You’ve made up your mind: your flaws are causing you harm and you want to become a better person. But where to begin?
In his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin expressed this same desire for improvement when he wrote, “I wished to live without committing any fault at any time.” As a young man, Franklin came up with a plan to achieve perfection in 13 weeks. He identified 13 virtues that he hoped to achieve and decided to master one per week. Although his timeline was overly optimistic and his goal of perfection somewhat naive, Franklin’s method does reveal some important steps to self-improvement.
The most difficult part of changing your life is desiring change — but you’re here, so you’re already on your way. Those desires are speaking to you for a reason, so listen to them. They are pulling you in a new direction because you were built for more than what you are experiencing now. Here are five additional steps you can take to keep moving in this new direction.
Benjamin Franklin wrote that he made up his mind to be a more virtuous person and set to it at once. One of the biggest deterrents to self-improvement is procrastination. We promise to start that diet after New Year’s, stop smoking after that stressful work situation clears up, get our finances in better order after tax season, or give up gossiping once Lent comes around.
There always seems to be a reason to put off the hard work of self-improvement. If you are serious about developing better habits, you don’t need a particular date or season to start. Begin today! Acting out of a sense of urgency honors the longing you are feeling for something new, so invest in it and don’t hold back.
The first step to becoming a better person is acknowledging your weaknesses. You might ask yourself some of the following questions: What kind of person do I want to be in a year? In five years? What skills or traits do I need to develop to meet my goals? What flaws are holding me back from successful or peaceful relationships? What weaknesses are hurting me personally? Do I treat others the way I’d like to be treated? Is my use of food, money, or technology damaging? What habits are keeping me from growing closer to God?
A single moment of self-reflection isn’t enough to make a real change — it requires vigilance, so this kind of awareness needs to become a daily habit. In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola developed an examination of conscience. He required the members of his order to practice it twice a day, at noon and before bed.
When praying the examen, you first acknowledge God’s presence and give thanks for the day. In a spirit of gratitude, you then acknowledge your shortcomings of the day, and look forward toward tomorrow with hope. The steps of the examen demonstrate that self-reflection should be viewed with joy, not self-deprecation. With this prayer, daily acknowledging failures and working on becoming the person you were created to be becomes a gift from God.
This is the same logic behind going to confession, which is also a valuable tool in becoming a better person — this sacrament might be the best thing Catholicism can offer someone ready to change their life. Verbalizing where you’ve gone wrong makes a big difference in stepping in a new direction, and the priest and the prayers of the sacrament will encourage you. The whole point of confession is to help people who want to turn their lives around!
Although the examen and confession are geared toward spiritual development, the same principles apply for developing good habits: make self-reflection part of your daily routine and make a plan to improve on today’s progress. At the end of each day, Franklin recorded his failures in a chart. A black dot represented a failure to follow through with one of his 13 desired virtues. At the end of the week, he could see an overview of his progress.
Try recording your own progress in a journal or with a habit-forming app like Habitica, Coach.me, or Strides. The Monk Manual might work if you’re looking for an analog resource. What you record will remind you to reflect daily, and seeing your progress and failures will also give you momentum to keep working.
Make a manageable goal
When Franklin tried to be perfect in all areas of his life, he was unsuccessful: “I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another: habit took the advantage of inattention.” His next method — one that was more successful — was to work on one virtue at a time.
Although you may want to arrive at your ideal self immediately, change is hard work and takes time. Trying to change numerous things about yourself at one time may be overwhelming and lead to failure. For example, if your goal is to eat healthier, going from eating mostly fast food to becoming a vegan is probably too big of a step. This change requires you to change everything about your diet, grocery shopping, food preparation, and dining options. Instead, pick one thing to work on at a time: cutting out sugary drinks or limiting portion sizes makes the transition easier. It is better to make the transition slowly and incrementally than to be overwhelmed and abandon your final goal because the change is too difficult.
Get an accountability buddy
Seek help from others in your journey of self-improvement. An accountability buddy can inspire you to stick with your goal when you feel like slipping back into your old habits. This can be an informal arrangement, like having a friend check in on you or finding a workout partner. It can also be a more formal relationship like hiring a financial advisor, going to a therapist, seeking out a spiritual advisor, or getting a sponsor in a support group.
Not only can others hold you accountable to your goals, but they can offer encouragement when you feel like giving up. Your buddy can also remind you of the progress you’ve made and keep you grounded in the bigger picture of how the change will positively affect your life.
Accept a realistic time frame
Developing habits takes time. According to a 2012 psychological study, it typically takes between 18 and 66 days to change a behavior. Researchers found that participants were still able to develop new habits even when they occasionally messed up. The season of Lent adds anecdotal evidence to this finding: 40 days of fasting and prayer — even with the occasional misstep — can develop a lifelong habit.
Benjamin Franklin recorded his mistakes in a notebook that he carried with him at all times, even into old age. He acknowledged that perfection was an impossibility, but improvement was attainable. When you slip into old habits or don’t live up to your new expectations, don’t beat yourself up. Acknowledge the effort you’ve put in so far and resolve to keep trying as you move forward. Healthy new habits take time to develop.
Franklin never achieved his initial goal of perfection: he was a notorious flirt, given to gluttony, and even admitted that he wrote his autobiography to indulge his vanity. His commitment to self-reflection and self-improvement helped him become a better version of himself, though, which benefited him as a person and all of us as Americans. He reflected, “Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”