At the beginning of 2018, I set out to test the following hypothesis:
Focusing on the pursuit of excellence, through a process of continuous gradual improvement, will enable an individual to become their best self, tap fully into their potential, lead to higher levels of success, and transform their life from ordinary to extraordinary.
For the past year, I’ve been using myself as a human guinea pig by intentionally, deliberately, pursuing excellence in 3 specific areas of my life: work/career, health/fitness/image, and “life in general”. Throughout the year, I focused on developing specific habits that are associated with excellence in these areas.
So what were the results? Did the experiment work? Is the hypothesis true? Or false?
Like most of my experiments in graduate school, the answer is not as clear as I would like for it to be.
Let’s look at the data (results)…
Big Picture 30,000 Foot View
On the surface, as I gathered up my stats for the year on December 31 and compared them to the start of 2018, my life looked pretty much the same. No dramatic professional breakthroughs, no change in status on my Facebook page, no big difference in my bank account.
As I looked at the raw numbers, I felt like I had spent the year walking in a big circle, only to wind up in the same place. But as I started examining some less tangible results, I realized it was more like I had climbed a giant spiral staircase – I was in the same place but at a higher level.
I ended 2018 with much more self-confidence and clarity about who I was, what I wanted, and my ability to achieve those things. A few situations came up in December that mirrored events that really challenged me the year before, but this time around they didn’t even phase me. I was comfortable in situations that had previously made me uncomfortable, and I responded in new, more empowered ways. I had solved or overcome some major obstacles that had stymied me for years, related to discipline and productivity.
So, while I wasn’t where I wanted to be after a year of pursuing excellence, I wasn’t where I was, either. It was like I spent the year laying a foundation for more progress in coming years.
And something that I discovered, as I studied examples of excellence for my “Profiles” series, is that the road from when someone starts their journey towards excellence to when they “break through” – when the rest of the world recognizes and acknowledges that they’ve reached a level of excellence in their field and they begin to reap the rewards that come from reaching that level – generally takes about 5 – 10 years.
So it’s probably not surprising that I didn’t see more changes in my external world after only one year on the road to excellence. I’ve barely pulled out of the driveway.
Nitty Gritty Details
I started 2018 working to develop habits of writing and reading for an hour a day, but I never fully established those habits. Nonetheless, despite my inconsistencies, I did manage to write 36 blog posts and 3 guest posts (for a total of more than 50,000 words!). People viewed my blog 2382 times. Plus, I read (and took notes on) 26 career-related books.
After talking with some other writers, I realized the ‘step’ of 1 hour every day was too big – there were lots of days where I just couldn’t carve out those blocks because of other commitments, so I wouldn’t read or write at all, and there went my momentum. This year, I’ve committed to 15 minutes a day of each, which is feasible on even the busiest of days. I can always do more, but I’m successful as long as I do 15 minutes.
I discovered “virtual co-working”, which helps me to stay focused and in my chair for extended periods of time. As a work-from-home writer and coach, discipline has been my Achille’s heel for years, and a major stumbling block to meeting my goals. When I found Focusmate (a website that connects you with a virtual work buddy for 50-minute increments), my productivity and my ability to meet timelines skyrocketed.
I made a lot of other small improvements throughout the year, especially once I shifted from focusing on micro-resolutions to a more kaizen-like approach. I took a few online classes to learn more about marketing, I updated my website, and I worked on improving my rate of getting things done on time or early. One of the biggest benefits was that I gained more clarity about my “message” and my style as a coach. Towards the end of the year, I did see an uptick in my coaching business, adding a few new clients and growing the number of followers on my Facebook page. Nothing dramatic, but enough to encourage me that I’m on the right track.
As far as fitness, I don’t feel like I made any significant gains in 2018 (although I have defined biceps for the first time in my life!). I already had an established fitness routine, and my goal was to slowly but steadily increase the intensity or time/distance of my workouts. For a variety of reasons (travel, injuries), I wasn’t consistent. Instead, I’d start escalating my workouts and make a little progress, but then I’d take a break and wind up going back to where I started.
In this case, because my exercise habit was already well established, my steps to improvement may have actually been too small. In December, I decided to take a different approach and change up my routine more dramatically by throwing some weight training into the mix (mostly cardio before). So far, it’s really boosted my enthusiasm, and I can feel a difference (even if I can’t see one yet).
With the help of a wardrobe consultant, I purged my closets of all the clothes that didn’t fit or were out of fashion, or just didn’t do anything for me. Now, I’m slowly but steadily adding in new pieces that really work. Some hits, some misses, but I’m finally developing a fashion “habit”. My wardrobe hasn’t reached the level of excellence yet, but it’s safely out of the mud pit of frumpy. And now, when I go to meetings (and put in the most effort), I get lots of compliments about how I always dress so fashionably, LOL
“Life in General”
The first habit that I worked to develop was stepping outside my comfort zone and doing things that were either uncomfortable or scary on a regular basis. For some reason, this life change became a major focus of my year, and perhaps not surprisingly, paid the biggest dividends. My adventures ranged from the mundane (going to new stores, taking different routes to places I regularly go) to the uncomfortable (having difficult conversations, getting up before the crack of dawn to go to 7 am breakfast meetings, initiating invitations) to the downright scary (tackling a high ropes obstacle course, driving around LA in a rental car, taking dance lessons).
Over the course of the year, I became more comfortable with being uncomfortable. My image of myself and what I was capable of changed and grew. I now find myself asking, “If I could do that, what else can I do?”
My word for 2018 was “Courage”. To me, courage represents doing something even if your knees are shaking or your gut is twisted in knots. It takes some mental grit to work yourself up to it. But because of my experiences outside my comfort zone so far, I upgraded my word for 2019 to “Fierce”. To me, this means wholeheartedly and eagerly going after the things I want to be, do, and have, without paying attention to the feelings of fear and discomfort, or else re-interpreting those feelings as excitement.
Another habit I integrated in 2018 was meditation. There are a lot of research studies that have shown how a regular meditation practice can improve pretty much every area of life, and I was particularly interested in it as a way to improve focus and concentration (see my article “Strengthen Your Ability to Focus with Meditation”). I managed to meditate for 5 – 10 minutes nearly every day. No earth-shaking experiences, but I did notice a subtle increase in my ability to stay focused on a task, and I generally felt calmer and more clear-headed.
When I switched to more of a kaizen-based approach in the fall, focusing on weekly small improvements, I turned my attention to my environment. My apartment didn’t feel inviting or comfortable – instead, it felt distracting and disorganized. Rather than being a sanctuary that supported me in pursuing my other goals, it was another source of stress.
Over the last few months, I’ve started doing a little redecorating and upgrading, one small project at a time (well, the new car was a rather big project…). I even decorated for the holidays, for the first time in years. And I created dedicated time to read through my backlog of books and magazines, so I’m finally making a dent in those piles of clutter. My home is starting to feel a little bit more “homey”. There are still a lot of changes to be made, but I have plans in 2019 to tackle the renovations one room at a time.
Overall, I think the first year of my experiment was worthwhile. One year of pursuing excellence isn’t enough to transform a person’s life from ordinary to extraordinary (unless you’re already very close to that threshold), but it can improve things substantially. Plus, it creates momentum and a foundation for future progress.
One lesson that jumped out at me right away was the importance of consistency. No big surprise, but I saw the greatest improvement in the areas where I was most consistent, and the least improvement in the areas where my efforts were erratic. As Tony Robbins says, “It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.”
Maintaining consistency is challenging, because life constantly throws us curveballs we have to dodge, and our good intentions wither like an unwatered plant. One of the problems is that even when we’re very clear about the action we want to take (go to the gym, read more, work on a pet project, connect more with family and friends…), we’re often very vague about when and where we’re going to do it. We have this notion that the perfect time will reveal itself, a time when we’re at the peak of inspiration and motivation. But then we get busy and tired, or we forget until it’s time for bed, and we never quite get around to it.
In the book “Atomic Habits”, author James Clear talks about the importance of nailing down a specific time and place to implement a new habit, or action step. This dramatically increases the chances that you’ll actually do it. Now, this isn’t new advice, I’d read this before, but in 2019 I’ve decided to take routine building more seriously, to create a designated space for my improvements. For example, I’m finally creating a morning routine, and it incorporates my new habits of reading and writing for 15 minutes. Before I do anything else (no social media allowed!), these high priority habits are complete. My mornings are running much more smoothly, and I’m starting my workday about 45 minutes earlier.
A second lesson was that a sense of progress is critical for me to stay motivated and on track. When we set out to form a new habit, it can take months before it becomes a part of our auto-pilot operating system. Also, because creating a new behavior takes focused attention and our concentration bandwidth is limited, experts advise focusing on no more than one or two new habits at a time. What I discovered was that after 3-4 weeks of working on a particular habit, the initial novelty wore off, and I started to get bored.
By comparing tactics, I learned that at least for me, a kaizen-based approach (continuously making small improvements, which can include one-time actions) was much more satisfying than focusing solely on forming new habits. Towards the end of the year, I shifted to a strategy of making small improvements on a weekly basis. Sometimes these were small steps toward a bigger goal (like adding one new piece to my wardrobe or redecorating one small part of my home or updating a page on my website). Other times, particularly when I was working on a habit, it involved taking things up a level – adding reps to my new weight lifting routine or taking a bigger step outside my comfort zone.
This strategy really helped to keep me motivated and enthusiastic, because every week, even when I was super-busy, I could see some tangible sign of progress. It gave me tiny hits of success regularly.
The final lesson I learned was related to focus. When I set out on my grand experiment, my choices of new habits or improvements were a little scattered and random, based on what high achievers claimed contributed to their success. While these were all good things, I didn’t feel like I was following any sort of coherent plan. I moved forward, but in a lot of different directions – hence the feeling that I went in a big circle.
As I started planning for 2019, I thought more deeply about what excellence in the areas I’m working on would really look like to me. What does an excellent coach and writer look like? What does excellent fitness and image mean to me? What would my most excellent life include? And once those visions became clearer, I could drill down and analyze specifically where I’m at right now, and which habits or steps would bring me into closer alignment with those images.
And that leads us to …
Excellence Experiment 2.0 – A Year of Kaizen
In the lab, results from one experiment ideally lead to more experiments – either to confirm the result, or to test new hypotheses that emerged from the first set of the results. And so it is with my experiment as a human guinea pig in pursuit of excellence!
In the interest of brevity (since this post is already quite lengthy), I’ll just outline the highlights of my 2019 experiment, and fill in the details in my updates throughout the year.
As the title suggests, this year will be dedicated to an entirely kaizen-based approach to improvement. Each week, I’ll identify a specific small step, small action, or small habit to implement, one that will move me closer to my image or definition of excellence in that sector of my life. I’m working on the same three general “life sectors”, but I’ve further subdivided them: career (expertise, marketing), fitness, image, health, relationships, and environment.
I’m still testing my original hypothesis, about whether the pursuit of excellence will lead me to become my best self, tap fully into my potential, lead to higher levels of success, and transform my life from ordinary to extraordinary. But with this year’s experiment, I’m also testing the power of kaizen.
The dramatic transformative effects of applying kaizen (continuous small improvements) in manufacturing industries are very well documented – from turning the US into a production powerhouse that helped shift the tide in World War II to Japanese domination of the automotive and electronics industries in the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s been used systematically in businesses ever since.
We know that a small-steps approach can help people make dramatic changes in their lives and get unstuck, too. But what happens when you use the principles of kaizen just as systematically on an individual level as it’s been used in the business world?
That’s the question I’m setting out to answer this year… I guess we’ll find out. Stay tuned!