Ideas for personal goals / habits that aren't self-centered
November 6, 2016 5:19 PM   Subscribe

For as long as I can remember, my personal goals & habits have had a common theme: self-improvement. Then one day I wondered, What would life be like if I defaulted to thinking about others or observing my surroundings instead of thinking about ways to improve myself?

I have a system in which I set annual, quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals. This may seem like an intense practice, but it's a casual exercise in tracking my aspirations and testing habits over time. And it's never a source of anxiety as I'm comfortable failing at a goal for months.

In case helpful, here's are 3 examples of weekly goals that became daily habits:
- Read 25 pages a day
- Write 750 words a day
- 50 burpees a day

Have you discovered a goal or habit that trained you to focus on solving problems around you rather than just "improving" yourself?
posted by ialas to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Always let someone else go first.
Do a random act of kindness every day.
Think generously of others' actions (don't attribute to malice what could be anything from simple thoughtlessness to the worst day of that person's life).
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 5:25 PM on November 6, 2016 [12 favorites]

-Reading can be part of it, especially if you are making a point to read well-researched nonfiction, and read work by underrepresented voices! [then, talk about what you're reading with others!]

-Honestly, there are lots of people focused on doing lots and lots of good works, and what they need most is money. If you can replace a habit, say, one latte a week, and re-route that money towards a donation to an organization that helps people (in whatever way you feel is important), that's really helpful! You can set up small recurring monthly donations to most nonprofits, big and small, or save up and give a lot. This can be a way to do a "self improvement goal" (drink fewer lattes), with a "help others goal" (give money to this thing I really care about.)
posted by nuclear_soup at 5:39 PM on November 6, 2016 [9 favorites]

Thank yous. If you get good service, talk to the manager and say how great it was. Restaurants, retail stores, customer service calls--it's often very easy to get hold of the manager when your service person does a good job. Even just an email; it can make a difference for the worker, and at minimum it can make their day.

Fan letters. I've sent emails to authors (especially debut authors or less famous ones) and I often get personal and really appreciative letters back. (Though I'll admit I've only done this a few times.)

Tip buskers or give to panhandlers. (This might not be as useful if you don't live in the city.) Keep a few ones in your pocket so you can drop a dollar in the hat of whoever is playing the guitar in the train station or the street kid with the dog.

I also agree that giving to charity is a great practice, though it might not be as much of a personal challenge.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:56 PM on November 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Do public service. I try to always have a volunteer role going on with some kind of organization that I support. I also do give to charity regularly and I volunteer for several events per year. A lot of times this means getting up at 6am on Saturday which is quite a challenge for me! It's also a challenge to find time to volunteer.
posted by fshgrl at 6:26 PM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

A way to frame this for yourself may be to think about what you can do to "make reality better". Is there a social structure that your community is missing that you could potentially contribute to creating? This may be bigger than what you have in mind, but if you are in your community for the long term and a well-organized person, you may be able to create something of great benefit to others and to yourself. Even if it's just the sci-fi book club you always wished existed at your local library or whatever. One warning though, a lot of these "institutions" rely on the organizational efforts of a single person, and fall apart when that person has to move cities or pull back their effort. Still worth it, though.

On a smaller scale, maybe a weekly contribution to cultivating the interpersonal relationships that you value. I read the 2015 MeFi emotional labour thread recently and have been thinking about this a lot lately (it's something that's never come naturally to me).
posted by heatherlogan at 6:29 PM on November 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

1. Always ask the other person how they are doing first and then listen with intent and follow up questions before talking about self.

2. Make a plan to spend the day/week/month/year listening. Really listening. And not arguing back or thinking of a response while listening.
posted by Toddles at 6:49 PM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Wrong approach, IMO. You're making this "another thing".

If you have a problem, or a lack, or an obstruction, you expend energy/time/money to fix it, right? All you need to do is expand your borders, and do the same for those in your midst. It's not a different faculty. It's the same old thing, just widened beyond your personal borders.

"But wait!", you might object. "I can't help the whole world!" Apologies for the corny-ass Biblical reference, but when the Bible says "Love thy neighbor", that doesn't refer to the dude in the next apartment. It refers to whoever's in your midst - physically, virtually, hypothetically or in whatever frame of perspective your mind makes you aware of someone. Let that mere awareness be your guide. Easy peasy. Nothing to think about, or practice, or schedule.

So....don't look at your watch and decide it's time to don your philanthropic superhero cape. Just let your natural empathy extend outward....ideally without being a pushy busybody (90% of the gig is figuring out when and how to interject*, and, even if you're selective, don't expect to be spurned and punished any less than the angels of our better nature are, billions of times per hour).

* - You'll discover that 98% of "problems" aren't problems at all, but just highly dramatized disappointment re: something turning out differently than expected. Real problems (which are rare) spur action. You won't need to think about it. The only shift you need to make is to stop inhibiting your natural empathic impulse to pitch in when an actual problem arises for someone in your midst.....and that's rare enough (especially in the First World) to be totally viable, even if you're short on time and/or resources.
posted by Quisp Lover at 6:58 PM on November 6, 2016 [5 favorites]

Have you discovered a goal or habit that trained you to focus on solving problems around you rather than just "improving" yourself?

My attempts to create habits for myself is less organized than yours. And I'm not sure if the things that come to mind when I think of "solving problems around me" are on the same wavelength, but here goes.

The things that have helped me become more focused on the problems around me haven't really been official goals, but I think they could be approached that way. For me, it's been reading about local issues on FB or in the paper, meeting and listening to people who care about local issues and are trying to change the world (locally), volunteering with local groups focused on food insecurity and related issues. Depending on what issues you care about, some potential goals might be:

* spending 15 minutes each day learning about the kinds of problems you might be interested in solving (I'm purposely making that vague)
* spending time each day observing. For a while I tried do this on my commute - really take in the other subway passengers instead of getting lost in a book or podcast. It was fascinating.
* watching the news, if you have a TV, or reading the paper
* perhaps ultimately building up to spending x amount of time per day actively working on an issue you've identified as important to you

I hope some of this is helpful, and I'd be curious to hear what you come up with ultimately. Good luck!
posted by bunderful at 7:04 PM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had to get a tattoo on my arm to remind me to listen and not just always jump to talking about myself. Its been transformative. I still catch myself babbling on about me a lot, but I'm convinced that listening is a small gift I can give every day, and I'm determined to get really good at it.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 7:04 PM on November 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

Build social bonds. Invite people to lunch -- or invite two other people to lunch, and you can introduce them to each other -- and work on throwing the occasional gathering:

- practice recipes that would be good for social events;
- gradually start befriending people around you and slowly work up to going to lunch or inviting them to dinner;
- notice what works for you and what doesn't so you can eventually mentor others;
- figure out small things that will make others happy and that will help people communicate better with each other.
posted by amtho at 7:31 PM on November 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

Set calendar alerts for near-future milestones for people in your life. Jenny has a job interview on Wednesday? Set an alert on Thursday to ask her how it went, or one on Wednesday to wish her good luck.

Tip well. I decided that was an easy thing for me to be good at. Always at least 20%. If I grab a $10-15 breakfast on Saturday I'll tip $5, because my table could be two patrons and two tips. I also always keep about five $1s in my wallet so I can tip at Caribou, etc., where they accept cards but don't let you tip on the card.

Let people merge. I keep a few extra car lengths between me and the car in front of me on a part of my commute where two interstates merge.

When I checkout at stores and the clerk asks how I am I say "good," then ask, "How's your day so far?" It's vague enough that people who hate chatty patrons can just say "good," or whatever, but a surprising number of people have told me some anecdote about their shift or vented for a second.
posted by good lorneing at 7:43 PM on November 6, 2016 [8 favorites]

I have discovered that if I focus on goals, I'm still focusing on myself. To really focus on others, I have to have no goals. Which suits me just fine--goals are for soccer.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:55 PM on November 6, 2016 [3 favorites]

Wow you trained yourself to do 50 burpees a day?? That's amazing!! So much willpower!

So there was this quote that came to mind [ cheesy trigger warning haha ]...
When I was a young man,
I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world,
so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn't change the nation,
I began to focus on my town.
I couldn't change the town
and as an older man,
I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man,
I realize the only thing I can change is myself,
and suddenly
I realize that if long ago I had changed myself,
I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have
made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation
and I could indeed have changed the world.

And... It was really influential to me, and made me realize that I should start from the lowest level (me) and move my way up to higher levels (my closest friends, my community) etc. I think I am the most useful when I am supporting my friends and offering my skills to other people.

A few ideas:
- Developing excellent manners as an expression of empathy and consideration (e.g. never gloat, never draw attention to other people's mistakes, giving people due credit)
- Practising social awareness so that you are more sensitive to other people's feelings
- Laugh at other people's jokes
- 'Hold the space' for your friends once a week so they can ventilate their emotions
- Make fun plans
- Teach people about your area of expertise / favourite hobby on youtube
- Donations?
- Volunteering once a week/month?
- Identifying problems within your radius of control and thinking about solutions
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 8:34 PM on November 6, 2016 [4 favorites]

posted by bunderful at 5:00 AM on November 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of mine is to go out of my way to say hi when I see someone I know out in the world. Not always my first instinct if I'm tired/in a hurry/etc. but always, always worth it.
posted by zem at 6:05 AM on November 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

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