Intelligent Self-Improvement - Mind And Muscle

bodybuilder curling dumbbelllsby: Brendan Alexander

A Long Introduction

I’ve got an article written about objectively measuring the effects of nootropics. It’s a pretty good article – timely, considering the growing popularity of nootropics, and it’s got some good, unique information. But, instead, this month I decided to submit a general piece on self-improvement.

Here’s what happened: I was revising the nootropic article and chatting with a friend online who was asking about getting some pills to help him study for a few difficult and fast-approaching final exams. I gave him the normal spiel about nootropics, telling him where to look to get more information, where to buy cheap piracetam, and all that. This went on for a while and I was getting frustrated because it was obvious he was heading in the wrong direction. He didn’t need nootropics; he needed to learn how to study!

Sometimes an epiphany comes when you finally acknowledge a thought that’s been waltzing around your mind for a long time. That’s what happened in this case. We workout, we diet, we take supplements, we meditate, we do all these things to improve ourselves. Unfortunately it often happens that we miss the forest for he trees; we get so caught up in doing this or that we forget our ultimate goal.

Take my friend for example. He wanted to get good marks on his final exams, and he knew the schedule was going to be tough. He heard about nootropics, and decided that they could help him. That’s all fine, but the problem is that he stopped at nootropics. He didn’t consider the relative cost/benefit ratio of nootropics, or the time lost researching them. He had spent a lot of time reading about smart drugs, but he could have spent that time learning the material he was going to be tested on, or designing a system of time management so he wouldn’t run into so many problems when finals rolled around.

I run into this sort of thinking all the time. I’ve often said that if you want to become more intelligent (and I use that term loosely here) or a better thinker, then you should take a course in logic before you invest in some new smart pill. The problem isn’t one that occurs solely with matters of the mind. How often do we see some teenager spending all this money on creatine or Placebo-RX instead of buying chicken breasts and learning how to lift a barbell properly? It’s the same problem. It’s focusing 90% of your time on something that is responsible for 10% of the variance.

Well all this brought me to the idea of self-improvement, and for better or for worse, it prompted me to examine how we try to better ourselves and common mistakes that we make in the process.

Self Improvement

We want to be better, that’s just human nature. Psychologists sometimes talk about an ideal self, a hypothetical image of how one would like to be. Our ideal self is damn near perfect. He’s someone who has a marriage that makes Dr. Phil jealous, a mind that drives Bobby Fischer to tiddlywinks, and a body that causes a vaginal tsunami in the pants of any girls that spots us [1].

If the ideal self is Atlantis, the actual self is Detroit. It’s the harsh reality. It’s how we actually are. Any incongruity between our actual self and our ideal self causes a bit of inner turmoil, and given the right person, drives us to improve. When we speak of self-improvement we’re really just talking about trying to match up how we actually are with how we want to be.


Let me humbly suggest that you take a few minutes to reflect on your ideal self. What sort of person do you really want to be? What are your priorities? Does the ranking of your priorities coincide with the amount of resources you commit to them? Try to identify what you consider to be deficiencies; try to pick out what you want to change about yourself.

Selecting which deficiencies to ameliorate can be simple at times, but it can also be excruciatingly onerous. No one has an infinite amount of time to dedicate to self-improvement, so you have to temper idealism with realism. You’ve got to figure out which things you can change that will actually make you a self-defined better person. You also have to make sure the goals you pick are compatible. Realize that attempting to change many things at once can be quite the Sisyphean task.

Let’s assume that after a little consideration you’ve come up with a few things you’d like to work on. We’ll call these long-term goals. For illustrative purpose I’m going to use the examples goals of “I want to improve the way I look” and “I want to be more productive.”

If you’ve read anything about goal setting you’ll realize that these long-term goals are pretty vague, and a vague goal isn’t nearly as useful as a specific one. That’s alright though, because we’re going to look at each goal individually and extract more specific goals.

To get to specifics, look at a long-term goal and define exactly what it is you’re looking to change. Ask yourself, for example, what it means to have a better body or what it means to be more productive. To the over-fat endomorph a better body might be one that has much less fat and slightly more muscle. We want to focus on one thing at a time, so just consider the fat loss for the time being. “I want to lose fat” is still too vague, so try to attach some sort of definite number, like losing 8 pounds of fat in 6 weeks.

The long-term goal “I want to be more productive” is more difficult to work with because the concept of productivity is complex and not easily defined. Nevertheless, it is essential to come up with a specific goal. A student might decide that being more productive means finishing all assignments on time and dedicating an extra hour each day to studying. A 9-5er might want to get all his TPS reports completed by the end of the week.

I know it seems obvious, but you must constantly question the relationship between specific goals and your long-term goal. For example, someone’s long-term goal might be to find a mate, and he or she decides that he or she can best accomplish that by building a better body. Oh really? How about learning how to have conversation that isn’t contingent on having to shout introductions over blaring club music? Or how about learning to dress better than a scarecrow?

The Plan

So, moving along, we’ve identified our deficiencies and from them our long-term goals. Moreover, we’ve set some concrete, specific goals that will help us on our way to our long-term goals and ultimately self-improvement. Now we need a plan of action.

The first step to making The Plan is to review all the different methods that you can use to accomplish your goal. Often neglected, this step is crucial to intelligent self-improvement. This is also the step where my friend from the introduction faltered. As an example, let’s look at the goal of losing 8 pounds of fat in 6 weeks. First and foremost this requires a calorie deficit. Eating less than you burn is the major factor in losing weight, so that is where you should focus most of your energy.

Therefore, the first part of your plan is to figure out your approximate maintenance calorie intake and eat less. Next you can do some research and figure out a good workout plan. I’d estimate that makes up 95% of the variance in the success of a diet. The other factors like supplements, whether or not to drink diet soda or doing cardio in the morning versus in the evening can be considered if you’ve got the time and inclination, just don’t get caught up in them because they are largely inconsequential.

As you’re making your plan, whatever it may be, constantly acknowledge the reality of what you’re doing. You’re constructing a systematic strategy to accomplish a certain goal. The goal is only but a step in a more long-term goal which will lead to a better self and ultimately (and hopefully) a happier existence. This gives you the ability to determine if a sacrifice is going to be worthwhile in the long term.

The second step is to make a number of sub-goals that lead to your specific goal. If your plan calls for doing some sort of activity every day, whether it’s weights or cardio, then you’ve got a daily sub-goal to move your ass. If your plan calls for a long study session two times a week then there’s your biweekly goal.

Finally, every good plan must involve some way of measuring progress. There is no other way of knowing if you’re improving. For something like fat loss it’s easy – use a scale and calipers. For other goals the metric is going to be more complex. Maybe you can keep track of the number of hours you dedicate to work, or the number of tasks accomplished per week. You can even get a little creative and keep track of the number of people who notice a change in your behavior, or take time out every day to perform a small self-evaluation.


Self-improvement–identifying incongruities between the actual and ideal self, goal setting, and acting on a plan–should work, right? Well, it does… to an extent. One of the recurrent themes of this article is thinking about the big picture, and I would be remiss unless a moment is taken to explore self-improvement from this perspective.

Your ideal self is like the princess in the original Super Mario Brothers game. You work hard to beat a level, accomplish a goal, and then… and then… “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” Only there’s no level 8 in life. You’re never going to get the princess because there are an infinite amount of castles.

What’s the solution? Traditionally there are two ways to look at it. You can jump on the “success is a path, not a destination” bandwagon, or accept yourself for who you are, watch Oprah while you eat Ben and Jerry’s, and hope Pfizer can encapsulate delusion. Like many things in life, the best path lies somewhere in the middle.

If you’ve designed your goals correctly you will be constantly achieving or failing, both of which provide a little excitement in life. The journey, the struggle to do better, is invigorating. It is supposed to be like a cross country road trip in a VW van, not a coach flight from New York to Tokyo.

Now, acceptance has a pretty bad reputation, especially around these parts, but that’s mostly because people equate acceptance with hopeless resignation. That doesn’t have to be the case. Just as we can have dissatisfaction without loathing, we can have acceptance without resignation. Look back at those things you wish to improve about yourself. Try to envision what will happen if you accomplish all those goals.

Okay, now do it again but this time be realistic. Being more productive at work, having a better body, keeping your house cleaner – will those things really make you that much of a happier person? Are you unable to be a happier person unless you fix those “problems?” There’s an anonymous quote on a Zen calendar that I read the other day: “Why do you seek enlightenment? What if you don’t like it?”

The point is to strive for improvement but still be relatively happy with your current state. Realize it could be worse (And it can always be worse. You can always grab a pickaxe and dig a hole right through rock bottom.). And, if you’re going to embark on the noble path of personal betterment, do it with forethought and intelligence.

And that is all I have to say about that.

[1] I don’t mean to be androcentric, I just can’t think of a good way to describe the male natural disaster equivalent.

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