Victoria Chudinova/Shutterstock
Source: Victoria Chudinova/Shutterstock

Many people have a desire for self-improvement in one or more life areas, but feel overwhelmed about how to find the time and energy for it. Here's a possible solution for how to work on yourself when you're already juggling a lot of different priorities and your willpower is overstretched: In couples therapy, when partners seem to be at an impasse, therapists often ask their clients what it would look like if they were to improve by 1 percent. For example, if your partner wants you to listen more, what would improving that by 1 percent look like? Perhaps the respondent might come up with an idea like waiting 15 minutes to turn their home computer on after they arrive home from work, to make it more likely that they'd listen to their partner during that time.

General Use Cases

Attempting 1 percent improvements is an awesome strategy, particularly when ...

  • Change feels too hard.
  • Someone else is nagging you to change and you're not particularly motivated to do so. You see their point but it keeps getting pushed off your agenda.
  • You're someone who tends to overcomplicate solutions to problems, and you get stuck in thinking mode rather than taking action.  
  • There's something you want to get on to doing, but you're struggling to find the time and energy.

Here are some simple specific examples of how to use this strategy. As a thought experiment, as you read, think about each life domain mentioned, and how you could most easily make a 1 percent improvement in it:

Your Morning Routine

It takes you 40 minutes to get ready for work. That's 2400 seconds. A 1% improvement would be 24 seconds. You realize you could achieve that by keeping all your lunch-making supplies in the same cupboard, rather than needing to open three.

Relationships

Your relationship is lacking physical touch. You decide to touch your partner on the shoulder once per day, sometime during the first hour after coming home from work.

Eating

You're trying to curb overeating. You decide to permanently keep a 1/3-cup measure in your oatmeal container so that you can easily scoop that amount, without accidentally overdoing it.

Physical Activity

You run on the treadmill at the gym with no incline. You decide to put the incline up one increment.

Work

This is my example. I have a new book coming out in just over three months.  I need to get around to encouraging people to pre-order. I asked myself, "What's the easiest possible thing I could do to get started on this?" My answer was to add a link to pre-order at the bottom of my email template (the emails people get when they subscribe to my blog articles), which I did.

A More Abstract Example

You want to be a more encouraging person. You decide that the easiest way to do this would be to make an encouraging comment about one idea anytime you are in a meeting.

One more tip

Look first for improvements that don't require ongoing effort and willpower to implement. You ideally want solutions that you can set up once, and that will then continually pay off on their own. This isn't always possible, but it's a good aim. The oatmeal, cupboard, and book examples fit into this category, while the treadmill, relationships, and encouragement examples require ongoing effort. If you were an Olympic athlete, you'd want to stack many 1 percent improvements on top of each other, even if each required ongoing willpower and concentration. As an ordinary person, you're probably too overcommitted for this.

Note: This is a strategy I learned from my supervisors during my training. If I knew the original source of the method, I'd credit it!

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