4 Steps to Self-Improvement

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As the famous and highly successful basketball coach at UCLA, John Wooden, wisely counseled:

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. … Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens – and when it happens, it lasts.”

He’s right, of course, which is why I routinely encourage people to try for a steady series of small improvements, rather than just the usual “big pushes” that tend to be intermittent, more demanding, and less effective.  

My favorite way to simplify and ease the process of making small, steady efforts at improvement is to follow a four-step program. It’s easy, and widely applicable. In fact,  you can execute this kind of program pretty much universally: at nearly every opportunity, in nearly every situation, nearly every day, throughout nearly all of your work and your life.

Let’s try it with skills improvement: Here are the basic four steps, as applied to steadily improving and expanding your skill set:

Set the Target

As with any goal, it’s hard to get there if you don’t know where you’re going. So the first step in steady skills improvement is to identify a particular skill you’d like to develop.

One way you can do this is to dream about your ideal skill set. Another is to analyze your current and/or future challenges and itemize the skills you will need to meet them. A third method is to look for key skills you can acquire that will open doors to new opportunities you find attractive. A fourth is to compare the skill sets of people you admire to your own, and focus on the differences.

However you do the identifying, remember the purpose of this step: to form a clear vision of one particular skill you’d like to develop. Make this your current target for self-improvement.  

Analyze the Discrepancies

Step two is to recognize the differences between the level of skill you’re targeting and your current level of that skill. Break down this difference into its various components, including such differences as those between:

  • What you currently know and what more you will need to know,
  • The tools you can now use and the additional tools you will need to use,
  • The strengths you now possess and the extra strengths you will need to develop,
  • The experience you now have and the useful experience you will need to draw upon,
  • The techniques you can now apply and the techniques you will need to master in the future,

and so forth.

School Yourself Daily

With a clear idea of the gap between your current skill level and the skill level you are trying to develop, it’s fairly easy to take the next step: prepare an agenda that will allow you to fill in that gap.

This agenda may include some or all of the following:

  • Pursuing specific education, reading, or certifcations,
  • Acquiring and learning to use new tools,
  • Building up certain additional strengths,
  • Absorbing relevant experiences,
  • Mastering critical techniques,

and so forth.

Map this skill-oriented agenda onto your calendar, laying it out so you schedule some clear, specific action to take to move yourself forward – at least a little bit – every day.

Important: Make a point of following this schedule.

Put What You Learn into Practice

This is the step that converts everything you’ve learned and are learning into readily usable skills: Look for ways to make use of your newly developing knowledge, tool mastery, strengths, experience, and techniques – even in situations you might not normally apply them.

The idea here is to find immediate opportunities to apply what you’ve learned and are learning. Taking advantage of such opportunities gives you both early feedback on the benefits of your steadily developing skill and extra confidence to incorporate it into your everyday skill set.

By using these four steps every day to move toward developing a particular new skill – or any other self-improvement – you’ll steadily accumulate a great deal of progress over the weeks, months, and years of your work and your life.

One last point: Remember that lasting change rarely happens overnight. Each of us, and each of the improvements we aim for, has an optimum pace of change. If you try to make a change too quickly, or too slowly, it won’t last very long, or it may not happen at all. Small but steady improvements, day after day, make for the biggest, longest-lasting gains.

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