7 Paths to Self-Improvement

Self-improvement is a broad field. It can mean being a better person, learning something  new, accomplishing more, or simply figuring out how to better enjoy the life you have. Even the inspiration to improve can come from a number of different places: boredom, staleness, recurring problems, or a general feeling of dissatisfaction or inadequacy. But just because you know it’s time for something to change, it’s not always easy to know where to start.

There are plenty of resources out there, but it can be hard to find one that speaks to you and your particular motivations. The internet is full of suggestions, but a quick search shows that it might be too full. During my last motivational quest, looking for “self-improvement ideas” turned into hours of reading, as I skimmed literally hundreds of lists, some of them with only a few items, but others dozens or even hundreds of suggestions long.

Worse, the suggestions were all over the place. Meditate. Learn a new language. Stop biting your nails. (What if you don’t bite them? Should you start and then stop?) Get up earlier and go to bed earlier. (Is that actual improvement, or just shifting things around to better conform with some puritanical code?) After hours of reading, I actually felt more confused about what to do than before I’d started searching.

Eventually I decided to try to organize the suggestions, lumping similar ideas and trends into what became broad categories, which I call the Seven Axes of Development. (Okay, that spells SAD, which isn’t the goal. Ignore that.) They are:

  1. Intellectual – learning facts or mental skills, or otherwise improving the mind.
  2. Physical – becoming stronger, faster, fitter, bionic. Well, maybe not bionic.
  3. Acquiring Talents – unlike the previous two items, which are relatively general, talents might have both a mental and physical component, but are really about doing a distinctive thing. Learning how to juggle, for instance, or playing an instrument, or learning an art or craft.
  4. Organizational – cleaning, decluttering, time management.
  5. Interpersonal – connecting. Improving the quality of relationships, from the most casual of co-workers to the most significant of others.
  6. Experiential – seeking out new sensations and experiences. This could be as involved as international travel, or as simple as savoring a pleasant aroma.
  7. Removal – getting rid of bad habits, or reducing negative effects on your life.

That’s still a lot of material, but having the categories helps. My guess is most of us naturally excel at one or two of them, really struggle with a couple (or several), and the others are somewhere in the middle. There are a few ways you can go from here. One may be to target the weakest areas, because it gives you the opportunity for the greatest improvement. On the other hand, if you’re struggling, maybe picking one of your strongest axes, which are usually more fun and interesting, is a great way to get some easy wins. Or take one of the items in the middle, which is a good candidate for going from mediocre to excellent without too much pain.

Honestly, any of those options could work, but from week to week or month to month, you might rotate through all three tactics, as the mood strikes or life allows.

There’s an advanced technique I’d like to recommend, though. What I did was take this list of axes and build a 30-day challenge, basically speed-dating my way through all the different options and angles, just to make sure I tried them all out a little, in order to better assess how they felt and what my chances of success were. For each axis I came up with three or four different things I could try out in just half an hour. Obviously learning a language in 30 minutes is out, but maybe a meditation session or some reading will tick the Intellectual checkbox, while some exercise or a lengthy stretching session can be a Physical goal for a day. For Organizational you could do a little light decluttering one day, and then some heavy cleaning in that one trouble spot (you probably have one, and know what it is) the next. Interpersonal might involve some quality time with a loved one or calling up someone you’ve fallen out of touch with, and so on.

So, make a list of 30 of these items, distributing them as evenly as possible against all the categories. It’s okay—great, even—to combine them. Playing a sport might include Physical, Interpersonal, and Talented components, for instance. Then, in roughly half an hour per day, (enough to get some things done, but not so much it really derails your life) do one of these things each day 30 days. Ideally you’ll take some notes about your experiences, deciding what you love and what you hate, what’s easy or difficult.

At the end of 30 days, not only will you already feel accomplished, but you’ll have a much better idea of what to pursue in the future. Self-improvement is more of a process than a goal, so there’s always more to do. By using the axes and starting with a 30-day challenge, you can identify blind spots, gain appreciation for the parts you already do well, and set a target on what aspect you want to improve next.

Aaron Rath is a novelist and humorist who nurtures a love for self-inflicted ordeals, such as this 30-day self-improvement challenge, which eventually became The Quirkz Handbook to Self-Improvement for People Who Are Already Pretty Okay.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.