Your experiences with personal development
March 13, 2014 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Personal progress: What personal development changes have you made that have had a big impact on your life?

We all hear the same personal development tropes, but I’d like to hear about instances where personal development changes have actually made an impact.

Personal progress is the foundation of change in our lives (in my opinion). I’ve made a lot of changes in the past few years, and the real thing that doing so has been able to unlock is this: I’m able to do things I didn’t even think were possible before. So, I’m curious: what things have you done to make this kind of progress?

For me, one big change was recognizing that 1) A big reason behind why I used to be tired all the time was because I wasn't getting a full 7–8 hours of sleep, affecting mental performance and 2) Implementing a solution by recognizing that staying up for 1 more hour is taking out a mortgage on mental performance the next day. I feel like a new person now that I recognize this (personal) fact.

What about you? What things have you done to make this kind of progress in personal development, that have made a big impact? What did they unlock for you? And what are you working on now?
posted by markbao to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
Adding one more of my own here, so that it doesn't clog up the question description:

I’m currently working on improving productivity. Returning to school after a few years off and thinking I’d be able to beast everything and then not doing so was humbling. I’ve learned that although I think of myself as decently smart, that doesn’t make me immune to procrastination or not being productive. Actually, it tends to obscure it when it happens. If I’m just doing “okay”, that’s far from good enough—if I’m not regularly hitting it out of the park (like I only sometimes do now), I’m not at the level of excellence yet. Realizing that has been a big shift in thinking.

Relevant quote from an excellent article called “Smart Guy Productivity Pitfalls” [0]:
“I went through this when I went to id software. I had rationalized that John Carmack’s success was just a factor of timing and luck since, hell, he was my age, and I was pretty smart, so what else could it be? Upon my arrival I had a crash course in humility, because he was way smarter than me and way more productive as well. This took a while to sink in, because until then I was used to believing I was one of the better programmers at a company. And then working with Carmack I realized he was not just a little better, he was orders of magnitude better.”
posted by markbao at 11:37 AM on March 13, 2014

Well, actually one of them was inspired by MeFi. Because of this, when I want something from someone I now know to pay attention to see if they're ask culture or guess culture kind of people, and guide my dealings with them accordingly. I'm guess culture myself, but if I know that someone is ask culture, I'll switch into ask culture mode for them.

If you manage to combine the two (which I actually have learned to be pretty good at), it's like unlocking a cheat code at life.

These were the circumstances under which I asked for a 66% raise (ask culture) last summer and ended up getting a 75% raise, since I timed it well and my boss liked the way I asked (guess culture). (No, I wasn't getting paid a whole lot before.)

It's also extremely useful when dating.
posted by phunniemee at 11:53 AM on March 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

The biggest lesson I've learned in the past year or so is that I don't have to do everything in order to get everything done. I have spent years absolutely KILLING myself because I think I have such high standards that other people can't possibly live up to them, and that's so untrue that it's laughable.

Learning to delegate and to do nothing beyond following up (as in, "How's that thing I asked you to do?" instead of, "If it's not done, I will do it myself") has made so many parts of my life so much better. I do theater, and as a director, I also used to take on the role of costumer, sound designer, set crew chief, props master, and producer, and on my latest production I have a full crew that I just let do their thing. Sometimes, I think I could do it better myself, but I would rather concentrate on the job I want to do (directing) than on the things I don't want to do (finding the perfect ashtray for a scene).
posted by xingcat at 12:04 PM on March 13, 2014 [6 favorites]

I could write a book on this. But I'll let Robert Burns do the talking:

And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!

posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:07 PM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

HUGE for me: Quit drinking all together.

This had a major ripple effect on all other facets of my life. As a result:

- I perform better at work (so I now have a more pleasant work environment since my boss and co-workers are happy with me/the work I'm doing).

- I have better quality exercise

- I'm trying to eat better (this is still an ongoing battle)

- My personal relationships are strong and satisfying. I don't do the whole online-Facebook-friends-thing, so all of my friends are IRL friends. And they rock.

- I have better sleep (which makes me a happier person all around).

- I have more money (which I can then toss into my retirement fund or savings)

- I have a stronger focus on things I want to achieve/work towards

...and so forth.
posted by floweredfish at 12:21 PM on March 13, 2014 [9 favorites]

posted by latkes at 12:30 PM on March 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

A huge change I went through personally a couple years ago was when I finally realized that to be happier, I didn't just have to try to make things better and hope for better luck and work hard for better outcomes, but you could also be happier if you worked at it from the opposite side, reducing your anxiety and things that actively make you unhappy. Up until that realization I thought the secret of life was to live it despite bad stuff piling up, while trying to amass happy things faster than bad things accumulate.

Since then, I've been much happier controlling and containing my anxiety about things. Essentially, I'm trying to minimize the bad stuff piles in my life and it makes being happier way easier.
posted by mathowie at 12:33 PM on March 13, 2014 [21 favorites]

I started asking myself "is this really a quality use of my time right now?"

It's made me put down the computer and actually DO a lot of the stuff that I used to just think about.
posted by bfranklin at 12:38 PM on March 13, 2014 [11 favorites]

I quit drinking caffeinated beverages. As a result, I'm less anxious, stressed, and angry than I used to be. Also? I'm just as productive if not more. Turns out caffeine actually made me more distractible. Who knew?
posted by evil otto at 12:57 PM on March 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

Nthing exercise. So many times I wake up and feel like everything is falling apart and my life is a mess and I am a loser, and then I go for a run or a vigorous workout - or even a light one really, and then my head just somehow gets right back on straight and things look brighter and more reasonable. It works every time. If there's any one thing I changed in my life that made things easier and made things that seemed impossible possible - exercise is it.

Aside from the physical benefits of exercise (and the chemicals that are proven to be released in your brain), I also think that part of the reason why exercise works so well is that it helps me stay in the moment. Most exercise is very meditative and allows me to get out of my long term anxiety spiral. So in addition, focusing on the power of staying in the moment has changed my life as well. When I feel anxiety or lost or like I can't do something, I tell myself - the past is a story I tell myself and the future is a check that can't ever be cashed. All I have is now and right now is actually pretty sweet because it's real. The amount of anxiety that I just don't feel when I approach my life in this way is astounding. And the decisions that I make are more true and better for me because they are not just more practical, they are more appropriate for who I actually am, not who I once was or who I think the world wants me to be.

In terms of right now, here is something I did very recently that has helped me a lot, just a psychological/spiritual thing - and it's been really powerful for me. I have found in my life that I am the most successful when I have a very clear picture of what I want and I fearlessly pursue it. I may not get what I was aiming for, but good things usually happen either way. A big part of that is - knowing, with certainty, what I do and don't want, and then not letting petty and baggage-laden doubt stop me.

Problems arise when I waffle, or I circle the drain trying to figure out what I want. I recently spent a lot of time thinking about what gets in the way of me really understanding what I truly want. I finally realized that it was the fear of being honest with myself about my desires and yet not succeeding in getting them met. I answered a question about this recently in another thread after I realized that wanting something is one thing, not getting it is another, and that you can know what you want, try your best for it, fail, and that is okay. Just that simple truth helped me explore my hopes and dreams more honestly, and I feel much more grounded and capable and confident in the things I pursue since I had that realization.
posted by pazazygeek at 1:01 PM on March 13, 2014 [25 favorites]

Cognitive behaviour therapy. I am an oversensitive worrier-type, and I needed to learn how to separate Things Which Are Actually About Me from Things Which Are Not About Me.

I also have found the 'break the chain' idea, widely attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, to be extremely useful. Basically, the idea is that for every day you meet a goal (to do a certain thing, not do it, whatever) you get a checkmark, a point, a link in the chain or what have you. And if you don't do it, you'll break the chain and have to start over again. For example, on January 1 I decied to see how many days I could go without buying any books. Periodically, especially lately, I'll see one I want and then I think about how I'll break my chain and I just wishlist it for later.

The books of Rick Hanson (Buddha Brain, others) are very good and talk about applying this concept to behaviour to train your brain the same way you'd train any other muscle. I am about to try this with an insecure behaviour I do in my relationship. For every day I don't do it, I get a point and we'll see how high I get before I blow it. Then I have to try and beat that next time. I am hoping that knowing I might break the chain will help me, as it did with the book habit, to pause and ask myself if this is really what I want to be doing or saying.
posted by JoannaC at 1:23 PM on March 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

A) Gotten healthier. I was one of the top three students of my graduating class and I and others had big expectations for me and then I did the homemaker thing, could not finish my degree and my life seemed to just never really work. Getting a diagnosis was only the first step. Recovering from being ill my whole life has been a very long haul. But I am seeing pay off.

B) Historically, I read socially as (in some sense) extremely feminine, polite, and deferential. The result: An awful lot of people wanted to treat me as their bitch. That still boggles my mind, but...whatever. I have relatively recently learned to be a bit less "feminine" in some sense. I don't know how to describe it exactly. Currently, I do dress pretty androgynously and have quite short hair but my hair was just as short at my corporate job and my clothes were note much more feminine. I think it is something other than looks per se.

I work on "myself" all the time but I don't really want to write a tome. Those are two that readily come to mind which might be meaningful to other people looking to improve their lives.
posted by Michele in California at 1:50 PM on March 13, 2014

I've never lacked for self-confidence, so this sums up one revelation pretty well.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:12 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I studied journalism in college which made me good at writing for time, a skill that I had to rejig for when I went to graduate school but was really useful. Having the discipline to write four pages of anything a day is a really good motivator for doing complex project work. Secondly, coming to terms with your boss being a different age and gender than you is one of the truly most important moments an adult can have. Every day in my job I meet other young people who resent their peers for having done "better" even if better is another couple of dollars an hour. Resilience and rapport with difficult circumstances - even if you do not know what to think - just to be a shoulder for a stranger can revolutionize your prospects. Finally, try researching an industry you want to break into; interview people who moved into it from another career; interview those who left it; call out those companies or organizations you see yourself in and tell them the story of how hard you worked to apply to work for them. Auditioning for the job, showing my collegiality and development skills; then, the company realizing I had actually never made an application and doing it on my second day of work gives me real pleasure. You could have these moments, too.
posted by parmanparman at 3:18 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

The obligatory response: finally treating my depression with therapy and medication. (Seriously.)
posted by fast ein Maedchen at 3:47 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

Something we were just talking about with reference to quitting drinking: I realized that I don't need to have everything figured out before I act for change.
posted by thelonius at 4:42 PM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yep, quit drinking. There is TIME after work now that I'm not in wine blerg after dinner. I've been exercising, picking music back up, reading more and sleeping better. Just these small ways really kind of snowball for me how much more I'm capable of and keep me motivated to keep trying new small things to get my shit together.
posted by mibo at 5:50 PM on March 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

One of the single biggest realizations I had, funny enough, was that the biggest changes came from the smallest ones. To some people, this is obvious, but it took me a while to really sink in. Instead of attempting to take on huge, ambitious and ultimately self-defeating tasks, I found success in doing the smallest possible version.

For example, I wanted to start exercising. I used to start out saying "Okay, I'll go to the gym 4 times a week, and start by running 3-5K." So I set out an ambitious plan and hit my target the first week. The second week rolled around and I'd only managed 2 or 3 days. Third week came around and I was already feeling defeated. I'd get into this cycle of "well, maybe I'm just not meant to do this."

What actually worked was instead saying, "okay, I'll run for 10 minutes, 2 times a week." Then I did that for 2 weeks since it was easy enough. I did my absolute best to do it, even if it was only 5 minutes (or at least I'd tell myself that). I found that most of the time I ran longer. Very, very gradually I started increasing my distance, pace, and frequency. Now I look forward to it because it's integrated into my life. It's become a habit, and habits don't form in just 2 or 3 weeks.

So that's really it -- it doesn't matter what you want to do, start with an absurdly small time allocation. The longer it takes to ramp up, the longer it takes to ramp down because you allow it to integrate into your routine.
posted by spiderskull at 8:10 PM on March 13, 2014 [8 favorites]

I didn't quit drinking, but I did reign in both my drinking and socializing. I finally realized that just because I wasn't an alcoholic or rolling into work hung over didn't mean that the level of socializing and drinking I was doing wasn't dragging me down.

I'm now a lot more picky about what invitations I accept. I realized I couldn't meet my weight, exercise and health goals and go to happy hour twice a week and then usually go out on Friday and Saturday. When I drink less it's a lot easier to get to the gym and cook myself dinner. For the first time in my life I've been able to stick to a strict(ish) diet for more than a week or two and now I'm 5 lbs from my goal weight after only two months. It hasn't been easier, but it's been way easier than I had envisioned. I've stayed home a lot more Saturday nights, but my friends haven't gone anywhere. I just see them a bit less and I find myself meeting them for lunch instead of happy hour.

I've also found that the extra time I now have has brought on other positive changes. My apartment is consistently cleaner. I just get more things done that need to be done and I've started to pick up hobbies again that have faded away over the years.

I still love a good cocktail now and then or a big night out, but now these are special occasions, not every Saturday night. For a long time I worried about missing out, but I don't feel like I have, which has surprised me in a good way.
posted by whoaali at 8:22 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I never read when i was a student at school. I mean never read the books and absorb the other knowledge except for my class books. I have a great record and score each time when i have exams, just because i spent all time on remember definition and formulation. You can call me a hard head. That was previous me. However, after graduated from school, i found it won't work if i want more like position promotion. I don't have many friends because i have no idea about the trending styles, hot tv series and any brands. I think i just have low requirements to my life. Then i got a big hit during a vital selection. That's the time to self-evaluation. One question asked by HR reminded me of reading is a window to see a better world. I started to read since last March, slow and low effective from the first start. Then i tried something i may interest like travel and food. I used to spend 2 months to read one book, now i can eat a 300-page book within 2 days. Changes should be required though it may break all your previous habits. The only thing hardly changing in the world is ever-changing.
posted by lizabrown234 at 8:31 PM on March 13, 2014

Quit soda. Not something I even thought that much about. Led to massive weight loss = self-esteem boost.
posted by sidi hamet at 8:42 PM on March 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my late twenties somewhere I heard a phrase that went along the lines that "you should buy experiences, not things."

At the time I was on the track that a lot people fall into: have a nice place to live, have good clothes, etc., etc. I'm very careful with budgeting my money and I was always bummed out because I wanted to go on trips or eat at a nice restaurant or spend money on a museum membership, but I'd spent the money to do that making sure I had the right shoes and that the throw pillows matched the curtains. Or saving money for that "dream house".

I adopted that attitude wholeheartedly and it made a big difference in my life. It eased a big source of previously unknown anxiety and stress - I wasn't spending time online or at a furniture store (stressful enough itself) looking for the just right chair for the home office. In turn that freed up a lot of spare time. It made decision making a lot easier: if the choice comes down to buying that I-gotta-have-it jacket or spending a long weekend in the mountains, obviously the weekend in the mountains wins. I saved a ton of money which I could use for giving to my favorite causes, as that's an experience. I experienced more cultures and attitudes thanks to my travels, which in turn makes me more empathetic and open-minded. I stopped judging other people so much on their things. And best of all, I have a truckload of memories and forged loving bonds with friends old and new as well as strengthening the foundations with family. Who remembers the throw pillows 20 years later? So what if I don't live in just the right house with just the right furniture - next week I might be going to Europe or to a really fun concert or ziplining with people I love.

It also made a big difference in other kinds of decisions. Maybe I'm on an island trip and have an opportunity for a boat ride to another island. Previously I would have fretted about my savings account or said, "Maybe next time I come back...." or came up with an excuse. Now I think, "experiences, not things." I might not be able to buy certain things like new clothes for the next 6 months because I blew my budget on the boat ride, but I'll always remember the boat ride, not the new jeans I could have bought. (And you can't ever predict you'll go back to places.) So I'm a lot more open-minded about experiences in general, as well. It's helped me learn to say yes, and I've made some terrific friends as a result. In general, I feel more alive, more productive, and it even makes the daily grind easier because I'm not working myself into some kind of insane cycle of upgrading my possessions.

There's also a lot of identity tied up in our possessions, and a few years after I started doing this I noticed my self-identity had changed. Possessions are somewhat narcissistic, maybe? We worry about how our things reflect us. Now the only thing I try to care about is looking professional at work, but that's it. (There's also a lot of worry tied up in taking care of/remaining in possession of our things that it's nice to let go of - so the dog scratched the couch, I'd much rather have the dog.)

I've learned to get by without or make things last longer, to minimize, to weed out what material objects are important. I don't have the latest phone...instead, I had a great time going to see my friend for a weekend 3 states away.

I still buy as many books as I can, because I consider books experiences, but no longer worry about having matching bookcases. Everything else, every time, before I worry about a purchase or am standing there in a store wanting something (hey, what a neat watch!), I ask myself, do I want this thing or do I want an experience. Experience wins, almost every time. But more likely, I won't be in the store in the first place - I'll be off on a cool hike with my mom or something.

I have to admit I'm quite curious, in terms of personal development, how well this attitude will work when I have children, but until then....
posted by barchan at 8:44 PM on March 13, 2014 [16 favorites]

Stop spending time with people that don't make you feel good about yourself. This sounds like a no brainer, but you would be surprised upon serious reflection how many people in your life actually generate more anxiety, more self doubt and are generally a bummer to be around. Prioritize the people in your life that make you feel good and wonderful just the way you are.
posted by desert_laundry at 3:18 AM on March 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

I've stopped letting other people project their problems onto me. It doesn't mean I can't empathize or offer encouragement, but their problems are just that.
posted by Atom12 at 7:45 AM on March 14, 2014

I realized, from watching my somewhat manic father, that it is possible to accomplish large things in five-minute increments. My father would be waiting for my mother to get ready to leave, and he'd use that five minutes to work on something (he's a sculptor, so he'd be standing there working on a cheek, or a hand, or whatever). Before I noticed this, I'd wait until I had a good, long uninterrupted stretch of time to work on a major project. After I'd noticed, I'd realize that even small pieces of time can be put to use.

Examples of how this works for me: I keep the New Yorker in the bathroom, on a little table in front of the toilet, with a Sharpy next to it. I read long articles a few paragraphs at a time, marking my place with the Sharpy. My New Yorker backlog has diminished greatly, and by breaking these long articles into small chunks, the ideas raised infiltrate my day and interact with other ideas and experiences in novel ways.

I am a lawyer, and if I don't have time to really delve into the project I'm working on, I use five, ten, whatever minute chunks of time to clean up citations on the briefs I'm writing, fix formatting, proofread small sections, whatever.

I clean the house this way, too -- cleaning out one draw at a time over the course of a month, instead of ruining a whole Saturday cleaning out all the drawers.
posted by Capri at 12:08 PM on March 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Forgive myself for saying no to social engagements I'd only go to out of guilt/obligation, because being a drag or leaving early can bring everybody down, not just me. That has really made my true friendships stronger and my overall quality of life skyrocket.

Sometimes this is about my physical health, and sometimes it is about limiting exposure to toxic people. If I cannot attend something when I truly want to, I offer to make individual plans with the person and offer at least two activities and future dates I am free to keep our relationship going in a healthy direction, but on more amenable mutual terms. You can say no to things without feeling shitty, but if you're a people-pleaser, it's hard to do this diplomatically. So, you have to change the way about you think about and approach the problem from logic, not emotion.

It's not that you're saying no to something, it's saying "Yes, and..." (which I learned from reading about Improv) that takes the stress out of it. As in "Yes, I'd love to see you but I unfortunately cannot. And since I'm open next (day) at (time) and also (future date), why don't we (see a movie) or (go disco bowling)? (Future date) we could try (bingo), if that day works better!" and then your guilt magically disappears, because now it's up to Friend.

Taking time for myself, my significant other, home maintenance and health, exercise and sleep have been difficult, as I thrive on social engagement and give 110% of my energy to such things when I can. But, I realized at some point I wasn't actually an extrovert - I'm an introvert who puts so much into being "on" and "engaging" when I interact with others that it physically drains me.

Enjoying alone time without feeling lazy or guilty or lonely is also something that I achieved by the transitive property of following the above. I still get shit-tons done every day, trust. But I don't break into a sweat trying to wrap gifts with a 101 degree fever now and attend 3 baby showers/housewarmings/birthday brunches in the same weekend even when I'm recovering from bronchitis -- I used to burn the candle at both ends constantly, had insomnia, stomach problems, toxic friendships, etc. It's just not worth it.

Cutting back on guilt-driven social obligations changed my life. when I stop now, I stop HARD. full stop. When I socialize now, it's about the same level. Just not 4-5 days a week.

Time spent exercising, reading, meditating and catching up with old friends via phone calls and annual international vacations/visits have all become more feasible and affordable (time and money-wise) by budgeting my energy, attention and focus on fewer but more meaningful things and relationships.

You only live once, but sometimes, less is more if all you're cutting out is the noise.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 1:47 AM on March 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

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