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Reach your goals through the use of circular improvement

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Reach your goals through the use of circular improvement

Scott Miker

Most of the time we see our goals as a straight line.  Because we usually know what to do, we think we just need the motivation to actually do it. 

Sometimes this helps us to reach our goals but many times this just leaves us frustrated.  It isn’t as simple as it seems to improve and even when we hit specific goals we set, we can’t maintain that improvement over time. 

A better way to look at improvement is by building positive habits.  This allows us to focus on small improvements that we maintain.  Because we are maintaining the small improvements we make, we can build on them over time.  Instead of looking at improvement as a straight line, we see it as a circle. 

This is how to leverage our effort to improve.  Effort and motivation are temporary and fleeting.  So instead of using that energy to push forward to reach a goal, use that energy to find small, repetitive improvements. 

This incremental improvement technique is used in project management all the time, but for some reason it hasn’t transitioned to the self-improvement world.  Agile project management, continuous improvement, and Kaizen all rely on making small systematic adjustments in order to improve over time and complete work.

Here is an example.  Let’s say we want to better manage our money by growing a savings account or emergency fund.  We can just suck it up and work really hard and deprive ourselves as much as possible until we have the money.  But the problem is that as soon as we stop depriving ourselves we will go right back to our old habits.  This would follow the straight-line method of reaching a goal. 

The key here is that we can’t just do something temporarily.  We want to grow this account so we have to address our habits.  There are a lot of ways to do this.  We can cut out a cup of coffee a day from Starbucks and instead make coffee at home.  We can cook dinner on a night when we usually go out.  We can have a small percentage of our paycheck automatically go into a separate account. 

All of these start to address areas that can play a large role in our ability to improve and grow a savings account, and they can all start small.  Then you can incrementally to improve them and add in more systematic changes.  This is where it starts to be more representative of a circle than a straight line. 

Taking 1% from your paycheck to put into a savings account is easy.  In fact most people would probably not notice a 1% decrease in take-home pay.  So do this for a few paychecks.  Then do 2% for a few paychecks until you are used to that new take-home pay.  Keep going and within a few months you can have a new process that can become more and more valuable over time. 

Or skip Starbucks and find a less expensive coffee option.  Do that for 1 day per week for a month.  Then try 2 days per week.  Then 3.  Or if that is too difficult order a smaller size 1 day per week, then 2, then 3 etc.

Another way could be to skip going out for lunch and instead pack a lunch.  Or it could be to find generic alternatives at the grocery store.  Or to switch from buying Coke to drinking tap water. 

This approach isn’t just useful for growing a savings account.  It can be used in almost any self-improvement situation.  And these small habit changes usually overlap into other areas that we want to improve.  Changing from Coke to drinking water will help improve your health.  And eating a quick, packed lunch once per week could give you time to read or join a Toastmasters group. 

This is how you change from random, fleeting attempts at improvement, to a structured and easy way to leverage the effort you put forth today.  You identify areas of your life that can be incrementally improved and then build positive habits to keep driving you forward even after you stop thinking about each individual behavior change. 

So take the circular improvement approach and stop looking at goals and improvement as a straight line.  Doing this will help you improve more and more over time and help you reach goals that otherwise allude you.