Do you want to know where everyone goes wrong with self-development?
They treat it like a six-week “get fit quick” workout plan. Their hope is, if they can just do the work for a little bit, they’ll look great on a beach in Mexico for spring break.
But self-development and nurturing what you love most in life are the complete opposite of that.
They’re a commitment. A daily practice.
Positive habits that become so ingrained in who you are that missing even a single day leaves a bad taste in your mouth, like not brushing your teeth.
The Big Secret to Self-Development
What you do today truly affects what you do tomorrow.
Take a second to imagine yourself accomplishing the biggest goal of your life.
You can imagine the result, can’t you? You can see the trophy at the end and even guess what it would feel like to be validated for your great success. But right now, today, that feels oh so very far away. You can hear the final sonata in your head, but right now your fingers are fumbling over the keys. You can imagine yourself at the podium, accepting your Grammy, but right now you’re struggling to remember how to connect your microphone to your mixer to your computer. You can imagine yourself at the grand opening of your new restaurant, but right now you’re unsure of how to put together a business plan. You can imagine yourself sexy and fit, but right now there’s some sugary cereal in the cabinet and what’s one more day going to matter? You’ll eat healthy tomorrow. You’ll figure it out tomorrow.
You’ll practice tomorrow.
What You Need to Understand
Whatever you think is going to be different about “tomorrow” doesn’t exist.
If you don’t do what you need to do today, you’re just postponing doing that exact same thing tomorrow.
All that matters is today.
I swear to you, nothing in my life ingrained this in me more than bodybuilding. I didn’t miss a day. Not a single day. Months and months and months, not a single day. Even when I was sick, I would drag myself out of bed every two and a half hours to eat another meal. Even when I was so sore that I couldn’t walk, I would limp to the gym, start stretching and hit ten sets of squats. I lived like a bodybuilder because all my friends were bodybuilders and because we all lived by the same code: do what you need to do, every single day.
The result? I grew, and I grew fast.
It is the simplest habit in the entire world, this habit of consistency. It is also the single most challenging element of mastering not just a craft, but yourself. It truly is the reason some people succeed and others fail.
The problem is the vast majority of people don’t believe it. They sit down, start working on something, fifteen minutes go by, and they think to themselves, “Eh, I mean, so what if I don’t work on it today? It’s just one day. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
Let Me Prove How Valuable Each and Every Day Is
I practice on Monday; you practice on Monday.
I practice on Tuesday; you don’t.
I practice on Wednesday; you don’t.
I practice on Thursday; you practice on Thursday.
I practice on Friday; you don’t.
I don’t practice on Saturday; you don’t either.
I practice on Sunday; you practice on Sunday.
After one week, I’m up six to three.
After two weeks, I’m up 12 to 6.
After three weeks, I’m up 18 to 9.
After a month, I’m up 24 to 12.
After three months, I’m up 72 to 36.
After a year, I’m up 288 to 144.
Keeping all other variables the same, at the end of one year, I am twice as good as you are.
In one year, I racked up 288 days of practice, while you only racked up 144. And chances are, not only am I twice as good, but I got twice as much accomplished, or I made twice as much progress (sweeping generalizations, I know, but you get the point).
Now, did I do something magical? Did I pray and hope and wish and dream? Nope. Monday, I showed up. Tuesday, I showed up. Wednesday, I showed up. Thursday, I showed up. Friday, I showed up. Saturday, I gave myself a break. Sunday, I showed up.
The most mind-boggling part about this is some people can’t even get themselves to show up three days per week. Most can’t get themselves to show up one day per week. Months and months go by without them working on what they love (or say they love), and then they see someone else succeed and say, “Well, they must be more talented than me.” Who knows? Maybe they are. But their success was most likely the product of them showing up, day after day after day.
This rings so true to me because I have walked this path more than several times. Each of my passions has confirmed the overwhelming importance of daily practice — and not just daily practice, but the art of learning how to practice in a way that forces growth at a rapid speed.
- When I was a teenager, I went from never having played an online computer game before in my life to becoming a nationally ranked gamer.
- In college, I went from weighing just over 100 pounds and having a curvature in my spine and a concave chest to 170 pounds and shredded with 7% body fat.
- And after college, I went from having no writing portfolio to having work published in just about every major publication on the internet and being able to leave my 9–5 to become a full-time writer (making triple what I was making at an advertising agency).
I was not born insanely talented at any of these. All I’ve done is apply the same ten positive habits, over and over and over again.
From afar, success looks like a lot of ground covered in a short amount of time. In reality, it’s the opposite. It’s actually a very small amount of ground covered daily, compounded over a long amount of time. It’s not one massive action. It’s hundreds upon hundreds of tiny steps strung together. Which is why failure has much more to do with the immediate moment than the long term. People fail because they can imagine all that ground covered at the end of a year, but they can’t get themselves to see the value in the step they need to take today.
So, how do you nurture positive growth on a daily basis? How do you get yourself to commit to this process within yourself?
1. Never Stop Optimizing Your Daily Habits
The most fundamental habit for positive growth is the awareness that every single day, every single action, every single hour is an opportunity to continue refining your process. The moment you stop looking at life as yours to create is the moment you’ve stopped growing.
The most common mistake people make in optimizing their daily habits, however, is attempting to do it all at once. They make a long list of the twenty different things in their life they want to change, then set out to change them all overnight.
Throughout middle and high school, my mom (being a voice teacher) used to sign me up for these show choir camps she’d teach at during the summer. Each camp session would last five days. In a group of forty or fifty kids, you would spend those five days preparing four songs to sing and dance by the end of the week at the big final performance. It was intense.
While learning the dances to the songs, our choreographer (who was also a family friend of my mom’s) would remind us, “Don’t try to fix everything at once. This next run-through, just pick one thing to work on.” The piano player and the band would start the song over, and we’d go through the dance again.
I attended these show choir camps every summer between the ages of ten and eighteen, five weeks in a row. And each week a new group of kids would come in, the four songs would change, as would the choreography, and the process would start over. So by the end of any given summer, I had learned 24 songs with 24 different sets of choreography (this is what life looks like when your mother is a musician).
What I learned during those formative musical years is that you have to separate what you’re working on, especially when you’re constrained by time. When you’re trying to fix a dozen problems (or get a dozen dance moves correct) all at once, you fail. It’s too much to keep track of, and you make the whole process more difficult on yourself. By trying to do everything, you fix nothing.
Instead, each run-through of the song, I would focus on fixing one or two things. That’s it. A better pivot turn here, a tighter jazz square there. And sure enough, they would be fixed almost immediately, and I could move on to the next thing I wanted to refine.
A silly example, but this is the same issue people face when trying to optimize their schedule — their dance through life, if you will. They go to bed frustrated and say to themselves, “That’s it! I’ve had enough! Tomorrow, I’m going to do everything right and I’m going to finally change the direction of my life.” They vow to wake up earlier, make a healthy breakfast, read on the train, not check Facebook at all during work, go to the gym right after work, cook themselves a healthy dinner, start working on their screenplay instead of watching Netflix, and go to bed nice and early.
And they don’t fail because they’re incapable. They fail because they forgot to acknowledge the simplest form of human behavior: habit.
Until something is a habit, it takes a lot of effort to perform a task well — because it’s not yet embedded in your subconscious. When you wake up and brush your teeth, you walk to the bathroom without thinking about where to go, you grab your toothbrush while your eyes are still half-closed, you brush and brush, and the entire time you might not even be fully awake yet, but you’re still able to complete the task because you’ve made it a habit.
The same goes for every other action in your life.
When it comes to establishing and refining positive habits in your life, you have to take things one step at a time. If you want to get fit, but you also want to make progress on your book, and you want to start getting to bed earlier, start with one of those goals first. Tomorrow, focus on getting to sleep at a reasonable hour. Then, make that your focus again the next day. And the next day. Make that your focus for the next week, or two weeks, or even three weeks, until it no longer feels like a conscious decision. And then once it becomes habitual, place your focus elsewhere.
It’s a balance, then, to remind yourself that you should never stop optimizing your daily schedule, your goals, and your positive habits, but also to remember that you can’t change everything at once. So tomorrow, when you do your next run-through of your daily dance through life, just focus on one or two things. Get those moves right, first. Then start working on a third, forth, and fifth.
I know it seems like a longer road, but I promise you it’s not. It’s far more efficient and won’t be as taxing.
You’ll be far more successful in the long run.
2. Only Spend Time With People Who Nurture You in Positive Ways
I want you to think about the five people in your life you see most often.
Who are they? What are they passionate about? What are their daily habits? What do you bond over? How did you become friends?
The people you see on a daily or even weekly basis have a monumental impact on who you ultimately become. We, as humans, are animals by nature. As much as we learn through logical means like books, school, etc., we learn just as much, if not more, from our immediate surroundings. The people we interact with impact the way we think, the way we talk, the way we posture ourselves, and even the way we see the world. This is why the masses are always so amazed by someone who breaks out of an unhealthy environment and makes something great of themselves. We know the power of environment and the people closest to us.
If I think back to any of my interests or passions, I can pinpoint both the environment and the people within it that pushed me to grow in a positive direction. When I was a gamer, it was my guild in the World of Warcraft. When I was a bodybuilder, it was the group of guys I lifted with every day at the gym. When I entered the world of digital marketing, it was the agency I worked at that became like a second family. And when I committed myself to becoming a writer, it was Quora and other websites that gave me a sense of community. My closest friends have always been people who shared the same goals and ambitions, whether it was a concrete goal, like becoming a professional World of Warcraft player, or a self-development goal like becoming a more self-aware person.
As a result, I have never spent much time “hanging out” with people. I have too much in life I want to do to tolerate sitting on someone’s couch for hours, watching TV, or going to bars four nights a week just shooting the shit.
I firmly believe that whatever value people get from that sort of hanging out, you get on a magnified level when you’re actively collaborating with people on something meaningful to you both. People say they enjoy hanging out because they enjoy each other’s company, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But the guys I played World of Warcraft with, or the guys I lifted with, or the people I worked with on a daily basis were people I got to know on an extremely personal level. The difference is that we were simultaneously making moves toward our goals as well.
Some people see this way of thinking as selfish. I see it as necessary. When it comes to protecting who you are and what you do with your life, it’s OK to be selfish. It’s OK to acknowledge the impact people have on your development and emotional state. And most of all, it’s OK to keep, remove, or re-prioritize people in your life as you see fit, based on where you want to go.
The challenge is knowing when to step away from a friendship, relationship, or community that no longer holds your best interests in mind. Friendships are part of what makes life enjoyable, but I urge you to ask yourself what you value more: your friendship with someone that might not benefit you over the long term or your relationship with yourself. Because for every hour you spend with that one person, or group of people, that’s an hour you could have spent elsewhere, in a different community, moving yourself in a different direction.
This is such an important part of the process because, when you’re surrounded by people who you enjoy spending time with, but also share similar goals, ambitions, values, and habits, you grow exponentially faster. It’s almost impossible not to. The days you feel uninspired, someone from your community or group of friends will be “on,” and their energy will re-inspire you — and vice versa.
You have to see the people in your life as your inner circle, your “dream team.” And the more selective you are about that team, the more you spend time with genuinely good people who share similar life goals with you, the more days you will feel motivated to practice, the more days you will “show up,” the more you will find yourself being pushed outside your comfort zone, and the faster you will grow.
Again, it’s not always about sharing the exact same goals. Your entire group of friends doesn’t have to want the same things you do in life. But what’s important is how they intend on getting where they want to go. What are their habits? What sort of language do they use (are they positive or negative people) when describing what goes on in their lives? What are their day-to-day practices? Their leisure activities? What means the most to them in life?
These are the indicators that will let you know whether you’re spending time with people who are going to inspire you to continue improving yourself or will eventually drag you down.
And the moment they start dragging you down, it’s up to you to walk away and find your next community.
3. Measure, Measure, Measure
As my mentor said to me often, “If you can’t measure it, don’t do it.”
If you ever look around a gym, you’ll find the most devoted lifters and fitness advocates writing notes in their little notebooks between sets. They are tracking their reps, their sets, how much weight they used because measuring helps reveal whether they’re growing or remaining stagnant.
Part of having positive habits is knowing how to measure your habits and constantly keeping an eye on whether you’re improving and growing or merely spinning your wheels.
The easiest way to track something is with data. In the World of Warcraft, I could see my rank either rise or fall each week. In the gym, I either lifted less, the same, or more than the week before. And when I started writing on Quora in 2015, I could see which answers got the most views, the most Upvotes, comments, etc. All this data helped give me insight as to whether or not my habits were working and, even more so, motivated me to continue toward the next goal. It’s why brands have launched fitness applications to help people track how many steps they take in a day or water bottles that tell how much water you’ve consumed. Data helps us.
But how do you measure when that data isn’t available? How do you measure the things that don’t come with a screen and a well-designed interface? How do you know if that novel you’re working on is any good? Or how do you know your daily schedule is any more or less fulfilling than it was six months ago?
There are two answers:
The first is, you don’t — at least, not right away. You won’t know if what you wrote today is any better than what you wrote yesterday until much further down the line. Examining your own growth on a day-to-day basis is like watching your hair grow in the mirror. It has to be measured over the long term, and since that requires patience, a lot of people give up.
Which means the simplest way to tell whether you are, at minimum, moving in the right direction is to ask yourself whether you actually did what you needed to do today or not. You either woke up at the first alarm or you didn’t. You either went to the gym or you didn’t. You either practiced the violin for two hours or you didn’t. You either sat down and focused on your startup idea or you didn’t. It’s a very clear yes or no question that you have to ask yourself every single day.
If you start going too many days where the answer is, “No, I didn’t practice today,” then it’s time to grab a sheet of paper or a calendar and track how many yes days and no days you have in a week, a month, even a year. Once you see that data in front of you, you’ll get a clearer sense of whether you’re making any progress at all.
The second is that allocating time to work on what you love (especially after a long day of work) is only the beginning. We all have the same 24 hours in a day. So, it’s not just the time spent that’s important, but the way that time is being used.
When I was younger, I studied classical piano. It was a requirement in our family for each child to play a musical instrument, and my mother did a marvelous job at ensuring that we practiced each and every day.
On the days I really didn’t want to practice and would frantically play through songs I already knew well, my mother would walk into the music room and take a seat in the nearby chair.
“Cole,” she’d say, in a quiet but stern voice.
“You’re not practicing.”
“Yes I am. Can’t you hear me?” I’d say, banging on the keys some more.
“No, you’re playing. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t count toward your hour of practice. You need to practice something new.”
I didn’t want to. Practicing new things was hard. It meant fumbling through notes for hours and hours until finally they would stick to my fingers.
But she was right. Just sitting there for an hour didn’t mean I had practiced much of anything.
Part of investing in yourself and measuring your progress with things that aren’t easy to measure is about being your own hardest critic. It’s about pushing yourself to get deep into the work. Just allocating the time to practice is only part of the battle. The other half comes down to what you do with that time, and how much you make it work for you.
4. Create Your Own Rules — and Follow Them
This is, without a doubt, one of the hardest things for people to do for themselves: create and follow their own set of rules.
Following your dreams and demanding that you find time every day to work on something that interests you is hard work. Really hard work. And as much as people like to believe that they can just “do it tomorrow” or that it will “happen one day,” the truth is, it won’t. It won’t unless you put your nose to the grindstone and make it happen.
To do this, and to ensure that you get that hour or two to yourself each day, and to keep yourself in the best mental place possible so that you make full use of that time, you need your own set of rules.
And then you have to follow them.
Between the ages of 22 and 26, those four years while I was working on Confessions of a Teenage Gamer, my rulebook was extraordinarily strict. I didn’t drink alcohol. I went out maybe once or twice a month. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have internet at my apartment. I didn’t chase girls or stay out until three in the morning. I took my dream and my writing very seriously, and I knew that if I didn’t, I would end up doing the same things everyone else my age was doing: spending money at bars, hanging out, and watching Netflix.
During those years, a lot of people told me to lighten up. A lot of people told me I should be more social. A lot of people gave me a hard time when I said I was going to spend yet another Friday night working on my book instead of going out. A lot of people stopped asking me to hang out all together. A lot of people felt uncomfortable by my drive and focus. I remember going out for St. Patrick’s day one year, a glass of water in my hand, and this drunk girl lecturing me at the bar about how I thought I was better than everyone else because I wouldn’t do shots with them.
I faced a lot of that during those four years, everyone from close friends to acquaintances telling me how they thought I should live. And I’ll be the first to admit that it wasn’t easy to follow my own rulebook, to not drink so that I could go home and work on my writing for an hour with a sober mind before bed. It wasn’t easy forcing myself to sit in a coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon and work on my craft while two blocks away was a booming street festival. It wasn’t easy to do these things, but I’ll tell you what: the days when I took other people’s advice and compromised on what my heart truly wanted to do, I always regretted it.
Don’t get me wrong, I still had fun. I still went to music festivals, I still went to cool events downtown Chicago, I still had my group of friends, but the amount I indulged in those social activities was extremely intentional. I was hyper-aware of the fact that those things needed to supplement my life, not be foundational pieces.
Most people don’t have a rulebook of their own. I can’t tell you how many times during those four years I experienced the same interaction, over and over again. I’d be standing by a bar, holding a glass of water, and someone would start talking to me — someone who couldn’t fathom why I would be out with other people drinking if I wasn’t going to drink myself (something I found fascinating in itself).
They’d say, “So, you just don’t like to drink? Or what?”
“Yeah, I mean I have celiac disease and most alcohol is made from wheat, so I just sort of steer clear of it altogether.”
I blamed almost everything on my having celiac disease. It worked well.
“Oh! My cousin has celiacs. She drinks gluten-free beer though. You can have that, can’t you?”
“I guess, but I don’t really like to drink,” I’d say.
“Well, why not?”
I’d let out a big sigh.
“Because I probably won’t be out very late, and I have some things I want to work on later.”
“But it’s Friday. You shouldn’t be doing work on a Friday.”
I’d just sort of shrug.
A few minutes would go by and then this same person would come back and say, “So you never drink?”
“Not really,” I’d say, asking the bartender for a refill on my water.
Their eyes would wander past my head and around the room for a moment. And then, sure enough, they’d say, “You know, I’ve been trying to drink less. It’s so much harder for me to wake up and do the things I want to do the next morning.”
I swear, I’m not joking, I had this same conversation with probably 500 different people over those four years of complete sobriety.
It was the same situation, every single time. I’d have my water. They’d have their drink. They’d question why I was drinking water. I’d tell them why. They’d give me a hard time and try to get me to drink something gluten-free with them. I’d shrug and pretty much tell them to go away. And then ten minutes later they’d come back and admit that they don’t really like drinking a lot either, and then they’d tell me their dream. This happened with girls, guys, older people, people younger than me, over and over again.
I want to make explicitly clear that this all has very little to do with alcohol. Now, as a full-time writer, I write anywhere from four to ten hours per day (that’s not an exaggeration), and when I go out I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or an old-fashioned with rum (gluten-free) when grabbing drinks with a few friends. But back then, I was fighting for writing time. Fighting. Eight- to ten-hour workdays, plus two hours of travel time, and already the day was close to done. I gave myself a strict rulebook because that’s what I needed, then, to make my dream come true.
Replace alcohol and going out to the bars with anything you want: watching movies, attending music festivals, hanging out with friends, whatever. To drink or not to drink, that is not the question. The question is whether you’re following your own rulebook, and the moment when you start compromising yourself and what you truly want for short-term enjoyment.
Anyone can talk the talk. Those four years, I watched a lot of people close to me talk a lot about the things they wanted to do. They talked, and talked, and talked, and then Friday night would come and they’d do exactly what they said they weren’t going to do anymore.
Create your own rulebook around what you want to do with your life, and follow it.
5. Balance Input and Output (You Need Both)
No matter what you want to do in life, you have to learn how to balance both sides of the coin: doing the thing and recharging so you can continue doing the thing.
If you want to get fit, you can’t just spend all day in the gym (output). You have to eat too (input). If you want to write (output), you have to read (input). If you want to play music, you have to listen. If you want to paint, you have to look. If you want to build a multi-million dollar company, you have to talk to others who have done the same and learn from them. Anything you want to do, you also have to study.
When I was in college, and I first started working on Confessions of a Teenage Gamer, I remember talking with one of my teachers and saying, “I’m having a lot of trouble with the voice. I just can’t get the voice of the story right.”
She asked one question and one question only, and it has stuck in my mind ever since.
“What are you reading?”
She wasn’t so much interested in what I was doing, but rather what I was taking in and filling my brain with when I wasn’t doing.
This is the side of the coin that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, and yet it’s the entire basis for the act of producing something of value.
Anytime you feel creatively blocked or mentally exhausted, you need to ask yourself (in the context of your own craft), “What am I reading?” What are you taking in on a daily basis that is feeding your imagination? Who are you studying? What knowledge are you consuming and how is it impacting your process?
Unfortunately, we now live in a world filled with snackable content available at a moment’s notice. The vast majority of people’s input activities consist of scrolling through social media sites. But in the same way you would never feed your body Sour Patch Kids for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you cannot feed your brain candy-like content all day and expect to feel inspired.
One of the keys of positive growth is prioritizing the right kind of input. To see the difference in action, scroll through your Facebook feed for fifteen minutes and then immediately after, pick up a novel. If you pay close enough attention, you’ll notice very quickly how different reading a book feels as opposed to scrolling through your phone. It’s harder. It’s a mental workout. And that’s exactly the point.
Whenever I went through long periods of unhappiness or feeling uninspired, my input and output activities were severely out of balance. I was either trying to do too much without giving myself time to recharge, or I was feeding my brain the wrong kind of material. Too much scrolling and you’ll make yourself sick.
From afar, I have also noticed this same pattern with a lot of people who claim they’re unfulfilled or unhappy with their job, the direction of their life, etc. We like to think that we don’t like to work very hard, but the truth is we hate the other option just as much. Chill too much, and you’ll die of boredom. Scroll too much, and you’ll feel as though you aren’t doing anything with your life. Snack on too much candy, and you’ll feel very, very unhealthy. But catching yourself and choosing the harder road is difficult, which is why most people stay stuck in the vicious cycle.
Falling into these imbalances is inevitable. It happens. What’s important is that you quickly get out. And yes, the first day or two will feel very heavy. That’s the best way I can put it. When you’re out of the gym for a while, and you step back in, everything feels heavier than it should. But once you get going, you’ll be right back to where you were before. You just have to get over that first hump.
The same goes for your daily habits. If you fall out of sync and find yourself lying in bed, depressed, worrying about the direction of your life and simultaneously scrolling through your phone, you need to catch yourself and realize that you are feeding your own unhappiness. You have a stomachache and yet you are still eating handfuls of candy.
Get yourself out of bed and do something hard. And guess what? It will be hard. It will feel heavy. And you will fight yourself the whole way. Your inner dialogue will say every possible thing to get you to shovel one more handful of candy into your brain. Ignore it. Keep doing whatever difficult thing is the right kind of input.
One or two healthy meals later, and you will feel like a completely different person.
Your brain and your body are your temples. Fill that temple with garbage, and you will feel gross. Fill that temple with rich information, and you will feel like an Olympian.
So, it’s not just about balancing time between “doing” and “studying,” but also the quality of what you’re studying.
You are both the star player and the coach.
It’s on you to perform and to help yourself train and learn how to perform to your highest ability.