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How to Fix a Trouble Area in Your Life

How to Fix a Trouble Area in Your Life

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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