One of the biggest reasons people don’t reach their full potential is because they don’t really understand continual improvement. Skills and capabilities aren’t things that you achieve and then coast on for the rest of your life. You can’t exercise for three months and then decide you are set for the rest of the year. Pretty much everything you want to improve will require at least a small amount of effort on a regular, ongoing basis.
Exercise and health
If you want to stay healthy, you must continually eat, sleep and exercise. Bursts of healthy eating for a week followed by a month of eating junk isn’t going to really help you. You must build healthy habits into your lifestyle where you are doing them every day. This is where most people fail. It is easy to concentrate on something for a while, but never get to the point where it actually affects your lifestyle.
If you want to be organized, it isn’t something you can do just once each year. You have to spend some time being organized every day. My favorite method for this is to set a timer for 10 minutes, and in those 10 minutes, organize my desk. It is a small investment in time, but if done every day, it keeps everything neat, tidy and where I can find it.
This type of approach is much better than waiting for everything to be completely falling apart and then have a day of trying to get organized once per month. 10 minutes every day for 6 days results in better desk organization than being completely disorganized and spending an hour each week trying to put things back together.
Obviously, if your organization system is completely broken, you may need to spend more than 10 minutes getting things up to speed at the very beginning, but the ideal situation is to stay organized and not have drastic shifts from extreme organization to extreme disorganization and back again.
It is amazing how many people feel that they are done learning once they get out of college. It is even scarier to realize that 42% of people never pick up a book after having graduated from college. (Yes, that is college–not high school.) People don’t seem to understand (or care) that to grow requires continually investing in yourself.
Education doesn’t have to be formally signing up for a class at your local university. (Although that might not be a bad idea.) Simply reading books on your area of expertise and new areas of interest can go a long way toward keeping you current and growing.
One of the biggest compliments I’ve ever been paid is when someone said, “You seem to know something about pretty much everything.” (And no, they weren’t saying this in terms of my being a know-it-all.) I ask a lot of questions of people, of the internet and of books. This, coupled with a wide range of interests, allows me to carry on a decent conversation about most subjects–not so much because I have a wide range of knowledge, but I know enough to be able to ask intelligent questions about a topic, whether I’m talking with a geological biologist who studies the fossil record, or an economist from the UN who tries to eliminate poverty through financial engineering.
Keeping current requires an investment in time, and it isn’t something you can do in a day. 15 minutes spent reading every day is much more productive than trying to cram the same number of minutes into a single day at the beginning of each month. It is a continuous process, and the value comes from doing it often–not just sheer hours spent.
This is closely related to education, but it deserves its own category. There are a number of skills that you develop simply by practicing them, and no amount of formal education will really give you the skill set until you actually do it. It’s kind of like playing golf. No amount of reading books, watching DVDs or sitting in golf classes will compensate for never having played the game.
Skill sets encompass a variety of activities. From your job standpoint, many of them are things where your boss won’t let you do them until you have experience. But of course, if you haven’t ever done them, you can’t get the experience.
For example, if you have never had experience trying to save the relationship with a major customer, your employer is probably not going to give you that job–unless it is an emergency. So how do you get this type of experience? Think about volunteering for a non-profit. Non-profits need help in every area imaginable, and they offer some very good opportunities to get experience in areas where it might be hard to get your foot in the door at work.
Most people do not practice their skills. In many fields of work, there is little difference in the output from a novice and experienced worker. Why is this? Wouldn’t you expect someone who has been doing the same job for 20 years to be significantly better at it than someone with two years of experience? The problem is that most people repeat doing the same thing over and over, but not in a way that they get any better at it.
Practice is hard and requires identifying the components of your work that you can improve and then finding ways to create an environment where you can actually get better at it. It isn’t enough to just mindlessly do the same thing over and over again. In many fields, people can get some degree of improvement simply by paying more attention. This is the premise behind our Free MBA idea, but practice can go well beyond simply paying attention.
For people involved in music or sports, this probably makes perfect sense, but for people involved in fields where no one practices, it may be harder to identify ways to get actual practice. The goal is to create situations where you can repeat something and get better at it. It has to be small enough that you can do it many times–you can’t practice a segment of work that takes 2 weeks to complete.
Who you become is determined by how you invest in yourself today. By making sure that you are always practicing continual improvement, you will be on a path of constantly being able to do more than what you were capable of in the past.