Self-improvement is about making small but consistent efforts to shift your life in the right direction. Whether you’re improving your work output or your personal life, these small gains must accumulate to deliver the results you’re striving for.
The challenge with self-improvement is how easily you can go off the rails. One workout doesn’t make you ripped. Nor does twenty. As a result, you can easily slip into bad habits due to low motivation or by simply forgetting to stick with your new programme.
Conversely, because the gains build slowly, you can easily underestimate the progress you’ve made. Like a frog in the water who doesn’t notice the gradual increase in temperature, you might be getting close to the boiling point and not even know it.
To combat these two problems, try conducting regular progress reviews to hold yourself accountable and take stock of your progress.
What Should You Review?
Progress reviews are the tool that will keep your self-improvement project on track. As a result, you should conduct a separate review for every area of your life you’re focusing on at the moment.
In my case, I hold one review about my personal life and another about my professional productivity. My personal review focuses on the following topics:
- Health – Am I eating and exercising well? How is meditation going? Do I feel fit and health and full of energy?
- Family – How is family life going? Am I making time for my kids and my wife?
- Finance – Are we in a good financial state? Is the pension and the savings going in the right direction? What’s our monthly spending looking like?
- Lifestyle – Is daily life enjoyable? Am I doing enough things that I enjoy? Do I speak with friends enough? What’s my weekly routine looking like?
My professional review is simpler and focuses on the areas that have the biggest impact on my productivity:
- Time allocation – Does my calendar reflect my priorities? How much time does each work topic get?
- Focus – Am I defeating distractions and getting enough work done? What habits are working for me and which need to change?
- Team – How can I help my team succeed? What is their current focus and how should I help with that?
These groupings are just examples that work for me. They’re not set in stone – I change them from time to time. Use whatever works for you and don’t be afraid to iterate.
How to Conduct a Review
The key to an effective review process is simplicity.
I use a spreadsheet for my reviews, with a separate worksheet for each topic area. Each sheet has the following three columns:
- Going well
- Needs improvement
I start with the “Going well” column, where I list topics that feel under control or significantly improved since the last review. I think it’s important to start by recognising what’s going well, otherwise reviews can be dominated by self-flagellation.
In the “Needs improvement” column, I identify the top 3-5 areas that still need work. For instance, in my recent personal review, I noted: “Not spending enough time with my boys” in the Family topic. My fascination with side-projects and writing is compromising time with my kids, which is something I need to address.
The third column is where I describe how I’ll fix these problems. For each item in the “Needs improvement” column, I list one or two actions to resolve it. For example, to address the issue mentioned above, I added the action: “Dedicate the time between dinner and bed to the boys”.
The final part of the review is to reflect on the actions I set myself in the previous review. In fact, I usually do this first because it influences what I write in the “Going well” and “Needs improvement” columns. If my previous proposed actions were ineffective and the underlying problem remains, I can try a different action for the next month.
How Often to Review
It’s important to review progress regularly so you can make small course corrections as you go. If you leave a large gap between reviews or hold them irregularly, you reduce your accountability and stand a greater chance of going off-track.
Monthly reviews have worked well for me. A month is long enough for tangible progress to be made, yet short enough to catch problems before they develop too far.
To make sure reviews happen consistently, schedule them in your calendar. Make them a priority of they won’t happen.
Mistakes to Avoid in Your Reviews
Through trial and error, I’ve discovered a few things you can get wrong in your reviews. I’ve listed them here so you can learn from my mistakes and jump straight into productive reviews.
- Beating yourself up too much. It’s easy to be highly self-critical when you focus on self-improvement. I tore myself to pieces during my first few reviews, which made the whole experience quite unpleasant My solution was to add the “Going well” column I mentioned above, which forces me to address the good as well as the bad. Make sure you give yourself credit for what’s going well.
- Creating too many actions. There’s a limit to how many new habits you can introduce in a month. This means you need to choose where to spend your energy. To address this, I don’t assign actions to every “Needs improvement” item. I let some of them slide and focus on the most critical problems I want to squash.
- Not being honest with yourself. It’s important to call a spade a spade during the review process, otherwise you won’t make progress. It wasn’t easy to acknowledge I was spending too little time my children, but it’s critical if I want to be a better father.
If you avoid these errors, you’ll have a productive review. But, frankly, any review is better than none. Like most productivity activities, simply turning up and having a go places you far ahead of the crowd.