When you see the words self and improvement together, it’s not uncommon to visualize a drill sergeant barking in your ear about what you should and shouldn’t do. But it needn’t be that way. Like Disney movies, we can cloak our self-improvement efforts in the warm fuzzies and expect happy endings. How? Through the less trodden path to personal growth, i.e., developing micro-skills that compound over time.
I don’t have any bad habits. I’m good at all of them, especially procrastination, self-sabotage, and timewasting.
The butterfly effect
As it’s referred to in popular culture, the butterfly effect originated from a question posed by Edward Lorenz at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of science. Lorenz asked if the flap of a butterfly’s wings in China could result in a tornado in Texas? Like most physics problems, the answer is very complicated (look up Chaos theory online.) However, there’s a simple takeaway that’s worth remembering:
Over time, minor positive changes can add up to significantly impact our happiness.
And the way to do this is by acquiring and developing micro-skills—tiny, barely noticeable alterations in our behavior and habits. Micro skills can provide the most bang for their buck because they are simple, easy, and effective and can be incorporated into everyday activities.
Five valuable micro-skills
The Schools and Teachers Innovating for Results is a non-profit organization focused on improving the quality of underserved children’s education and learning. Instead of making large, systemic changes, the group improves education through micro innovations.
For instance, when students at a school in Delhi struggled to remember the poetry texts in their curriculum, the teacher substituted the lyrics of popular Bollywood songs (tunes all kids seemed to know) with verses from the poems. Before long, the students were happily singing hard-to-memorize poetry.
The lesson is this: making significant changes can be overwhelming even when they are good for us. On the other hand, making tiny/micro-changes is easier and more palatable.
Here are five valuable micro-skills to success:
There are two ways to be a great keeper of secrets.
a) The hard way: By being very judicious and non-gossipy
b) The easy way: By not paying attention when someone tells you a secret. If you never hear the secret, you don’t have to worry about sharing it!
I’m going to go out on a limb and say a vast majority of us are poor listeners. If you consider yourself an extrovert, chances are you spend more time talking than listening. Even if you label yourself an introvert and would rather stay quiet than voice your opinions, ask yourself if you’re truly listening? Or are you simply tuning off in social situations into the quiet cocoons of your comforting mind?
Active listening is a micro skill worth developing. And, by listening, I mean not just hearing what the other person is saying but actually comprehending the text and sub-text of their message. And more importantly, not formulating a response while the other person is still talking.
How to listen
a. In every conversation you have on a given day, try to listen more than you talk. The way to do this: unless you have something new or unique to say, say nothing.
Imagine how many hours of your life you can reclaim if everyone follows this rule in work meetings. No one has anything new to say? Meeting adjourned.
Instead of talking about your day at home, ask your family how their day was. And then, actually, listen. Without interjecting. Or passing judgment. Even when all you get are monosyllabic responses. Those of you who’ve had teens in the house will know what I’m talking about. One day, that window will open up. (I hope.)
b. Resist the need to fill awkward silences. Let the other person in your conversation worry about that.
When you can really listen, you’ll learn so much more about the world and the people you interact with. You’ll have more energy because you didn’t ramble on too much. Also, you can be sure you haven’t said something you might regret later.
A year after Amazon introduced its smart speaker Echo, Google introduced its copycat device, Google Home. Apple joined later with its Homepod. And the list is growing. Good for us, consumers. Now we can ask multiple devices if it’s raining outside.
Both Google and Amazon are competitive and have similar market shares. Both devices work on the same concept. And depending on who you ask, one may be better than the other.
It doesn’t seem relevant now which one came first.
That’s the power of cloning. For the record, I’m not advocating illegal infringement on patented applications. I’m saying it will be much easier to follow a path that’s already been paved.
We are always taught to be original and creative. This does not mean you have to start from scratch each time. It works equally well if you could take an idea and then add your spin to it.
How to effectively clone
Find someone you really look up to who has expertise in the area you are interested in. Then study and analyze what makes them so successful. Attention to detail is your friend here. Then incorporate/clone those successful behaviors and tactics, adapting them to your situation as you feel fit.
You may not win awards for originality. But the cloning micro-skill alone can take you much further than you’d go if you tried to reinvent the wheel.
Another great benefit of the cloning approach is learning from others’ mistakes. As the saying goes, “you can never live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself.”
A candle gets brighter when it lights others.
Marty Silverman, the son of an immigrant tailor, started the Marty and Dorothy Silverman Foundation using well-invested proceeds from the sale of a leasing company. He made it his mission in life to give away all his earned wealth, living in the same 2-bed, 2-bath apartment with his wife for 30 years and driving, in his words, “Fords and Chevies” instead of fancier cars.
Marty credited his success to the help he got from the community. In turn, he said, he found the most joy in life in giving it all away.
Giving evokes gratitude and creates a generally positive, feel-good effect that translates into overall happiness. Multiple studies have shown that spending on others, as opposed to ourselves, can increase happiness significantly.
Giving has many forms
Financial giving isn’t the only kind of giving. Sharing your time, or better yet, your expertise and knowledge, can be equally impactful because, of all the stuff worth hoarding, knowledge seems to be one we have a hard time letting go of.
The belief that knowledge is power turns people into knowledge hoarders. This stems from the theory that the more you (and only you) know, the more critical you will be to your organization or your community. However, this is a false premise.
Because, (fortunately!), no one is indispensable. Every one of us can be made redundant—it’s just a matter of time before someone equally adept or better comes along to replace us in what we do.
Precisely for this reason, if you can be the person to share your knowledge freely, the more likely you are to be regarded as an expert and an approachable one at that. Opportunities will soon follow.
How to give
- Incorporate giving into your day. Find something to share—resources, your time, or your knowledge.
- Give more and give freely.
- Perform random acts of kindness, such as buying the next person in line a cup of coffee.
- Be emotionally available to listen to someone (without judgment.)
- Volunteer without being asked to.
As a micro skill, giving doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. It just needs to be frequent and consistent.
4. Find the essence
The average attention span of humans has been steadily plummeting, from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2016. A popular and oft-quoted statistic is that the human attention span is less than that of a Goldfish. They can supposedly focus for a whole 9 seconds.
While the debate on whether or not we are more scatterbrained than the goldfish is still raging, the consensus is that we struggle to focus. Thanks to the numerous distractions around us and the information overload we are exposed to, it’s pretty easy to lose focus. As a result, we are often unclear on what it is we are trying to do.
One of the best micro-skills you can develop is to define the “thing” —the ability to summarize and articulate any thought or idea in one sentence. This seems simple, in theory, but to get to the crux of any matter, requires you to understand a problem holistically.
It doesn’t take long for a tablespoon of salt to dissolve in a gallon of water. But to recover the salt, you’ll have to boil and evaporate the entire gallon of water.
Most times, we can get so caught up in details, and as a result, forget what we’re trying to solve. Working on the solution can be pointless until we can articulate a problem clearly.
Getting down to brass tacks helps us understand if we’re trying to solve the right problem. Poor articulation is also the biggest culprit in miscommunication.
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. GB Shaw.
How to find the essence
For instance, if I had to describe this article to someone, I’d say it’s about “five overlooked but important self-improvement micro-skills—the ability to listen, clone, share, articulate and relax.”
If you’ve written any long reports, you’ll sympathize with me: the executive summaries are often the hardest to write. Being succinct is a skill, and it needs to be treated like exercise. And like all exercises, you get better with practice.
Practice summarizing. Keep at it throughout your day. Ask yourself, for every conversation you have, every article you read, every show you watch, every problem you solve, what the “essence” is?
5. Shake it off
The best-laid plans can go awry. Finding ways to make lemonade out of lemons when things don’t go to plan is a critical skill. But before we even get to that, we need to cultivate another micro-skill—the ability to hit reset.
When someone cuts us off on the freeway or after we argue with a family member, it’s inevitable for us to be frustrated and lose focus. Left unchecked, we could then fall back to some of our favorite coping mechanisms. Here are mine:
- Spend an eternity lingering in negative emotions—a great way to create mountains out of molehills
- Single-handedly prepping the economy by purchasing an entire Amazon warehouse worth of stuff
Instead, wouldn’t it be great to find a way to hit the reset button to our inner turmoil? To stem the tide and allow us to course-correct?
Discovering where our reset button is and finding out how to activate that button is a valuable micro skill.
How to shake it off
In addition to Taylor Swift’s recommendations on how to shake it off, here are some suggestions:
Wallowing on how life’s been unfair to us isn’t going to help. The antidote is to bring our attention back to the present.
The best way to rein in an errant mind and bring it back to “now” is through the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Other ways to reset include practicing breathing techniques and getting out in nature. Do activities that will help you feel centered and help you regain your composure.
We live in an age of planned obsolescence. Many appliances we buy aren’t meant to last beyond a few years. While the cost to repair is prohibitively expensive in some cases, there isn’t even a repair option in other cases. Replacement is the only choice.
Fortunately, we (you and I) aren’t in that category. We cannot throw our old selves away and regenerate a clone. What we can do, though, is, build enough micro-skills to be on the path to constant improvement.
It’s okay to admit that we are forever under construction. Some days we’ll amaze ourselves. Other days we may put our keys in the fridge and the milk by the door. As long as we know where to look for them, life’s good.