Focus and Follow-Through: 2 Critical Keys to Self-Improvement

We all judge each other: it’s human nature. But two key distinctions can make that judgment a profound tool for self-improvement. Here’s how to shift your focus to yourself, and follow through to achieve your goals.

One of the most effective methods of setting yourself on a path of self-improvement is to make decisions about yourself. Who do you want to be? What do you value? How do you want to behave, and feel? It may seem simplistic, but so many of us, with our busy, loaded lives and work schedules, just wind up coasting through life. Our external surroundings and circumstances are what dictate how we live–and who we are. In a sense, we’ve leaving ourselves up to chance.

Are we lazy? Not necessarily. But many of us are wired to choose the path of least resistance–that which requires the least amount of effort and energy, given how much we have to expend just to survive. Just fulfilling the responsibilities of having a full life can feel like all we can handle.

But I’d venture this: we don’t want to just exist. We don’t want to simply survive. We dream of being better, fitter, healthier, happier, tougher; of having a better job, making more money. To achieve that takes conscious effort. It takes making those clear decisions about who we want to be. And stronger our desire is to be that way, the more likely we are to follow through.

I saw a great example of this in a client of mine, a woman named Frances, who happens not to be a businessperson or executive. She’s a professional dancer. When she learned she was pregnant, not only was she determined to stay healthy, she had a career to think about. Her strategy showed an incredible kind of self-determination and toughness.

One day, I asked this mother-to-be how her pregnancy was going. She smiled to herself. “I talked a big game about only putting on only the weight I needed to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby,” she said. But that talk helped keep her grounded in her goal–and she stayed healthy and active through the whole pregnancy.

Frances explained that she was struck by other women’s stories of excessive weight gains, and knew she didn’t want to wind up in the same boat. “I knew what I wanted to avoid from hearing the stories of other women,” she said. “And I knew I wanted to do instead.”

Throughout her pregnancy, in its last months when we talked, she was often asked about cravings. “People would ask me how I dealt with all those notorious pregnancy cravings. And I would laugh and say that of course I had cravings. Of course there were times when all I wanted to do was eat ice cream, French fries, and cake.” But, she added, “That doesn’t mean I eat it just because I am pregnant.” She gave into some indulgences, but tried to stick to good choices. Why? She’d already committed to it. “I didn’t want to be hypocritical,” she said. And the conscious decision she made in the beginning of her pregnancy made a huge difference in her feeling great, she said.

I can’t speak to the challenges of pregnancy, but I do know that Frances is a great example of someone who made decisions on how she wanted to be, and acted on them. She didn’t ignore other people’s opinions or stories, she used them as a gauge for herself, to decide how she wanted to be–and how she didn’t. And instead of making negative judgments of anyone else, she focused on making positive decisions about herself, and then, even more important, she followed through with them. This kind of mental strength can enable us to accomplish many goals.

Here are the two keys to improving yourself the same way:

Focus on yourself. While it’s incredibly beneficial to form opinions for yourself based on how others act, leave it at that. We can–and should–learn from other people’s examples, but it’s not beneficial to then speculate on how they should have behaved or what they should have done differently. Frankly, that’s not your concern–it’s theirs. And it takes your focus away from your own self-improvement. Turning the focus on yourself is the critical distinction between positive judgment and negative judgment.

Make sure you follow through. As Frances made clear, it’s not enough to make the decision on how you want to be. You have to follow through with it. So make a clear plan for how you will follow through to achieve your goal, and stick to it. Frances also used what she knew about other women’s pregnancies to make a plan for herself. She pledged to drink 100 ounces of water a day, exercise for at least half an hour 5 days a week, and have no more than one cheat meal a week. Those clear goals and expectations gave her the best chance to succeed.

We all learn from those around us: their own actions, behaviors, and at times mistakes are the prime learning material. Like Frances, we’ll make judgment calls for ourselves based on what we see others do, and how we feel about it. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as we maintain a positive focus on ourselves and we create a plan for follow-through. With those two keys, we can leverage judgment into transformation.

This article originally appeared in Inc.com

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