5 Proven Approaches to Lasting Self-Improvement

The path to impactful and lasting self-improvement begins with one small step.


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Each day presents a new opportunity to grow and become a better person. Still, old habits die hard, and the journey of making big changes doesn’t happen overnight. However, by setting small goals, we give ourselves a better chance of making incremental changes that lead to big improvements over time.

1. Write Down Your Goals

Writing down goals not only clarifies the areas of your life you want to change but also greatly improves the chances of realizing your dreams. Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at the Dominican University in California, conducted a study that included 267 men and women from all walks of life, teachers, bankers, doctors, artists, lawyers, and so on. She divided the participants into two groups. One wrote down their goals and the other group did not. The former had an astounding 42% higher chance of success just by writing down their aspirations. Begin the path to self-improvement by listing all your dreams and aspirations for a better chance of success from the start.

2. Small Steps Lead to Big Changes

Making big changes doesn’t happen overnight. Reversing bad habits, healing from the pain of the past, learning something new, whichever areas require improvement, all take time and practice. Trying to accomplish all that in one day could easily lead to failure, leaving someone discouraged and likely to give up.

Breaking down a big goal into smaller, more attainable steps makes self-improvement less overwhelming. Let’s say you strive to live a healthier lifestyle. Start out by making a list of the small steps that would lead to that big goal. In this case, that list might look like:

•Taking a multivitamin each morning
•Eating a healthy breakfast of fruit or eggs (instead of pancakes)
•Taking the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible
•Exercising 20 minutes a day
•Cutting out sugary drinks like soda
•Only drinking wine one night per week
•Listening to a guided meditation for 10 minutes before bed
•Going to bed an hour earlier

Each week you could focus on one goal. Then, the following week, target another. Over time, this process will build up a set of habits that will achieve that larger goal of wellness.

3. Use Dopamine to Your Advantage

As you begin to tackle new, smaller goals, you have an even higher likelihood of continuing with that pattern toward self-improvement. Why? Research shows that accomplishing even small goals releases a flood of a chemical into our brains called dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter. These spikes drive people to repeat the same effect over and over again, one of the reasons why drugs that manipulate dopamine become so addictive.

Use that to your advantage by setting achievable, small goals. Each success will increase dopamine, make you feel good, and lead to accomplishing more goals in the future. Before you know it, you’ll see all of these small steps transform your life into big, positive changes.

4. Turn Goals Into a Habit

Self-improvement involves resetting habits, no small feat for anyone who has tried. In fact, the human brain favors routine as demonstrated in the study, When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict with Motives. While watching a movie, participants received either stale or fresh popcorn. Even though the ones with stale popcorn knew it didn’t taste as good, they ate as much as the other group. That’s because our brain has a natural urge to repeat patterns.

Turning a goal into a habit requires consistency. Make sure to stick with a goal on a daily basis by setting aside a time each day or in a specific context. For example, going for a walk each day at 6 PM or taking a multivitamin with lunch. The more regular the behavior, the more likely it will become habitual and second nature.

5. Change Your Environment

Environment has a big impact on achieving goals. A 2015 study out of Florida State University shows that even those who already have strong willpower take the extra steps of accomplishing their goals by avoiding temptation altogether. Take a look around and see how setting up the right environment can help actualize goals toward self-improvement.

Most people already know how hard it is to resist snacking while sitting next to a plate of french fries. If looking to live a healthier lifestyle, only keep nutritious foods in the house. If looking to improve creativity, try working in a new office setting to inspire ideas. Self-improvement may even mean moving to a different city with better opportunities or a chance to meet new people. Set yourself up for success by creating an environment that encourages your self-improvement goals.