self improvement

The 5 Greatest Personal Development Strategies That Actually Work

There are thousands of different strategies and ideas on how to improve your life.

But how are you supposed to know what really works? By these three metrics:

  1. Your personal experience (what has worked for you before?)
  2. Science and research of how humans grow and change (how does change generally work?)
  3. Others’ experience (what has worked for others?)

Only you can know the first part, but I’m here to help out with numbers 2 + 3. In my experience, and through all the research I’ve done on neurological studies, and through all of the case studies I know, these are the five greatest personal development strategies that actually work!

But First, A Few Notes On The Fascinating Science Of Change

I’m basing my conclusions on science that I have also tested successfully in my life. I’ve found the studies I mention here to be accurate and I believe these methods will work for almost everyone. With a few exceptions, our brains work mostly the same way.

Neural Pathways

Your brain has an amazing network of neural pathways. These pathways are communication channels in the brain, or how the brain’s different areas communicate with each other. From a scientific standpoint, habits are simply thick neural pathways (i.e. strong neural connections).

If every morning for the last 18 years, you have woken up at 6 AM, grabbed the newspaper, and fixed coffee, you will have a thick and strong neural pathway to tell you to do that exact routine on year 18, day two.

Neural pathways operate like muscles. They get stronger with use and weaker when neglected. Changing a habit is nothing more than simultaneously weakening one pathway and strengthening another (perhaps new) pathway.

It helps to visualize your habits in this way because it gives you an accurate mental image of what’s really happening in your brain while you’re trying to change.

Some people believe they can change overnight or in a short amount of time. Generally, it won’t work, and it’s clear why not. If it’s a bad habit you’ve strengthened over many years, you can’t just drop it. Your brain has been well-trained to execute that habit when triggered by the environment or an internal thought.

Or if it’s a good habit you’re trying to start, you’ll have to strengthen it methodically over time just like your biceps, baby.

Then there is the prefrontal cortex, which I’d say is the “manager” of your brain. It manages your short term memory and current thoughts.

Why are these important?

Together, they form the entire potential of your ability to change.

When you want to change something about your life or grow in an area, you either need to change the basic framework of how you operate (habits) or change your decisions (prefrontal cortex), or both.

Example: You want to become a better guitar player
Habit Solution: Make guitar practice a daily habit
Prefrontal Cortex Solution: Think of playing guitar as a bigger life priority and decide to focus on it.

You can see how the two are related. If you think of guitar as a priority, it will be easier to do it daily and make it habit. Unfortunately, habits are automated processes, so you can’t directly change them (that would be like hacking directly into the brain and rewiring it…cool!).

What you have to do is use your Prefrontal “manager” Cortex to make the right decisions that will gradually change your automated behaviors and preferences. As they change, it will become easier to behave the way you want to.

The more times you do something, the less resistance you’ll have to do it again.

But this information isn’t enough. You need strategies that will allow you to conquer the mental blocks and habitual urges that keep people locked out of positive change paradise.

So here they are – the best five strategies you can implement to change your brain, and your life, forever.

1. Start small

Every success story in history can be traced back to a small initial step.

In Usain Bolt’s case, it literally started out that way. The next time you see Jamaica’s favorite lightning bolt race at unparalleled speed, picture him as a baby taking his first, small, unbalanced step. Even he had to learn how to walk before he became the fastest man in the world.

Did you know that Apple – the most valuable company on planet earth with a $419 billion market capitalization – was never intended to be a company? The Steves – Jobs and Wozniak – were making computer boards for fun, and that wasn’t even their first project. Their first “big” sale was to the Byte Shop, a contract for 50 assembled machines.

Yeah but, what about personal development?

At the end of last year, I created The One Push-up Challenge, a challenge built around the concept of starting small. It has helped many people, including myself, successfully overcome their habitual hesitation to exercise. The minimum requirement of doing one push-up per day beats anti-exercise habits because it is so easy to start.

I bet I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too at first.

“One push-up isn’t much on it’s own, so how does it bring results that matter?”

Look at this email I received:

“We recently applied the principles from your one push-up challenge to get us back on the ‘workout train’…We started the ‘Insanity’ workout and our first goal was to just get thru the warm-up…we are now onto our 4th week and getting stronger and stronger day by day. Thanks for the inspiration!” (emphasis added)

As you can see, starting small makes you very likely to start, and good things happen when people start. This couple wanted to exercise and get into shape, but maybe they were psyched out by the difficulty of the program or the amount of effort they’d have to exert. Once they started, however, they worried less about the obstacles and focused on the benefits and excitement of really doing it!

This One Push-up Challenge wouldn’t even exist if not for the small decision I made two years ago to purchase the domain for $10. At that point, I had no idea my blog would become such an meaningful part of my life and even win some awards. It wasn’t planned.

What project or habit have you been stalling on? Start small and you’ll be amazed at your mindset change.

2. Step small

Starting is critically important, but so is finishing. And the best way to finish and grow along the way is to take small steps. It’s making sure that your successful small start doesn’t end prematurely.

The key benefit of small steps is consistent progress. If you’re not moving forward, you’ll be acutely aware of it, and when you go a while without making progress, you’ll get discouraged. And the neural pathways you started to build might weaken and die out.

The power and effectiveness of taking tiny daily steps towards a goal should not be underestimated.

Long distance running becomes psychological than physical. At some point, you have to focus on taking that next step, because if you think, “Oh man, 11 miles to go and I’m so tired,” you’ll give up. 11 intimidating miles is merely a lot of small unintimidating steps.

In my one push-up challenge, I like to set “micro goals” during push-up sessions. Every time you set a goal (even a micro one!) and complete it, you get a motivation boost. Break up your projects into tiny bite-size pieces and take advantage of this.

Writers: Set the goal of one sentence, or one word. Then set another goal. If you do that enough, you’ll have a book!
Entrepreneurs: Set the goal to think of one new business idea, or one new idea to improve your business.
Bloggers: Connect with one person. Write one email. Help one blogger. Send one tweet to an important person. Create one small product or a tiny part of a bigger one.

Every one of these things can be built off of. The repetition of completing these small steps will build your confidence, increase your motivation, and most importantly, give you real results.

2 more push-ups. Done! Ok, now 3 more push-ups. Finished! Ok, now 2 more…

3. Form Habits

If you only tried to form good habits and unlearn bad habits, your time would be well spent.

David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn from Duke University ran a diary study using students as well as the general community. They found that 45% of participants’ behavior “tended to be repeated in the same location almost every day.” In other words, 45% of the behavior was due to habit, not active decision-making. (source)

Habits are the framework our lives are built upon.

Many people suggest 30 days to form a habit. That is false information, and it’s common sense as to why. Would it take 30 days to get into a habit of drinking one glass of water per day? Of course not, because it’s simple and easy. Would it take 30 days to make 200 push-ups per day a habit? Of course not, because it is extremely challenging and has to override a number of easier habits.

Starting small and taking small steps are key parts of making a new habit. New habits are like 100 pound weaklings lifting weights. It’s tempting to pick up the 70 pound dumbbell habit, but it’s not the best strategy. Use your prefrontal cortex to prioritize habit-making as very important, and start out with one habit you know you can complete, even if it takes 67 days to establish.

You know something is a habit when it’s more difficult NOT to do it than to do it.

There are few things that feel better than successfully establishing a new habit. And once you learn how to do it once, guess what? You can do it again and again until your habits form a solid framework for a happy and successful life.

4. Trial And Error

Say you want to quit smoking, so you try running whenever you get the urge to smoke. But later you find out that having to run stresses you out and makes your craving to smoke worse, and you cave in. That’s trial and error. You have an idea that might work, and try it to see if it works.

Yeah, I sound stupid talking about something so obvious, but why doesn’t anyone do it? Why do we spend 30 years strategizing about how to get in shape instead of trying every idea that comes to mind and seeing if it works?

Of course, this isn’t to say that strategy doesn’t matter, because it does. And you can employ smart strategies with trial and error to get the best results.

One important aspect of trial and error is to figure out why a particular solution did not work. When you learn why, you can improve your strategy for next time. Even those who have no strategy can succeed with a brute force trial and error campaign. Most of us are simply too scared about the error part of the equation.

5. Focus

Focus is what ties all of personal development together. It allows you to do what you want in life. My definition of focus is choosing one path and deciding not to pay attention to anything that conflicts with it. The world outside of it becomes a blur.

I’ll tell you why it’s important. Say you want to do the previous 4 steps in here. If you can’t focus, you won’t do them. You can have all of the secrets of life, but without focus, it’s worthless information. Focus is the ability to apply what you’ve learned. It matters most.

“There is clear and compelling evidence of one unit being maintained in focal attention and no direct evidence for more than one item of information extended over time.” Brian McElree, PhD – A New York University Psychology Professor

Studies on the mind always reach one conclusion – focusing on one thing works best. As Professor McElree says, focal attention is singular, and that’s why juggling too many ideas at once gets you nowhere. I’m sure you’ve experienced this.

Any time you’re overwhelmed, it’s the result of your focus being divided. It usually happens when trying to sort out a big project. But you can get focused quickly to sort it out.

A focused mind knows the single best action (s)he can take right now. It doesn’t matter if you have 35 papers due in one hour. There is always a single best action to take (though you can choose wrong sometimes, it’s no worse than freezing in place).

Decide, take action, and don’t worry about anything else.

Focus is necessary for any type of personal development because it allows for consistent progress in one area at a time, which is what your brain is best suited for. Focusing is playing to your brain’s strengths.

Trying to grow without focus is like trying to fill up four bowls, each with holes in them. You can switch them out as fast as you want, but you’ll never fill them all up. But if you hold one bowl underneath with holes in it, the volume of water can still fill the bowl up as it’s leaking, and then magical focus fairies will patch the holes up for you.

Darn, I was so close with that analogy, but I had to call in the fairies.

My mission is to help people stay focused in a distracted world. My name is Stephen Guise and if you subscribe to my blog’s list, you’ll get my anti-stress eBook as a gift and personally written updates for new articles 2-5 times a month. Not only that, but I’m about to launch the world’s first interactive personal development story at my previously unannounced website, Interactive Stories Online. You’re the first ones to know!

It’s going to be even more fun than it sounds. Sign up here to keep updated on this exciting stuff!




44 Responses to The 5 Greatest Personal Development Strategies That Actually Work

  1. I think a big reason why people won’t experiment with the ideas they have is that 1) they overestimate how well they can predict the outcome in their heads and 2) they underestimate how much there is to be learned by trying. Taking that first small step is so powerful. Awesome and actionable advice Stephen, thanks for sharing! :)

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  3. Burton says:

    I am grateful to have read this today. I am currently making a lot of changes in my life and it was reassuring to see that even though I feel my steps are small that small steps can make a big difference in the long run. Thank you for the reminder and I am excited about taking more small steps.

  4. That’s insightful Patrik. I think you’re right.

    I’ve noticed that sometimes I’ll predict a negative outcome, but then the negative isn’t as bad as first thought. The problem with assuming is it’s rare to ever be 100% correct.

    My pleasure Patrik! Thanks for the great comment!

  5. You’re welcome Burton.

    I have been blown away at the difference small steps have made in my life. I feel like I can do anything now because I can break it down into tiny doable tasks. Everything great seems like it takes a huge leap, but small steps are almost always the reason.

    The guy who recently tightroped across Niagara Falls was praised for his single great feat, but it was dozens or even hundreds of gradually more difficult practice sessions that prepared him to do it.

  6. Dan Erickson says:

    Great post. I’ve been able to accomplish much using these kinds of steps. My problem is getting too much on my plate and having to cut back on something. What do I keep? What do I let go of?

  7. I know what you mean Dan. It’s easy to come up with a 500-hours-of-work idea when you already have too many.

    I like the question “what should I do now?” Picking something to work on now and in the near future may block out the other projects, but it doesn’t mean you’re giving up on them completely. There may or may not be a time to work on them later.

    Plus, this mindset allows you to switch on the fly if your situation changes. If you’re flip-flopping, then yeah, maybe you should let go of a few projects. It’s a tough call for sure. You’ve got to be able to prioritize what’s most important to you, and that requires a lot of focus and energy.

    If you’re ever stuck, you can send me an email to bounce your ideas off of me and I’ll try to help.

  8. teammartens says:

    This a fantastic article. I love the visual that you created in my mind about the Neural Pathways getting stronger with good habits and weaker with bad habits. This is going to be very valuable to me. Thank you.

  9. You’re welcome! Visualizations are very powerful tools. I’m glad you found this valuable. Best of luck in your journey!

  10. Dan Erickson says:

    I’m not stuck. I tend to work in rhythms. That’s why I call my blog “Intentional Rhythms.”
    For instance, May and June were set aside for blogging, guest posts, and promoting my books. Although I’ll keep doing those activities, I’ll cut back on them to work on writing and music production in the summer. I have a new blog series planned for fall. But even with all the rotating of emphasis, it’s a pretty big load. I can always cut back or slow down, but I rarely cut anything out completrly unless it’s having a negative effect on me or my daughter.
    For instance, I stopped playing music with my church because I had to skip dinner and drag my daughter along in order to rehearse. It’s less flip-flopping than it is intentional alternating focus. Thanks, Stephen.

  11. Oh I see. It sounds like you’re doing just fine then!

    I do the same type of thing. Right now I alternate my focus between three big projects. Any more would be too much. Three seems to be the right combo of interesting and manageable (for now anyways).

    Of course, when I add in my personal goals and such, it becomes a challenging balancing act. But that’s why I’ve come to love focus. I can pick one thing to work on at a time and not worry about the other goals and projects because I know focused time is time well spent.

  12. wake up says:

    Thank you for such an wonderful article, You made my day :)

  13. And your comment made my day! Thanks. :-)

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  15. Brainwavelove says:

    Stephen, I do agree that these are some strategies that actually work, and was quite thrilled to see someone mention and explain neural pathways in an article such as this one. It is always inspiring to read quality, in-depth content written by like-minded people. I especially like your definition of ‘Focus’ – choosing a path you strongly believe in, and follow no matter what. This is essential, and probably one of the hardest things to do, as distractions always come along the way – the key is to resist and stick to those small steps we’ve committed ourselves to making day after day.

  16. My experience definitely confirms the above!

    Even in cases when, to paraphrase your example, after 18 years, where every morning you have woken up at 6 AM, fixed coffee for your spouse and yourself and then shared a smile and a newspaper… when all of a sudden your loved one is dead and gone.

    When that happens your brain, your emotions, your body and your life seem to fall apart… And yet, it is possible to move from grief to growth. On that special and essentially unwanted “personal development path” too the 5 steps above are very meaningful. In all their simplicity, they’ll help you reconstruct your life, bit by bit, habit by habit, step by step.

    Thank you Stephen for sharing your experience!

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  18. Wow Halina, that’s a powerful application of these steps. I can see how they’d help when grief is so strong. That makes them even more valuable, as I didn’t previously consider their effectiveness in that situation.

    Thanks so much for sharing that.

  19. Neural pathways are so interesting and important to our behavior. I’ve been interested in neurology for a while now, and I try to read up on it regularly. The brain is amazing in it’s ability to transform over time.

    I agree with your key point, sticking to commitments we made even as distractions tempt us. It’s a skill to be able to do that, but it pays off to learn it!

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  21. Thanks for giving me the useful information. I think I need it. Thank you

  22. John Mac says:

    Thanks for this great post. I love things scientifically proven. The five steps you mention are really what we must do.

    Just for the time required to form a habit, I think it’s 21 days not 30 but it depends on parameters like : The duration of the habit …

    I add also that techniques like NLP, sophrology, … are very helpful and give great results for personal development

  23. Tamera Lay says:

    This is a great post! I especially loved step one on starting small. I recently posted a Vlog on a tool I teach my clients called the 3 Step Starter. It’s so important to start small because often times we get so discouraged and overwhelmed at the beginning and then just end up giving up. By starting small you build up some momentum and good things DO happen then! Just found your blog and looking forward to more :)

  24. Chris Clarke says:

    I too am grateful for stumbling across this wonderful post. I love the introduction and core note of neuroplasticity, a term which I came across in a random topic linking porn and human sexual tastes. I believe it is empowering for people to know, that for the most part, habits whether good or bad can be trained, created and negated. The power is with you guys and this post really hits home the fundamentals of really making positive changes in your life!

  25. Adam Clarke says:


  26. Thanks Adam! I appreciate your words and agree with you on the importance of knowing at least a little bit of the science behind habits and change.

  27. You’re welcome, Notch.

  28. Agreed, great things happen when you start! Thanks for the kind words.

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  30. Elena Lee says:

    Focus is the main thing that everyone lacks the most these days: cell phones, computers, tons of emails to check… When you start doing something, you can easily forget about something you were doing just 5 minutes ago. Doing one thing at a time is the best strategy. Multi tasking never really works. Great post!

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  32. I agree Elena. That is a key reason why I changed my blog to be about focusing. The other reason is because of how effective it is!

  33. Minecraft says:

    Very useful and supportive article. I wish I can do all of
    that in a short period of time.

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  40. Lesley Lyon says:

    I like Halina Goldstein’s post. I am not a widow but a divorcee, not what I wanted, and I am finding it extremely difficult to cope. I think of suicide every day. I force myself to go to work because it helps a little to take my mind of the constant thoughts in my head of where I went wrong, why did this have to happen to me and knowing he is with another woman just eats me up. I know I need to start doing something and as you say even if its just one at a time. All I really want to do is curl up on the couch and just be.

  41. Hi Lesley,

    There are certainly many similarities between widowhood and divorce, including the fact that it’s one of the most difficult transitions in life – which *can* turn into one of the deepest transformations, in a very positive sense. Allowing yourself to curl up on the couch and just be while taking small steps when you’re ready is part of it. I’ve been there so I know. :-)

    Take good care of yourself!


  42. Aghogho says:

    I like the idea of taking tiny and easy step consistently. I have been in serious need of how to form new habit that are critical in living an extra-ordinary life. I think I have finally found something that could be of much help. I would try it straight away and let you know how well am doing. I am very optimistic that it would work out. Thank you so much for being a blessing.

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