to believe very silly things.
We’ll talk more about the hierarchy of evidence and the scientific method in later articles.
You might call this system “science-based self improvement.” But when you think about it, science is really just a system for understanding and improving ourselves and how we interact with the world, so calling it “science-based” would be redundant.
Science is a tool that you can use to help guide your decisions about what actions to take to reach your goal.
Here’s how you would use science to create targeted actions to lose weight.
Randomized controlled human trials — the best available evidence — have consistently shown that you can only lose weight if you are in a caloric deficit.
To create a caloric deficit, you need to eat less food, expend more energy, or both.
So that’s your first target — create a caloric deficit.
Now you can get more specific.
You can decide how much you’re going to eat and exercise. You can set more mini-goals like “exercise at least 30 minutes per day” or “eat 2,000 calories per day.”
These smaller goals create the process that will help you achieve your primary goal. However, they aren’t the end of the story.
3. Prioritize the actions with the highest return on investment to reach your goal.
Once you’ve identified a clear target (e.g. create a caloric deficit), you need to decide what actions will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
You only have time, energy, and money for so many actions, so you have to choose wisely.
This becomes a problem when you have constant access to information from the internet, the media, and your friends and family.
We’re addicted to soaking up as much information as possible without prioritizing. You’re bombarded with messages about how to lose weight, gain muscle, get abs, live longer, and become awesome in every way.
Continuing with our example of weight loss, you’re overwhelmed with options:
- Don’t eat fast food.
- Don’t eat added fats.
- Don’t eat saturated fat.
- Always take the stairs.
- Don’t eat gluten.
- Stay in the “fat burning zone” when you work out.
- Eat many small meals to control your appetite.
- Drink at least 8 glasses of water per day.
- Don’t shop when you’re hungry.
- Don’t eat anything that contains BPA.
- Always eat vegetables at every meal.
- Drink ice water.
- Use a standing desk.
- Use meal replacements to control portions and calories.
- Do a spinning class.
- Start Crossfit.
These aren’t all necessarily bad recommendations, and they can still help you cut calories. The problem is that you’re not sure where to start. This usually leads to two possible outcomes:
1. You say “fuck it” and give up on your goal.
2. You try everything at once or in rapid succession, waste a ton of time, spin your wheels, and make no progress. Then you say “fuck it” and give up.
You need to prioritize. You need to make choices that will give you the largest most immediate return on your efforts.
Think like Warren Buffet. How are you going to invest your time and energy in a way that will give you the largest profits?
You can always focus on minor details later to make more progress, but those minor details must always take a backseat to the fundamentals.
If you want to lose fat, two good starting options are to count calories and walk more.
Yes, many people can maintain a caloric deficit without counting calories, but most can’t — especially if they’re used to yo-yo dieting.
No, walking isn’t the most amazing workout plan ever and it’s not great at sparing muscle. But if you’re completely sedentary, walking is still a great place to start. You can do it no matter how overweight you are, there’s little risk for injury, it’s sustainable, and you don’t have to buy a gym membership. It’s a great starting point.
Once you’ve chosen your first, most important actions — focus only on those behaviors.
More information is not always better. Pick the top two or three (no more than that) most important actions that will help you achieve your goal and forget the rest (for now).
4. Decide what activities will hinder or distract you from achieving your goal.
You’re not going to like this part.
You’ve set targets that are going to help you reach your larger goal.
You’re able to focus on these targets for a few weeks, but then it starts. Your initial motivation starts to wain, and you look for easier solutions.
The little voice in your head starts asking questions:
“Isn’t this too simple? There must be more to weight loss than calories in versus calories out.”
“Shouldn’t I be taking supplements?”
“But my friend said that she lost weight by just avoiding X food, maybe I should try that instead?”
You start looking for short-cuts.
You read about how it’s really carbs that make you fat.
You read that exercise is actually useless for weight loss.
You read that toxins are slowing your metabolism.
And the little voice in your head starts screaming.
“Has my hard work been a complete waste of time!?!?”
“Did that sandwich ruin my diet!?!?”
“How do I get rid of these toxins!?!?”
“What else do I not know!?!?”
This is why you need to create a “not-to-do” list — a list of things that distract or hinder your progress that you are going to avoid.
There are four general types of actions for accomplishing every goal:
- Important things.
- Less important things.
- Stuff that is completely unimportant.
- Stuff that interferes with the important things.
If you ever want to reach your goals, you need to avoid the last two categories like the plague.
When you’re creating a “not-to-do” list, also include people that might hinder your progress. Some people are best left by themselves (you should avoid them) — both on the internet and in person.
People who offer inaccurate or irrelevant advice, negative feedback, and constant criticism just make it harder for you to achieve your goals.
Here are a few other examples of how to avoid useless or harmful advice.
If you want to be more productive — don’t check Facebook more than once per day.
If you want to get better at building relationships — don’t hang around people you don’t like.
If you want to lose weight — stop reading diet books and blogs (except this one, of course), and stop shopping for supplements.
You can keep this list in your head. If you write it down, pick the top 3-5 people, things, or thoughts that will hinder or distract you from your goal and write those down.
Avoiding distractions is just as important as defining constructive actions.
(Isn’t rhyming fun?)
Now let’s take things a step further.
5. Find the easiest, simplest, and most sustainable ways to implement the actions that will help you reach your goals.
“The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.” – Brian Wansink.
If there’s a way to make any unpleasant activity less burdensome or complex — do it.
You’ve set a challenging goal, defined targets, and decided what you aren’t going to do. Now you have to decide how to achieve your targets in ways that will work for you in the long-term.
“Easy” is a relative term. Making your lunch ahead of time might be a pain, but it may also be easier than not eating anything all day because you didn’t think ahead. It’s certainly easier than the stress that you might experience by binging on pizza because you didn’t pack a lunch.
Your actions also need to be simple. If you have to remember more than about 4-5 tasks per day to hit your targets, you’re system is too complex.
By choosing the easiest and simplest strategies to hit your targets, you create a sustainable system that doesn’t take over your life. Once you develop habits that support your goals, you can often run on autopilot. You can use this freedom to develop more constructive habits.
No system works if you can’t maintain it. This is especially true for weight loss. Everyone can lose weight for a few weeks. Few can sustain, or maintain weight loss in the long-term.
You don’t necessarily have to follow the same diet forever, but you do need to be able to maintain a caloric deficit for as long as you want to keep losing weight.
Behaviors are the smallest, most important actions you need to take on a daily basis. Basically, this is where the rubber meets the road.
If you’re trying to lose weight, this could mean packing meals ahead of time that fit your calorie goals.
- You could set a timer to wake up early to exercise before going to work.
- You could bike or walk to work.
- You could buy a pedometer to help you move more throughout the day.
- You could use an app to help you track your exercise levels and food intake.
- You could eat more protein to help control your appetite.
- You could change your meal frequency to help control your hunger levels and better suit your schedule.
- You could plan diet breaks to help maintain adherence in the long-term.
- You could set up a sit/stand workstation to help burn more calories throughout the day.
- You could hire a personal trainer or find a workout buddy.
- You could aim to eat a certain amount of fiber, or a certain number of servings of fruits and vegetables.
There are hundreds of small strategies like these that you can use to help maintain a caloric deficit and keep losing weight. If one stops working or gets boring, try another. Do whatever it takes to hit your targets and make progress toward your long-term goal.
The only rules are that your strategies have to be simple and somewhat sustainable. You should give each method an honest shot before deciding it’s not for you.
If you’re able to find a combination of small strategies that help you consistently hit your targets, you’ll eventually achieve your goal.
Unfortunately, things are rarely that smooth. This brings us to step six.
Do more of what works — and less of what doesn’t.
You need to re-examine every step of this process in real time and make changes as necessary.
Let’s retrace our steps in reverse to see what changes you may need to make:
Step 5: Your behaviors may not be constructive.
Some of the strategies you choose to hit your targets may not work right away — or ever. Or maybe you’re just bored with them. Continue using the ones that work for you and discard the ones that don’t.
Step 4: You may invent new distractions.
You’ll probably need to add a lot of items to your “not-to-do” list as you go. We’re very good at inventing things to distract us from what’s important.
Step 3: You may get overwhelmed with options.
Most people try to implement too many strategies at once, even if they all have the potential to work. You may need to go through this step again and eliminate a few targets to help you focus.
Step 2: You may have defined ineffective targets.
You may find that some of your actions were’t as smart as you thought they were. Maybe you didn’t think critically enough about some of your ideas.
Maybe you convinced yourself that carbs and insulin make you fat, so you created a weight loss diet based on avoiding carbohydrates, and kept eating the same or more calories. This will obviously keep you from achieving your long-term goal of losing fat.
Step 1: Your goals may change.
Humans are bad at predicting what will make us happy.
We all like to identify ourselves by our thoughts and actions, but it’s often easy to lose sight of our ultimate goal (to be happy) for smaller goals (to lose fat).
Leo Babauta has written about this problem before. We let goals get in the way of being happy, or our goals don’t lead us to the kind of happiness we expect.
What if you achieve your goal, but you still aren’t happy?
What if you realize that achieving your goal would mean giving up other things that make you even happier than your new goal?
It’s important to ask yourself this simple question:
Should I quit while I’m ahead?
Plans never go according to plan and commitment is a double edged sword.
We all get attached to our goals, but we also have to learn when it’s appropriate to quit. Sometimes the time, effort, and expense we put into a project isn’t equal to the happiness we derive from it.
The longer we commit ourselves to something, the more we have trouble letting go — even if that’s exactly what we should do.
Getting super lean might seem like the best way to improve your self confidence, health, and social life. You may find that the work required to lose a ton of fat just isn’t worth it.
We live in a society where giving up is seen as a bad thing — a weakness. It’s not, as long as you do it for the right reasons.
Your 6-Step Cheat Sheet
Let’s see how this system would look in it’s most basic form, using weight loss as an example.
Goal: Lose weight.
Target: Create a caloric deficit.
Important Actions: Eat less, move more.
Unimportant Actions/Distractions: Avoiding certain foods and taking supplements.
Simple Constructive Behaviors: Set times to exercise, count calories, track your weight.
Iterate: Adjust calories as you lose weight, exercise more, reexamine your goals, know when to stop.
Feel free to copy and paste this into a separate document and modify it to suit your own goals.
You Shouldn’t Use This System If…
You’re perfectly happy with yourself.
If you have no desire to improve, then don’t use this system. There’s nothing wrong with being content.
This is basically a systematic way to implement deliberate practice — the conscious and constant process of identifying weaknesses and strengths, minimizing the former, and maximizing the latter.
This process isn’t easy and it’s not always necessary.
This system will help you reach whatever goal you’ve set for yourself, but remember — your goals won’t always make you as happy as you think (though technically, this system still accounts for that in step 6).
Treat this system as a tool — not a religion.
This is Evidence Magazine
Everything on this site is based around this simple process.
Whether you’re trying to improve your health, fitness, productivity, or critical thinking skills, every article, podcast, and video is based on these principles
This is basically the same process that everyone uses to accomplish anything, whether they know it or not.
Great coaches, businessmen, writers, and others all use this system to some degree or another.
If you want to improve yourself in any way, you’ll get better results using this system than any other.
If this system helps you — or doesn’t help you, — please leave your thoughts in the comments of this article.
1. Sibbald B, Roland M. Understanding controlled trials. Why are randomised controlled trials important? BMJ. 1998;316(7126):201. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2665449/pdf/9468688.pdf.