Get a Specific “SIP”

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.

Karissa Thacker is founder and president of Strategic Performance Solutions Inc., a management training and consulting firm dedicated to elevating people to reach their highest potential and career satisfaction. She is the author of The Art of Authenticity: Tools To Become An Authentic Leader And Your Best Self (Wiley). For more information visit