We all have trouble areas in our lives. No matter how many you seem to knock off, there are always more to deal with.

That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not a self-defeating attitude so long as you look at life as a journey in self-improvement. If we reached a point where there was nothing left to improve about ourselves, we may as well take a dive off a tall building; it’d be the only thing left to experience. Everything else would be pedestrian.

Good thing it’s not possible to reach perfection. I don’t recommend that activity as much fun.

But if (part of) life’s purpose is to constantly improve ourselves, we need a plan of action so that we can consistently conquer whatever we set out to conquer. Here’s the approach I take; it can be applied to just about anything you like.

1. Identify the Area

It’s important to be specific about the issue you’re dealing with. There’s no point being obtuse in your definition; uncertainly leads to inaction. Don’t say, “I need to deal with my health.” Say, “I need to stop smoking,” or “I need to lose weight.”

If the area you want to deal with is obtuse and multi-faceted, you may want to break it down into various components and take each on as individual, and most importantly, consecutive projects. Don’t try to take on a massive area of your life with many components all at once. This approach is prone to failure.

2. Identify the Patterns

Identifying the patterns involved with your bad behavior is important. It helps you narrow down the most effective solutions (that we’ll find later) and implement them at the right times and places.

For example, if you want to stop impulse spending, identify the circumstances that lead to that spending; obviously, you need to be in a place that sells things. When you’re in a shop, do you ever refrain from impulse spending? Does it occur every single time without failure (unlikely even for the worst impulse spenders)?

By the process of elimination you can determine the circumstances that must be present for the runaway behavior to occur. If you go to buy a rotisserie chicken and pasta salad and come home with a feast for two families and Coke to last the week instead, do you have just the cash you need or a wallet stocked with credit and debit cards? The impulse spending could be brought on because the knowledge that you have your debit card with you makes you feel relaxed about purchasing more than you came for.

A potential solution: take out cash for shopping on pay day. Make a list of what you need each time you go to the shop, estimate the price, and bring only enough cash to pay for the items.

3. Determine the Causes

This can be a tricky step, because sometimes the causes that motivate your behaviors are deep rooted and tough to spot. It can require some honest and often uncomfortable introspection, and in other cases, the causes are obvious and right in front of you. For instance, some freelancers are overweight because their fridge is a few meters away and there’s no obstacle to the temptation to grab a snack.

On the other hand, smokers have been known to stick with the habit because they want the perpetual distraction—to prevent them from having to think about whatever tough emotional issues are in the back of their mind and might come to light in the absence of something distracting to do. So it can go either way—evident material cause or hidden emotional cause—and it’s up to you to discover it.

4. Research the Issue

Armed with some knowledge of your problem patterns and their causes, you can proceed on to doing some research on the issue. The introspective knowledge is important for framing the external information you’ll be digging through; it helps you sort through relevant and irrelevant material much more quickly.

For instance, if you want to quit smoking, understand the process of nicotine addiction, the pitfalls people experience in trying to quit, and the consequences of extended cigarette use. Knowledge is power, and sometimes a deterrent too—but in this case we just want a thorough understanding of the area we’re dealing with. Usually research alone does not act as a deterrent. If knowing that cigarette smoking caused lung cancer would get you to quit, those nasty pictures on packs of cigarettes would’ve worked.

5. List the Solutions

Part of your research will include finding known solutions. You want to find as many as you can and filter them for relevance and effectiveness. If something only worked for one other person but seems relevant to you, you might want to list it in case solutions that worked for a greater number of people don’t pan out, but if a solution seems to be effective for few and irrelevant to you, there’s little point taking note.

If you take note of every proposed solution out there, you’d be trialling heaps of methods that don’t work and waste your time, since everybody on the Internet knows how to solve everybody else’s problems. Be selective, but be open, and try to order your list so that the most promising methods of solving your problem are at the top and the least promising are at the bottom.

Think of your own solutions for the list too, since you’ll likely come up with a few when you’re identifying your patterns and causes earlier in the process. But other people’s solutions are a good place to start. There’s no point reinventing the wheel when certain methods have worked well for others.

6. Test the Solutions

Allocate a certain amount of time to test each solution in the list based on how long you’d guesstimate it needing before it takes effect. If you see results, stick it out unless you become sure that the results have ceased and a more effective solution is needed. And of course, be discerning and start with the methods that show the most promise for your situation and have worked well for others; don’t start with the methods that look easy but have worked for few others. There’s usually a reason that “solution” is so easy.

7. Review Your Progress

As you progress, make sure to review your process regularly. It seems like a given but you’d be surprised how often people keep trying to solve a problem using the same fix even when it doesn’t work. I knew a guy who used nicotine patches for six months while still smoking before he realized they weren’t going to do anything for him.

Is the solution working? What about the solution is producing results? In that light, are there other solutions that will work better or faster based on the way the situation is resolving itself? It could be worth giving the alternative a shot if there’s enough reason to believe it’ll work better.

At the end of the day, the process of fixing problem areas in your life comes down to two basic principles:

  1. Understand the problem and the solutions available.
  2. Test, tweak, rinse and repeat until you succeed.

If you can do this consistently, you can beat any problem; just give yourself enough time to test and tweak until you find out what works, and don’t expect miracles.

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