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A step-by-step approach to self-improvement

Ben FranklinMost people use New Year’s Eve as a benchmark to focus on self-improvement. In welcoming the blank slate of a new year, Jan. 1 marks a date for some soul searching, creating an opportunity to redefine goals and reframe perspectives through new year’s resolutions. I prefer to use my birthday, which I celebrated last week, for such reflection because it is technically my “new year.”

In doing so, I think about the past year — what I accomplished, what I didn’t quite get to, what I would like to maintain and what I would like to change going forward. Last June, I spent my birthday sitting in a Barbri class listening to a lecture on corporate law in preparation for the Maryland bar exam in July. One year later, I was reviewing corporate documents as new attorney. Needless to say, it was a year of many significant changes and challenges.

When doing my annual birthday evaluation, I perpetually attempt to address a question that I can’t seem to find the answer to: how can one effectively track the progress of intangible traits?

For example, if your goal is to lose weight, you can easily measure your progress by stepping on a scale. Similarly, if you desire to save more money, you just look at your bank statement. Someone in my professional circle advised the importance of frequently updating your resume so that you can more easily monitor your professional growth.

But how do you track learning patience, practicing positive thinking and implementing balance, three areas I am always trying to improve upon? Being a new associate in a busy law firm only adds to the challenge of developing and maintaining these skills.

When looking for ways to advance my ability to track self-improvement, I have come across a lot of information on Ben Franklin. He identified 13 virtues that he wanted to develop by modifying his habits. He defined each virtue clearly so that he would know exactly what he was working toward, ranked the virtues and noted his progress each day in a chart, beginning with the trait he considered the most important. Not until he felt that he had a good enough handle on a trait did he attempt to master the next one.

Ben was on to something. A daily list creates accountability, a sense of accomplishment and provides a deliberate reminder of your goals.

Like any new adventure, getting started is usually the hardest part. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor explains the “Zorro Circle.” The basic premise is that when taking on a huge goal, people can become overwhelmed and paralyzed at the sheer enormity of the task at hand, thus defeating themselves before even starting.

The book uses an example of a messy room (think hoarders). When faced with the task of cleaning it, most people wouldn’t know where to start and surrender. However, if you take a “sword” like Zorro’s and carve out a small area to clean and clean the area, you can then conquer the room. In other words, you create small goals to gain control.

This idea overlaps with Ben’s; using a daily tracker makes the seemingly insurmountable task of revamping one’s personality traits reachable because it breaks the goal down into manageable daily increments.

Each day becomes a fresh start to work on the intended goal and implement change in your life. Slowly but surely these days will add up to months and then months turn into years.

Maybe I should consider these practices and when next June rolls around, I will be a more patient, more balanced attorney who continues to view my career through a positive lens.