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Published on November 18, 2020

5 Ways To Build Capacity For Continuous Personal Growth

5 Ways To Build Capacity For Continuous Personal Growth

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

You read a new book, start a new course, or set a New Year’s resolution. You get excited and motivated to grow, sure that your new lifestyle will stick this time.

And then a few weeks later, you lose your steam. You just can’t generate the same level of excitement you started with.

The truth is, the people who experience radical growth over their lives are not the ones who hyper-charge their motivation when they start something new. They are the ones who gradually build their capacity for continuous personal growth so they can iteratively get 1% better.

Kaizen is a Japanese term often used in business, meaning continuous change for the better – an ongoing endeavor for incremental improvement. This concept can be applied to the mind just as easily.

There are a number of techniques for increasing your capacity to grow throughout your life, and these are some of the most worthwhile investments you can make.

1. Design Your Environment

One thing you can do now that will keep working for you continuously (no willpower required) is to alter your environment.

Look around at how your living space is arranged. What behaviors does it promote and what does it neglect or discourage? Would you say the physical space you spend your time in is representative of the person you would like to be? Your digital environments shape you as well.

The websites you visit regularly, the podcasts you subscribe to, and the apps you keep on your phone will shape you. If you want to be less distracted, disable the notifications and unsubscribe from the email newsletters that you don’t feel push you in the direction of your ideals, and consider subscribing to those that do.

Another crucial way to design yourself through your environment is by surrounding yourself with people who have priorities, traits, or practices you would like to cultivate in yourself.

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Statistically, the more overweight people in your social circles, the more likely you are to become overweight.[1] So if you want to become more fit, you’ll be swimming against the current if you haven’t embedded yourself in active environments or built connections with people who prioritize fitness.

The character traits of the people around you will rub off on you as well, so people who are honest, narcissistic, altruistic, or manipulative will gradually shape you in the direction of those traits. So the act of designing your environment is literally the act of designing yourself.

2. Study Your Biases

If you are like most people, you look around and see others who are confused, dogmatic, and irrational. You, on the other hand, have mostly found the correct beliefs and learned to think clearly. If everyone else would just listen to you, the world would be a much better place.

But the truth is that we are all deeply biased and have blind spots that prevent us from seeing our own thinking errors.

The tricky thing about cognitive biases is that one little distortion in your thinking won’t just cause you to make a single mistake. It will continue to cause mistakes for the rest of your life – unless you can find it and program it out.

If you want to overcome self-limiting biases, the first and most obvious step is to familiarize yourself with the most common biases found across the human race. Here are some examples:

Confirmation bias is responsible for the fact that we tend to look only for information that confirms our existing theories, beliefs, and worldview at the expense of those that conflict with them.

The bandwagon effect refers to our tendency to come to conclusions and make decisions based on what is popular, though we often find ways to rationalize these decisions to ourselves.

The fundamental attribution error causes us to attribute our own positive behaviors and successes to our individual character while blaming our negative behaviors and failures, and the successes of others, on luck and circumstance.

These are just a few examples of biases – you can find a more exhaustive list here, and a nice diagram here. Biases can be stubborn, but if you can learn to identify and remove a particular bias, the quality of your decisions will be improved throughout your life.

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3. Practice Asceticism

Over the course of our lives, we develop dependencies that could be compared to addictions. We start to need a glass of wine to relax after work, need our Tempur-Pedic bed to get to sleep, or need a six-figure income to be content in our lives.

You will not have time for continuous personal growth if your life is dominated by trying to satisfy your elaborate requirements.

Weird as it may seem, we often learn about ourselves by observing our own behaviors, so if all of our behaviors suggest to us that money, for example, is the highest good, we very well may start to believe it.

To counter the effect of acquired dependencies, we can use the practice of asceticism, or voluntary discomfort, to intentionally deprive ourselves of some desired and attainable object.

The practice has been used by some to serve as self-punishment, which has led some to quickly write it off. But the useful purpose of asceticism is to decrease our ongoing desires and bring contentment into closer reach.

Simply choose something on which you feel you are overly reliant, and intentionally limit or sacrifice that desire. If you find yourself unable to endure basic economy flights, enjoy camping trips, or are unhappy whenever the thermostat is not set to the perfect temperature, you have become overly-reliant on comfort. Counter this dependency by sleeping on the floor for a night or walking barefoot on a gravel road.

If it is pleasure you crave, you can temporarily deprive yourself of food (fasting), sex, or a drug to down-regulate the desire. Minor acts of social sacrifice, such as neglecting an opportunity to signal something positive about yourself, can decrease your desire for status, approval, and validation. And giving away all but the most necessary possessions in the spirit of minimalism can down-regulate the innate desire to accumulate and horde.

Would anyone who thought pleasure was the ultimate good deliberately put herself in an uncomfortable position? Would anyone who thought social status were the highest good neglect his social media accounts? Would anyone who thought money were the highest good turn down, or even give away, a large sum of money? You teach yourself what is important to you through your behaviors, so behave wisely.

For every type of perpetual desire you are able to remove, you remove complication from your life. If you can snip out these burdensome lifestyle addictions, you can make room in your life for growth.

4. Design Your Consequences

Every time you take an action, there is a consequence that gives your brain some kind of reward or punishment.

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It may seem strange to suggest we can “design” the consequences of our actions, but there are many ways to ensure that the right behaviors are reinforced and the wrong ones are discouraged. And putting these consequences in place will take away the need to be motivated all the time to achieve your goals.

You can leverage your desire for money by making the commitment to give money to your friend every day you fail to practice an instrument you want to learn. Simply make a deposit to a trusted friend that you can only get back if you meet your specific behavioral goal. This way, the consequence for slacking off will be a financial loss, making it harder to justify.

By publicly announcing the behavioral changes you intend to make, you can use your social drives to raise the stakes of failure. By getting a personal trainer or workout partner, you can add accountability to your habits and make it so that failing to go to the gym may cause you to face the judgment of others.

As I write this, I’m using an online tool called Focusmate which calls itself a virtual coworking tool. It sets up roughly hour long video sessions between strangers trying to accomplish their own goals, and asks each person to work silently, only sharing their goal at the beginning and how well they did at the end. It’s a surprisingly powerful productivity tool, and it works because it stacks consequences of social approval or disapproval onto our personal goals.

A method known as temptation bundling allows us to stack enjoyable activities onto our defined goals. Whether you love fantasy football, bubble baths, or dressing up like a pirate, you can structure your plans so you only allow yourself to do these things after completing a particular disciplined activity. This will slowly cause you to associate the positive behavior with the indulgence until you begin to crave the positive activity itself.[2]

One of the most interesting ways to take advantage of your reward system is by creating a token economy. Create some kind of token, be it a poker chip, a paper clip, or a check mark in your notebook. Assign a particular value to the token, and give yourself one immediately every time you perform a predetermined action. You can say that a token equals a coffee, a concert, or one episode of your favorite streaming show. Over time, the token will become so closely associated with the reward that it will serve as a powerful reward itself.[3]

Make it so the path to growth is also the path of least resistance, and you will never burn out on your goals again.

5. Log Your Thoughts and Emotions

Bad emotional habits are just like biases – they will be continually triggered throughout your life if you don’t find ways to program them out. According to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the most effective therapeutic method ever devised, negative emotions are caused by automatic and distorted thoughts. So if we can notice and correct our flawed thinking, we can remove problematic emotions.

One of the most effective methods for removing these bad emotional patterns is to keep a log in the form of a notepad or a smartphone app. Try to take a note of every unwanted emotion you notice – anything from minor annoyance to severe anxiety. Every time you log an emotion, take a note of the situation which triggered it, and if possible, the chain of thoughts which came immediately before it.

The simple act of keeping a log should cause you to notice many more of these emotions and patterns than you normally would. You will find that certain lines of reasoning dominate your emotional experience. You may find that a certain kind of mistaken reasoning is responsible for a huge percentage of your daily struggles.

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Once you find a potentially distorted belief at the root of your emotions, you can investigate how accurate it really is. Positive psychology researcher Courtney Ackerman offers some basic questions to ask:[4]

Is this thought realistic?

Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?

What is the evidence for this thought?

Could I be misinterpreting the evidence?

Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when it’s really more complicated?

Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?

If you can correct the mistaken reasoning, you can permanently reprogram the undesired emotion.

By learning to quickly recognize and refute your emotional distortions, you can build the habit of short-circuiting this tendency automatically, programming it out for good. Then you are free to focus your efforts on setting new goals and taking action.

More Tips on Personal Growth

Featured photo credit: Nana Kim via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Ryan A Bush

Creator of Designing the Mind and the world's leading expert on psychitecture

5 Ways To Build Capacity For Continuous Personal Growth

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Published on November 16, 2020

6 Science-Backed Tips To Learn How To Learn

6 Science-Backed Tips To Learn How To Learn

When people want to pick up a new skill or learn a new subject, they tend to dive right into it. They rarely take the time to learn how to learn in the first place, and that’s a mistake. If they took the time to improve their learning skills, they would get better at everything else.

How can we avoid that mistake and become better learners? Here are 6 science-backed tips to learn how to learn.

1. Connect What You Are Learning To What You Already Know

Let’s imagine you’ve never seen a leopard in your life. If I were to describe it to you, I could start by naming different facts about it, such as height, weight, how many legs it has, etc. That would make the information very abstract. The other option would be telling you to think of a leopard as a wild oversized cat, and then point to its distinctive characteristics, such as its spotted coat and long tail.

The second example is easier to grasp because I am asking you to use the knowledge you already have (the “concept” of a cat) to learn a new one (the “concept” of a leopard).[1]

All learning works the same way; it’s easier for us to grasp new knowledge and skills if we connect them to what we already know. It’s the reason great teachers commonly use analogies, similes, and comparisons. They know the best path to make us learn something new is to relate it to what’s already in our heads.

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2. Scaffold Your Learning

Learning builds upon itself: we start small and add to it as we progress.[2] It’s the idea of learning to walk before learning to run. And though that seems obvious, we often want to jump ahead without learning the foundation to build upon. Think of people who wish to learn multi-leg options trading without having a fundamental understanding of financial instruments and the stock market. Or people who want to learn handstand pushups before learning the mechanics of a basic handstand.

This tip ties in with our previous one. By following a progression, you are using your prior knowledge as support for adding the new one. Effective learning should always be progressive, moving from general concepts to specific, simple processes to complex ones, concrete information to abstraction, and principles to strategies.

3. Use the Right Input Mode

Learning scientists classify the different ways we take in information into four categories: Observation (seeing someone doing what we want to learn), Imitation (Following along), explanation (listening or reading to instructions), and experimentation (trying things on our own).

Depending on what you are trying to learn, some will be more effective than others. If you are learning martial arts, observation and imitation are better approaches than learning purely from a book (explanation) or experimenting on our own. In other cases, such as learning history or philosophy, a class, podcast, or a book can be a good option. Ideally, we should try to combine different input modes, so the new knowledge is easier to understand and takes a better hold in our memory.

4. Practice Retrieval

Practice retrieval is the technical name for testing. We know testing in the form of exams and quizzes, but it can also come in the form of explaining what we know to someone else or reviewing information in our mind. The point of practice retrieval is that, as the name implies, we retrieve information from memory.

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Practice retrieval is one of the best learning strategies out there.[3] It takes advantage of something that renown psychologists Robert Bjork calls desirable difficulty. Retrieving information from memory challenges the mind, and it is that extra effort we put into recall that helps us solidify our learning.

Practice retrieval helps us in two key ways. On one side, the effort we put into the recall reinforces what we know. And on the other, testing our knowledge shows us what we know well and what needs more study.

Something to remember about practice retrieval is that we are not testing ourselves to get a grade or to get the answers right all the time. We are doing it to improve our learning. Even when we get the answers wrong, our mind primes itself to learn the right answers afterward.

How do we practice retrieval? We can create our own quizzes for what we are learning, use flashcards, review the information in our mind, or teach it to someone else (teaching forces us to recall information from memory, so it works as practice retrieval).

5. Follow Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is about allowing ourselves time between study sessions instead of cramming everything into a short amount of time.

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Learning research is clear in declaring spaced repetition a better strategy than cramming. This is because spaced repetition provides something cramming cannot: balance.

Effective learning requires a period of concentrated study, followed by a consolidation period. It also requires, as surprising as it may sound, moderate forgetting (more on that below).

When we cram, it feels as if we are learning faster, but the progress we make fades almost as quickly as we got it. And since we are packing large amounts of information in a short period, it’s hard to identify what has taken a good hold in our mind and what hasn’t.

With spaced repetition, we allow time between study sessions, so when we go back to test or review what we are learning, we’ll know which knowledge was internalized and which wasn’t—and needs further study. Also, the time between study sessions allows for some forgetting, making it more effortful to recall what we learned before. This relates to the desirable difficulty[4] we discussed in the previous tip. The effort we put into retrieving information helps us solidify our knowledge.

6. Seek Out Mentors

The value of mentors cannot be overstated. They guide us through the learning process, help us avoid common pitfalls, and offer us a wealth of experience into what works, what doesn’t, and where to direct our efforts.[5]

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The mentor-apprentice model has been successful throughout history in all fields. Beginners are paired with advanced practitioners and teachers to show them the ropes.

Trying to do things on our own without any guidance makes our learning slow. If we want to get the most out of the time and energy we put into learning any skill in our craft, we should seek out mentors to learn from. They will push us to give our best and help us accelerate our progress in ways we could never do on our own.

Closing Thoughts

Learning how to learn is a skill that should precede all others. When we get better at learning, we shorten the time it takes us to learn any other skill. It is an investment that pays off for the rest of our lives.

Start with the tips we discussed in this article: Connect what you are learning to what you already know, Use the right input mode, Practice retrieval, Follow Spaced repetition, and Seek out mentors. These will give you a strong foundation to get better at learning anything you want.

Recommended Reading

  • Brown, Peter, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel. Make it Stick. The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard, 2014.
  • Carey, Benedict. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why it Happens. New York: Random House, 2015.
  • Novak, Joseph, and Bob Gowin. Learning How to Learn. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

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Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] VeryWellMind: The Role of a Schema in Psychology
[2] Wiley Education Services: Scaffolding Learning in the Online Classroom
[3] ERIC.EDU: Strengthening the Student Toolbox
[4] Psychological Science: Desirable Difficulties
[5] The National Academic Press: Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend

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