Prioritizing self-improvement
August 16, 2010 12:56 PM   Subscribe

OK, so I have a bunch of stuff I need to work on. I’m about to turn 40 and I’m flush with motivation. Tackle everything at once or pick my battles?

I work full-time, go to grad school part-time, have a long commute, two little kids, and a husband who can be both a help and an (occasional) hindrance. I also have a BMI of 36, a slightly excessive drinking habit, a messy and poorly maintained house, a crappy wardrobe, an appetite for vapid reading material, an outsize carbon footprint, a depleted savings account, a shortage of good friends, and some emotional issues that would benefit from therapy.

How do I figure out the highest-priority area(s) to direct my self-improving zeal? I have been successful in losing weight before, so I know that one is doable, but it was under considerably less constrained circumstances. It seems daunting to try to do it all at once, but maybe the combined effect of all that willpower will be a good thing? In some ways I can see my efforts working together (cutting down drinking means fewer calories, which should help with losing weight), but other times they are at cross purposes (I dropped my gym membership to save money, which makes it harder to exercise).

In general, I find “low-hanging fruit” approach makes good sense – score some easy wins for the extra motivational juice to make the harder changes. But there’s also a case to be made for paring away the inessentials and single-mindedly going after what’s really important. Like every other procrastinator on the green, I have recently begun to suspect I might have undiagnosed ADD. Right now I could really use a little focus.

To those of you who have successfully made improvements in multiple areas of your life, did you approach it with a conscious strategy? Or more one-day-at-a-time? What kinds of overlaps/unintended consequences are likely to jump up and bite me if I try to improve my life in every way, all at once?
posted by libraryhead to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Don't do everything at once- you'll burn out and accomplish none of them.
posted by Eicats at 12:58 PM on August 16, 2010

I think Maslow's hierarchy (yes yes it's somewhat deprecated) can help you here. Sort your needs, and work from the bottom up. BMI and drinking problem would toward the bottom, while your wardrobe and tastes in reading toward the top. Obviously you don't have to 100% every single thing, but it's a good framework to figure out what's Important and what's important.

...and don't try to get on everything at once. Self-improvement has never been aided by trying to hurry it.
posted by griphus at 1:03 PM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

One thing at a time, and focus on the thing that will make doing other things better. It's mathematical! If doing a certain thing will make doing lots of other stuff easier, do that thing first. Divide then conquer.

If you want a suggestion: losing some weight might get you more energy, a better sex life, better self esteem, make it easier to clean (if you want to), allow you to wear nice clothes, and make it more fun to go out and meet people.

Kicking the drinking habit will help everything, too.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:05 PM on August 16, 2010

Lose the weight. Your sex life will most likely improve as a result, and you will be able to buy nicer and better-fitting clothes. If you get into better shape and are able to utilize alternative commuting methods (walking, biking) to the store or post office every once in a while, your carbon footprint will improve, too. And you'll save money if you stop drinking, which you probably should if you want to lose weight.
posted by halogen at 1:10 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I'd suggest working the mind/body before tackling the external opportunities.

My wife and I are both in our early 40s and have changed our lifestyle by being much more active and focused on our health.

My wife calls it the trifecta of health (hands form a triangle while describing this...)

Eat right
Get sleep

She did this first and I followed later and it has made a huge difference in our ability to tackle the external stuff. It's amazing what you can accomplish when you have plenty of energy and feel good about yourself.

We both use the Daily Plate to help track of what we eat and exercise. Journaling is key to understanding how lifestyle changes have effects.

Personally, I made a big change to get enough sleep. I used to stay up till 12 or 1 and try to muddle through the day on caffeine and willpower. Going to bed earlier at 9 or 10 finds me waking up naturally, fully rested and better able to handle the day.

So my suggestion would be start with your physical wellbeing first, which ties directly to your mental/emotional outlook. Make short term, achievable goals such as walking or riding a bike a certain distance 5 times a week and celebrate your success when you do. If you feel better about yourself, many other things will seem easier to do.

Good luck!
posted by Argyle at 1:11 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you feel you'd like to talk to a therapist, then I would start with that. Your therapist can help you figure out what your priorities are and make a plan to tackle them in a self-sustaining way. I would vote for that being your first step.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:11 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

See if you can guess why I favorited this :) I'm working on about 90% of same issues or more. I'll memail to see if we're close enough for coffee, if we can ever find the time!
posted by theredpen at 1:15 PM on August 16, 2010

I vote house is first. When I really do a great job cleaning out my house and organizing it everything seems a bit better. I would take two or 3 weekend and devote it to that. It's a real pick me up. (I'm ADD and my house is frequently in disarray.)

Speaking of ADD ... is part of your drinking habit an attempt to sleep?? Well - as a crutch you could use "simply sleep" instead of alcohol. It can help you get to bed earlier and sleep much better than with alcohol and things also seem better when you are well rested.
posted by beccaj at 1:16 PM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Just telling what seems to make sense in view of the "low-hanging fruit" approach you advocate, (and what has worked here):
If the drinking is mainly beer or sweet drinks, you're right about 'cutting the drinks means losing weight'. And even otherwise I'd definitely begin there: stay away from drinks for a while and watch yourself wake up again; put half of what you normally spend on drinking into your savings account. There's a good chance that focus (and some money) will return all by itself.

Then, although I'm by no means religious about such stuff, a low-carb diet has of late helped to get rid of a good bunch of pounds at this address. The great thing about it is that you don't have to tiptoe and suffer; just cut the carbs. Since there's still Cream by the cup, Butter aplenty, Bacon from heaven and so on, you'll likely be happy and fine.

Finally (but that's me, so you might disagree), I'd define one or two areas in the house where the messiness really bothers you and clear those up, and keep those clear. A guaranteed non-messy area, no matter how small, is a great thing to have.

So no, not everything at once, but killing a few birds with even fewer stones is a smart thing to do.
posted by Namlit at 1:19 PM on August 16, 2010

Start with the stuff that will give you time/energy/money first, so you'll have more resources to tackle the other stuff.

Get in shape before you buy a new wardrobe, since you'll likely change sizes.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:25 PM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: I am a huge fan of assigning arbitrary numbers to things. In your shoes, I would rank everything on a 1 to 10 scale for each of the following characteristics:

How much does it bother me?
How easy is it to fix?
How big of a halo effect will I get from changing it?

So cutting drinking down might get a 5 (since you don't seem super concerned about it in particular) for the first question, an 8 (if it's no big deal to cut down) or 3 (if it is a big deal) for the second question, and a 7 or 8 on the third question, since it will give you more focus, help cut calories, etc. A total score of something like 21. Make sure that the "big" number always means "good," and ta-da, your instant, prioritized to-do list. Excel is your friend in this 15 minute exercise. With conditional formatting in 2007 you can even make it color-coded, and update the scores periodically for a progress report!

I like to do life-changing goals in one month increments, also. That is, September is Get Control Over My Drinking month; no berating myself about my weight till October! You don't stop with whatever changes you've already made - you just keep your focus on one concrete effort towards one specific priority for a long enough time to improve a bit and then move on. This also provides an excuse for making cute reminder signs - if you work on too many things, the bathroom mirror is covered and no message gets through.

(Also consider what might be worth outsourcing, or getting help on. I'm guessing everyone in the house plays a part in its messiness, and I know house cleaning services cost less than most people think. Things you can think about during your first Make the House Better month.)
posted by SMPA at 1:37 PM on August 16, 2010 [8 favorites]

Best answer: A system I learned for tackling unfinished (physical) projects when you have too many is to pick ONE, and you work on that for two hours, put it away, and work on project B for two hours. Then A for two hours. Then C for two hours. Then A for two hours. Then D for two hours. And so on. (Not all at once, but over many days.) You make a LOT of progress on project A, without getting burnt out on it, and all your other "hanging over my head" projects get some progress too.

So one thing you could try is focusing on ONE self-improvement project (weight seems to be the consensus above) and doing something about weight EVERY day, and then once a week (or whatever) focus on one of the other areas, in rotation -- one week you go buy a nice top, the next week you do some friend-find outreach, the third week you tackle one messy closet, the fourth week you acquire some reusable bags, and then you start again. That way you see some real progress on the thing you're doing every day (weight) while also making small progress on other areas of your life ... without getting overwhelmed by doing everything at once. And then if the weight loss stalls, you can say, "Well, look, I reduced my carbon footprint AND cleaned my stove AND got some attractive pants this month, it's not like I failed at self-improvement ..."

Then as you get project A done, you make project B your focus and rotate the others around that one.

That's my idea, anyway. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:45 PM on August 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Do the house first. There have been studies that link a disorganized household to a poor diet. If you cannot find a clean pot to cook, you are more likely to eat unhealthy prepared foods rather than clean a pot and then cook. Also, this is a relatively quick process and a goal you could achieve quickly. It will help you see something that you have done as a testament to your ability to get things done. It is the lowest hanging fruit on your list.

It sounds like your reading material may be an escape from the list of nagging issues, and you may need it to get you through so I would not give it up right away although I think eventually you have to think about why you put this on the list. You like to read what you like to read. It is only a problem if you are using reading as a way to avoid things. If you are, then you need to allow yourself a certain number of minutes of reading per day as a reward for doing other things that you should be doing that are goal oriented.

The drinking is before the diet in my opinion because you don't need to drink to live and if you stop drinking you will lose weight. Try an AA meeting. It may the beginning of some more in depth friendships and it is a good supplement to therapy. Someone from AA may be able to provide a referral.

Go back to the gym. It will make you feel a helluva lot better if you do. Does your school have one???
posted by wheats at 1:47 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some general advice for self-improvement:

I would stop and think as many times as possible throughout the day about the actions I am taking and whether those actions help me towards my goals.

Situation 1 (drinking/exercise): It is 7:00 PM and I just get home from work. I am about to pour a martini, but stop to think if I would really like to do that. After thinking about it, I may decide going for a run then cooking a healthy meal would be a better way to spend the night, in the short and long term. Then again, maybe I pour the martini! At least I stopped and thought about it and took control over my actions.

Situation 2 (money): I am considering buying the shiny new electronic toy. I stop to think about whether I really need the shiny new electronic toy, how much value it will really add to my life. I then do not buy it and go home and play with my really cool, but old, electronic toy! (or perhaps I buy the new one if the analysis teeters that way, who knows?)

These are pretty silly, simplistic examples, but they illustrate the fact that, in general, I find 1) having goals in mind and 2) thinking about those goals throughout the day and each time you decide to take an action, leads me where I want to go.

Feel free to bite off as much or as little as you can chew, but please do think about why you do the things you do and where you really want to go. That will lead to sustained progress.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:32 PM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: I would, as mentioned by others, try to focus a bit. Either work on one thing at a time, or work on several "first steps" at a time.

In general, I have the best return on motivation when I use that motivation in ways to compensate for loss of motivation later on. In other words, make it easy for your future self to succeed and hard for her to fail. An example would be quitting smoking--what do you do when your motivation is high? Throw out the smokes. What else? Oh, yeah, the lighter. What else? Well, mail your coworkers--I imagine your smoking buddies would work here--and set up ways for you to lose lots of money if you start up again.

When your motivation is high is when you need to make the bold moves necessary so that your lazy future self finds it easier to do the "right" thing than the wrong one. Set up habits now.

I mentioned "first steps". There's something to be said for working on one problem at a time; they can certainly be overwhelming taken together. But really, they're all part of the "improve my life" project and they're all quite doable in concert. You haven't really talked a whole lot about what the actual problems are, but taking a stab at what you mentioned:

High weight? Sure, that target weight looks way far away. Your motivation is high right now, search your calendar for the time you will use for exercise, and schedule it. Join a gym, or (my favorite) do something that doesn't require a gym like cycling or running. Just start doing it, build the habit. Also, you can work on incrementally improving your diet.

Vapid reading material? Toss the books. Start something meatier. Put that book out instead. Start a project.

Drinking? Toss the bottles. Now. Do it when the motivation is high.

Messy house? I have 4 kids, I know what you mean. Don't let it overwhelm you. Just schedule a modest amount of time to cleaning, on a schedule. 10 minutes a day can do a *lot*. Can't do 10? How about 5 every two days? Write it down. Put it in your phone/calendar/whatever. Take small steps. If you spend this small amount of time your house *will* get better. It will take a while, but the curve will be going the right direction.

The savings account is in better shape when you stay home more and work on the bedroom issues. The nice sort of thing about that exercise is that it's pretty inexpensive!

...and so on. The key is to start moving in the direction you want to go, and *keep moving*. Don't worry so much about getting everything fixed right now, just make sure you're setting habits in place so that every day you're closer to where you want to be. And then, instead of being bummed that you're not thin--or whatever--you know that you lost a pound last week, and one the week before, and you're going to lose a pound this week. The obvious conclusion is that you will continue to improve, bit by bit.

One step at a time.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 2:57 PM on August 16, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A couple books that have really helped me make solid progress toward my goals over the past few months are 59 Seconds and Upgrade Your Life. And while I haven't read it yet, I've also taken a great interest in the book Switch.

The basic approach that has yielded great, consistent results for me is to create a To do list on Notepad. But not just any To do list. The key is to make the tasks you set for yourself small, concrete, and doable. For example, the goal to "Lose weight" is a horrible task to set for yourself, since it isn't small, concrete, or really doable. Set a vague and daunting task for yourself like that, and of course you're not going to achieve it.

You'd be much better off setting the goal for yourself of, say, "Lose 20 pounds," and break it down into multiple steps. One of those steps could be to regularly give yourself task "Walk for 10 minutes today," or "Eat one apple today," or whatever; both of these things meet the criteria of being small, concrete, and doable. An example of a very poor way to set those goals would be to say something like "Walk more often," or "Eat healthy," because those tasks are so vague and indefinite.

One final step that really makes this To do list work for me is that I don't simply delete tasks once they're finished; instead, I place them under a Done heading. It's really rewarding to be able to switch a task to the Done section, and to always be able to look back on all I've accomplished so far.
posted by Ryogen at 3:09 PM on August 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whoops, I didn't really address the issue of prioritizing your goals. But to that I'd say that you should think about what is easiest for you. Personally, I find singularly focusing on one big goal to be too boring, and would prefer to keep things interesting by taking steps toward achieving multiple goals at once. But where time-constraints are concerned, you might be forced to singularly focus on some goals.

I try to prioritize based on which goals deadlines are due soonest, and which goals I believe will yield the greatest benefits. But if you find it easier to start off with the easiest to accomplish goals, just to get the ball rolling, then by all means, do that.
posted by Ryogen at 3:21 PM on August 16, 2010

Nobody's mentioned Zenhabits yet? Zenhabits has a lot of really good advice about goal-setting and lifestyle-changing.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:01 PM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: Some really good advice here!

I started a similar project in March this year, needing to address a range of issues (weight, body fat %, blood pressure, eating habits, drinking, smoking, sleep, exercise, house cleaning), but instead of focussing on a single thing, I wanted to find out what my drivers were. So I started logging everything that I wanted to work on. What I found was that some things were drivers of the others (sleep, eating habits, drinking), and so they were the things I needed to focus on, as everything else followed on from those.

I'd recommend the journaling approach - sometimes even just monitoring things helps you to resist temptation and do something positive instead, even if it's just so you have the satisfaction of writing it down. There are no short term fixes, it's all about gradual change - small steps. 6 months on, I've only achieved a couple of my goals, but I've made progress on all of them, and more importantly, I'm happier and feel more in control of my life. It's a nice positive feedback loop which keeps me going!

Trying to do everything at once is probably unrealistic - it would involve a massive change in your life and that's usually unsustainable. One of the benefits of having a lot of goals is that you are likely to find at least one thing to celebrate, which provides the added motivation to continue with the others. As long as you don't beat yourself up about not managing to change everything all at once!

If you do pick one thing, make sure it's a thing that is a driver of change in other areas, rather than a goal that will be hampered by the other things.

Finally, have a look at where you can combine two or more goals in one - invite friends (or would-be friends) to meet you for a walk instead of meeting for a drink, or cook a healthy yet romantic dinner for you and your husband rather than going out for dinner (or better yet, get him to cook a healthy and romantic dinner for you!).

Good luck.
posted by finding.perdita at 4:13 PM on August 16, 2010

Just telling what seems to make sense in view of the "low-hanging fruit" approach you advocate, (and what has worked here):
If the drinking is mainly beer or sweet drinks, you're right about 'cutting the drinks means losing weight'. And even otherwise I'd definitely begin there: stay away from drinks for a while and watch yourself wake up again; put half of what you normally spend on drinking into your savings account. There's a good chance that focus (and some money) will return all by itself.

I agree with this, especially if you are just drinking as a matter of course when you get home or whatever. If you are working, going to school and have a long commute, it's tempting to grab for alcohol as a quick fix to relax. But it screws with your sleep more than you may realize and makes it really hard to lose weight. (That's from my own experience.)
posted by BibiRose at 4:39 PM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: I would suggest you break down each of your big goals into several smaller habits that you'd like to acquire, and tackle maybe 2 or 3 concrete habits at a time, for a period of at least a month, before you add to your repertoire. That way you can feel like you're doing something about the big concerns in your life, and not just focusing on one thing and ignoring all the other areas that you'd like to improve in.

And...I would personally recommend tackling drinking first. Getting that under control (indeed, even just figuring out what "control" means for you) will help you in a lot of other areas of your life--you'll save money, save calories, have better focus and motivation, and more energy to deal with other challenges along your path.
posted by drlith at 5:32 PM on August 16, 2010

Only one thing to add. Another reason to take things slow and only work on one or two issues at a time is the demotivation factor. If you're taking on too much it can work against your motivation level to see some of your goals not being met. Even if you're not close to burning out this demotivation can slow your progress toward all the other goals.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 5:59 PM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: Stock the house, office, and commute bag with healthy snacks.
Go for a little walk every evening with your partner and kids. Carry the kids or let them walk, don't make it a big production of strollers and diaper bags. You only need to plan to go a couple blocks.
Get frisky with your partner every night. Even just making-out or a little massage, whatever.

Those three things will make life way awesomer in every dimension. Eating just a little bit healthier, getting just a little more exercise, connecting to your neighbourhood just a little more often, and making time to connect with your partner... those things will make you so much happier! And they're really small, quick, easy things to do.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 6:18 PM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: For determining priorities, maybe try doing the "wheel of life" exercise, described here and here. Choose the area(s) that has the lowest score and work on it.

When it comes to willpower, it's easier to pick one goal and stick to it. We have a limited reserve of willpower and it's better if your not hitting it too hard. BUT if the things you'd like to accomplish are not as dependent on willpower, it's better to have several projects on the go, so you can switch between them like Eyebrows McGee describes up there. If I could only give you one piece of advice, I'd say WRITE your goals down, complete with a plan how to reach them. If you don't, you forget what you were trying to do and it's easy to lose focus.

For some friendly support while you're working on your goals, I recommend the site/community 43Things. So many nice people there.

Also, remember it's ok if you're not "perfect". You're a unique person. You take care of yourself, your kids, your husband, your home. You give them your love and time and attention. It's ok if the scenes in your life don't look like ads in glossy magazines.
posted by gakiko at 1:43 AM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, I wasn't sure what to expect out of this question, but this was actually super helpful. If it works I will totally give you guys credit for pointing me in the right direction to turn my life around. Best answers are ones I'm going to act on right away, though truthfully everything was insightful. And, for all of you who favorited the question, I'm going to try blogging about my "journey" (although, blech, I won't be calling it that). See my profile for the URL.
posted by libraryhead at 6:38 AM on August 17, 2010

Response by poster: Just on the off chance anyone still wants to peek into my journal, I made the blog invited readers only for work reasons. MeMail me for an invite. --Rebecca
posted by libraryhead at 3:02 AM on August 20, 2010

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