Guest post by Karissa Thacker
What is your current specific self-improvement project? Is it specific? Is it measurable? Is it clear? I have taken a coaching tip from Mark Zuckerberg, the boy wonder and CEO of Facebook, and have committed myself to one self-improvement project for this entire year. Every year, Zuckerberg makes a public pledge to improve himself in one very specific way. This year, he is running 365 miles. In 2014, he wrote daily thank you notes. In 2013, he met someone new every day. Every year, he has a specific self-improvement project, or a “SIP.”
In contrast to Zuckerberg, we psychologists tend to think much smaller, and go for 30-day commitments from ourselves and other people. The whole life and work thing seems to be going pretty well for Zuckerberg, so maybe he is right.
In my case, I’ve committed myself to mindfulness meditation first thing every morning this year. I have missed three days so far, one of them this morning. I overslept due to too much Oscar watching. I know, weak excuse. But in the words of Tal Ben Shahar, I am going to give myself permission to be human. I will refrain from beating myself up mentally. I have learned that beating myself up mentally about missing one day seems to lower the probability that I will return to practice the next day. But I will return to my commitment tomorrow because I have accepted that I am not going to be perfect. Falling off the wagon and getting back on sooner rather than later is core to ultimately being successful with any self-improvement project.
To be sure, we all feel a bit overwhelmed at times with our self-help, self-improvement culture. Part of the problem is that we have too many options and chatter. How do we sort through it all and commit? Despite all of our apps and devices to measure our steps, are we actually becoming more evolved as humans and as leaders? It seems that we all talk, read, and think about developing ourselves more than we actually do it.
Becoming a better leader is essentially a self-improvement project. As an executive coach, I am reminded every day that whether a project succeeds or fails comes down to my client’s willingness to experiment and try new things. If the client is willing to take on a new behavioral experiment within the first couple of meetings, we will likely be successful. If not, we usually wind up wasting each other’s time, or achieving mediocre results at best.
Making these self-improvement projects intrinsically rewarding is the secret to success. On a practical level, intrinsic rewards are not usually immediate or flashy. Receiving a gold medal or a promotion are examples of external rewards that are obvious, flashy, and give us an immediate rush. But what do the intrinsic gold medals look like? We cannot see intrinsic rewards as we can extrinsic rewards. But we can feel intrinsic rewards. So the important question is how do intrinsic gold medals feel? This set of feelings is much more subtle. Think of intrinsic rewards as quiet background music that you will not notice if you are engaged in a conversation. Tuning into intrinsic rewards requires knowing what you really want, what is important to you, and why. When you behave in alignment with what is really important to you, positive feelings happen. Doing the things that are really important to you and purposeful are intrinsically rewarding. But, our brains are wired to focus on what is right in front of us not what is deep within us. We need tools and practices to help us notice the intrinsic rewards that are happening within us.
One of the ways to notice intrinsic rewards is to write with a pen or pencil for three to five minutes. Let’s say you commit to running 365 miles. It is a Tuesday and you run one mile. Immediately after the run, write down what you are feeling for three minutes. In my case, I write down exactly what I feel after my morning mindfulness practice a couple of times a week. It helps me get in touch with the positive feelings about my discipline that are happening in there but I would not otherwise notice. By tuning into and noting those positive feelings I’m much more likely to stay committed and get back on track if I miss a day here or there.
Okay. Decision time. What is it that you know you need to work on? Commit yourself to a specific, clear, and measurable SIP. Get going now! And plug into the power of intrinsic rewards. You don’t have to take on the whole year from the get-go—give it a try for a week first. Think of it as a 7-day challenge.