2017: An Actual Plan to Actually Improve

[Epistemic status: mostly confident, but being this intentional is experimental]

This year, I’m focusing on two traits: resilience and conscientiousness. I think these (or the fact that I lack them) are my biggest barriers to success. Also: identifying them as goals for 2017 doesn’t mean I’ll stop developing them in 2018. A year is just a nice, established amount of time in which progress can actually be made. This plan is a more intentional version of techniques I’ve used to improve myself over the last few years. I have outside verification that I’m more responsible, high-functioning, and resilient than I was several years ago. I have managed to reduce my SSRI dose, and I have finished more important tasks this year than last year.

Inspiring blog posts and articles can only do so much for personal development. The most valuable writing in that genre tends to outline actual steps that (the author believes) generate positive results. Unfortunately, finding those steps is a fairly personal process. The song that gives me twenty minutes of motivation and the drug that helps me overcome anxiety might do the opposite for you. Even though I’m including detailed steps in this plan, you should keep that in mind. I hope that this post can give you a template for troubleshooting and discovering your own bottlenecks.

First, I want to talk about my criteria for success. Without illustrating the end result, or figuring out how to measure it, I could finish out the year with a false belief that I’d made progress. If you plan something without success criteria, you run the same risk. I also believe that most of the criteria should be observable by a third party, i.e. hard to fake.

  1. I respond to disruptions in my plans with distress and anger. While I’ve gotten better at calming down, the distress still happens. I would like to have emotional control such that I observe first, and then feel my feelings. Disruptions should incite curiosity, and a calm evaluation of whether to correct course. The observable bit is whether or not my husband and friends report that I seem less upset when they disrupt me. This process is already taking place; I’ve been practicing this skill for a long time and I expect to continue seeing progress. (resilience)

  2. If an important task takes very little time, doesn’t require a lot of effort, and doesn’t disrupt a more important process, I will do it immediately. The observable part is simple, here: are the dishes getting done? Did the trash go out on Wednesday? (conscientiousness)

  3. I will do (2) without “taking damage.” I will use visualization of the end result to make my initial discomfort less significant. (resilience)

  4. I will use various things like audiobooks, music, and playfulness to make what can be made pleasant, pleasant. (resilience and conscientiousness)

  5. My instinct when encountering hard problems will be to dissolve them into smaller pieces and identify the success criteria, immediately, before I start trying to generate solutions. I can verify that I’m doing this by doing hard problems in front of people, and occasionally asking them to describe my process as it appears.

  6. I will focus on the satisfaction of doing hard things, and practice sitting in discomfort regularly (cold tolerance, calming myself around angry people, the pursuit of fitness, meditation). It’s hard to identify an external sign that this is accomplished. I expect aversion-to-starting to become less common, and my spouse can probably identify that. (conscientiousness)

  7. I will keep a daily journal of what I’ve accomplished, and carry a notebook to make reflective writing easy and convenient. This will help keep me honest about my past self. (conscientiousness)

  8. By the end of the year, I will find myself and my close friends/​family satisfied with my growth. I will have a record of finishing several important tasks, will be more physically fit than I am now, and will look forward to learning difficult things.

One benefit of the some of these is that practice and success are the same. I can experience the satisfaction of any piece of my practice done well; it will count as being partly successful.
I’ve taken the last few years to identify these known bottlenecks and reinforcing actions. Doing one tends to make another easier, and neglecting them keeps harder things unattainable. These are the most important habits to establish early.
  1. Meditation for 10 minutes a day directly improves my resilience and lowers my anxiety.

  2. Medication shouldn’t be skipped (an SSRI, DHEA, and methylphenidate). If I decide to go off of it, I should properly taper rather than quitting cold turkey. DHEA counteracts the negatives of my hormonal birth control and (seems to!) make me more positively aggressive and confident.

  3. Fitness (in the form of dance, martial arts, and lifting) keeps my back from hurting, gives me satisfaction, and has a number of associated cognitive benefits. Dancing and martial arts also function as socialization, in a way that leads to group intimacy faster than most of my other hobbies. Being fit and attractive helps me maintain a high libido.

  4. I need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. I’ve tried getting around it. I can’t. Getting enough sleep is a well-documented process, so I’m not going to outline my process here.

  5. Water. Obviously.

  6. Since overcoming most of my social anxiety, I’ve discovered that frequent, high-value socialization is critical to avoid depression. I try to regularly engage in activities that bootstrap intimacy, like the dressing room before performances, solving a hard problem with someone, and going to conventions. I need several days a week to include long conversations with people I like.

Unknown bottlenecks can be identified by identifying a negative result, and tracing the chain of events backwards until you find a common denominator. Sometimes, these can also be identified by people who interact with you a lot.
My personal “toolkit” is a list of things that give me temporary motivation or rapidly deescalate negative emotions.
  1. Kratom (<7g) does wonders for my anxieties about starting a task. I try not to take it too often, since I don’t want to develop tolerance, but I like to keep some on hand for this.

  2. Nicotine+caffeine/​ltheanine capsules gives me an hour of motivation without jitters. This also has a rapid tolerance so I don’t do it often.

  3. A 30-second mindfulness meditation can usually calm my first emotional response to a distressing event.

  4. Various posts on mindingourway.com can help reconnect me to my values when I’m feeling particularly demotivated.

  5. Reorganizing furniture makes me feel less “stuck” when I get restless. Ditto for doing a difficult thing in a different place.

  6. Google Calendar, a number of notebooks, and a whiteboard keep me from forgetting important tasks.

  7. Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning, remotivates me to achieve mastery in various hobbies.

  8. External prompting from other people can make me start a task I’ve been avoiding. Sometimes I have people aggressively yell at me.

  9. The LW study hall (Complice.co) helps keep me focused. I also do “pomos” over video with other people who don’t like Complice.

This outline is the culmination of a few years of troubleshooting, getting feedback, and looking for invented narratives or dishonesty in my approach. Personal development doesn’t happen quickly for me, and I expect it doesn’t for most people. You should expect significant improvements to be a matter of years, not months, unless you’re improving the basics like sleep or fitness. For those, you see massive initial gains that eventually level off.
If you have any criticisms or see any red flags in my approach, let me know in the comments.