Rule #13: Improve Yourself Every Chance You Get.

14 money rulesA reader asked me if I could break down my ideas into a handful of principles. After some careful thought, I came up with a list of fourteen basic “rules” that summarize my money and life philosophy. I’ll be presenting these as a weekly series.

Throughout my life, I’ve found that there are two kinds of people. One group seems to be constantly bored, idling away their days and waiting for life to come to them. The other group does the opposite – they’re constantly busy, feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, and are out there chasing life.

I’m in that opposite group. I feel annoyed with myself when I see myself wasting time. I don’t avoid relaxing and enjoying life by any means, but if I’m mentally and physically rested, I’d rather be doing something than just twiddling my thumbs. I’d rather be writing or researching something or reading for enrichment or doing something engaging with my wife or doing household chores or doing something engaging with my children.

And when those avenues are full, I look for other ways to improve myself.

Why? Why not just kick back when things are finished up?

It’s simple. The time I spend improving myself now always pays bigger dividends later. Self-improvement is an investment of time and energy instead of an investment of money, but both pay excellent returns. It can improve your health, your emotions, your career, and your financial state.

Here are five big areas (and there are many more) anyone can work on in their spare time – and notes on exactly how to make it happen.

Improve your health. Just walking thirty minutes a day for twelve years adds, on average, 1.3 healthy years to your life. That’s 49 days of walking in exchange for 1.3 years of additional life – a brilliant trade. Doing more vigorous exercise can add even more – 3.7 years of life on average.

If you want to break it down, on average, a thirty minute walk will add almost five hours to your life. Go on a thirty minute walk each night after work and a single week’s worth, on average, will add a day to your life. That’s a profound argument for improving your health, even by taking simple steps.

This doesn’t mean that you have to abandon more leisurely pursuits. One of my closest friends does sit-ups while watching television. Another friend has a treadmill that he walks on while reading magazines. They’re not abandoning the things they like to do to mentally unwind, but they realize that mental unwinding doesn’t mean you have to physically unwind, either. I like to jog while listening to podcasts or audiobooks. While out there running, my mind is engaged – but that doesn’t mean that I can’t improve my body as well.

Improve your knowledge. Ideas are incredibly valuable and grow more valuable every day as society moves in a direction where creativity is rewarded. Knowledge is the base upon which creativity is built. Exposure to new ideas and new angles in a mix with the unique set of ideas and life experiences you already have make it more and more likely that you’ll be able to produce unique ideas – and those unique ideas can be incredibly valuable.

One powerful way to do this is to read (which, I suppose, is what you’re doing if you’re here). Take on a book that challenges you and pushes the way you think. I like to read books that advocate positions I don’t agree with – books that advocate neoconservative thought and books that discuss atheism, for example. These books force me to understand other perspectives and, at the same time, re-evaluate and strengthen and perhaps change my own.

Another effective way to get there is through conversation with a person willing to engage ideas. Share your thoughts, listen to what they share, and debate their relative merits. Accept that criticism of an idea that you presented is not criticism of you, but of the idea itself.

Improve your transferable skills. I’ve written about transferable skills before, but the core of the matter is still true: transferable skills – the types of skills that fit well in almost any career path – are always worthwhile to build. Communication skills. Time management skills. Creativity. Leadership.

How can you do these things? Well, you might try implementing a new time management system in your life. Invest some time in figuring out GTD. Or you might volunteer to take a leadership position in a community group. Play a brainstorming game with friends, like Apples to Apples, or a strategic game like Ticket to Ride (they help you with communication skills, creativity, and logical thought).

Look at the things you choose to do in your “down time” and ask yourself if they’re also helping you build transferable skills in a subtle way. Then, choose activities that you really enjoy that do build these skills. You’ll grow a lot more playing Apples to Apples with creative people than you will watching a sitcom by yourself.

Improve your personal nature. Knowing who you are – your strengths, your weaknesses, your joys, your sadnesses – makes it a lot easier to navigate the minefield of life. It’s well worth your time to figure out who you are and what you truly value.

Spend some time being introspective. Ask yourself how you honestly feel about the elements in your life. Are these things bringing you joy or sadness? Why? What elements, you ask? Look at everything: your health, your relationships, your activities, your possessions, and so on.

This type of introspection can be very difficult. Often, we want to feel certain ways about certain things and, on some level, we convince ourselves that we do. Digging through that, figuring out our true feelings, and acting on them results in nothing but life improvement.

Improve your relationships. Most relationships need some amount of care and feeding, but in the busy nature of modern life, it’s easy to overlook the care and feeding that some of our most important relationships require.

Take some time and just talk to your spouse about how life is going. Give your mother a long phone call. Get in touch with your siblings. Look up some of your close friends that you’ve drifted away from over time. Listen to what they’re saying – don’t just look at it as an excuse to list what you’re up to.

Those relationships are invaluable, and any time spent maintaining them will pay off in surprising ways over time.

Here’s the real message: the difference between the successful and the non-successful appears in how they “waste” their time. People who succeed spend almost all of their time doing something that in some way improves themselves, their relationships, or their career situation. That’s not accomplished by idling.

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22 thoughts on “Rule #13: Improve Yourself Every Chance You Get.

  1. Lee says:

    SO much of this rang true with me. I’m rarely “idle”, i.e. just lazing around in front of the TV. I’ve had 4 days off work (going back tomorrow) and I’ve spent virtually the entire time networking, writing blog posts, continuing to sort out my finances and above all having fun doing all of it.

    Will it make me successful? I guess time will tell. Has it improved my life? Most definitely.

  2. This is so important right now, with the poor job market when so many feel as if they’re at a dead end or worse.

    Maybe there isn’t much you can do to advance yourself in a major, immediate way, but you can prepare yourself for the day when you can.

    To do nothing but fret about the lack of opportunity will only leave you sitting on the sidelines longer when opportunity starts creeping back into the economy.

    Maybe our “job” right now, is to prepare for that time. The more we know and can do, the quicker and easier it’ll happen.

  3. Eric says:

    Another stoolie in cahoots with big exercise!

  4. Julie says:

    “Throughout my life, I’ve found that there are two kinds of people. One group seems to be constantly bored, idling away their days and waiting for life to come to them.”

    Really, I mean Really. You aren’t even trying to understand that some people don’t move at the same pace as you, that some people aren’t capable of doing everything you do and remain healthy and sane?

    sometimes I like to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Stare at the sky, listen to music and relax. I’m never bored. I’m just enjoying life, in my own way and not judging the guy jogging down the road with his i-pod on.

    This preachiness is getting old.

  5. Chelsea says:

    Personally I would consider taking a walk, reading a book, playing a game, making a phone call, and doing pretty much everything else listed in your post as a time waster. I enjoy all of those activities very much, but I don’t pretend that they are productive or benefit me in the way that, say, working at my job or doing household chores or doing active volunteer work do.

  6. Craig says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Everyday you should have some goal on how to better yourself. Whether at work, home or else. Maybe it’s reading to better your mind, talking with a friend to better your friendship, exercise to better your health, try to learn something or cook a new recipe, but always strive to become a more well rounded individual.

  7. brad says:

    #4, 5

    i dont really care that trent has that point of view. (its just not for me) to me its a little…i dont know if sad is the right word, but when you get down to asking yourself if zoning out for 25 minutes will help or hurt you, i think youre taking life a little to seriously. could be that he just has more nervous energy to expend than us.

    i bet his friend john has alot of time on his campground where he just sits around and chills out by looking at stuff.

  8. Johanna says:

    What Julie said. I love the implication that unless you are *constantly* busy, you must be a lazy time-wasting time waster – because, after all, there are only two types of people in the world.

    (As an aside, I find that there are three types of people in the world: Those who can count, and those who can’t.)

    Trent, I notice that recent posts have a lot more “I” statements in place of “you” statements that make unjustified assumptions about the reader, and I find that encouraging, because it means that you’re listening to constructive criticism and trying to implement it. However, when those “I” statements are of the form “I observe that people who aren’t exactly like me are morally inferior,” you’re kind of doing it wrong.

  9. Jennifer says:

    I like this, and I don’t see it as restrictive. To me, he’s saying that we make choices in everything we do. There are people who sit in front of their televisions night after night (or day after day) and complain that their lives are going nowhere, or that they don’t know where the time went. They need a wake-up call.

    I’ve been whining to myself and others lately that I’m unhappy with my job, but I certainly can’t quit it without another one in place. So I finally did something and signed up for a computer course to upgrade my skills.

    It doesn’t mean I’ll ever be as energetic as Trent, as I like lazing in front of the tv sometimes, but I’m doing something for my future. Tiny step by tiny step. This blog certainly challenges me!

  10. R. J. Kern says:

    Awesome! Thank you for writing such a killer, frugal article. My wife and I just purchased our first home in Denver, following much of your advice about saving, mortgage stuff, moving, etc. If you are ever in Denver, look us up! And if you are in need of a creative next article, I’d love to read your thoughts on creative landscaping.

  11. chacha1 says:

    at the risk of igniting a commentroversy … I’ve observed that people who routinely take a defensive attitude in response to other people’s random observations are less successful than people who hold their peace.

    If you cherish your idle times and feel they make you more productive, well and good; I happen to feel that way myself. But couch your response as a reasoned argument, telling us how occasional idleness works for you – not as a personal attack, not as “you idiot, how dare you call me lazy just because I don’t work on myself 24/7.”

    Trent is not talking to ANYBODY on a personal level. Take what you feel applies to you and leave the rest.

    It isn’t necessary to agree with everything someone says or writes in order to appreciate his/her work as a whole.

  12. That is GREAT Life-Coaching! Everyone can benefit if they do even one thing you recommend. Nice post!

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  13. Great list! Very much enjoyed.

    Sure, I enjoy watching tv. But I am hardly ever watching tv without clicking away on my computer. And when I’m online, I’m reading blogs, following links, making sure bills are paid, checking account balances, keeping tabs on things I want, writing for and managing my own blog, etc. The funny thing is, I keep fairly busy but still refer to it as my relaxing time!

    Now, there are times when I do just watch tv or something… (At home, not at work. But I do watch a lot of tv at work lol. I can, retail isn’t always busy work!) When I feel wore out mostly, or right before bed. Sometimes doing nothing feels good, too. Nothing wrong with being lazy, when you can be. Being lazy when it counts is where you run into issues.

  14. steve says:

    keeep in mind that there isn’t a time in the day when you aren’t “doing” something. Even if it’s sleeping or vegging out, you’re doing something. The post strikes me as a reflection of nervousness and uncomfortability with not having obvious stimulation or activity–in other words, not having developed a strong ability to perceive subtle activity and/or tolerate reduced activity. Which actually is a skill as well. Being able to peacably withstand and enjoy quiet and lack of overt activity and distraction is a skill.

  15. Many writers including Stephen King and Brenda Ueland recommend going for a walk to help overcome writer’s block. Some of my best ideas and problem resolutions have come to me while walking; I can’t try to force it though when I do I just come back frustrated.

  16. Cari says:

    This post really resonated with me, too. I subscribe to the above tenets, and yes, I do get burned out sometimes. But I am much happier having a life that is over-full than when I was bored and searching.

    Also–I think reading a book can be VERY productive. Even if you don’t consider fiction a life-enricher (and I sure do, as a librarian) there are so many books that can help you be more productive. Getting Things Done practically saved my life.

  17. Susan says:

    I would agree with Trent that there seem to be those in this world who have many pans in the fire and those who may only have one or two. I like having lots going on and I find that Trent’s blogs help to provide food for thought on how to make my activities life-giving and meaningful. Life and time are precious commodities and I want to use the most of these gifts so that I may have as enriching a life as possible. By enriching I am not limiting my definition to mearly the financial but to learning and creating relationships which bring joy to my life.

    I have a friend who describes herself as one of those people who can only do one thing at a time. This individual raised her family and is now a college instructor in her 60′s. In making this statement, she demonstrates a profound self-awareness of her nature and personality. Her life is very full and satisfying. I am very thankful that we are all different – it makes life more interesting and dynamic.

  18. Nice post. Good reasons to start walking also include time to think and time to spend with your significant other . . .

  19. Shaun says:

    I love self improvement articles. I like to think that there is a compound interest affect going on with everything you do.

    If you spend a lot of time exercising and improving the brain you are just going to keep growing.

    On the other hand if you spend all of your time in front of the T.V. you are going to go backwards.

  20. Cam says:

    I have to say that I am dissapointed with the tone of this artical. It’s limiting and seems to have a particular negativity toward relaxing on the couch. However, I can agree with several points, however I feel as if “time wasted” is far too subjective to apply so genearally. Some people get a lot from sitcoms, even if it’s just by themselfs while they relax. The are funny! They put you in a good mood!
    Seriously though, people generally need stimulation. Everyone craves escape from the feeling of vulnerablility that comes with doing something new or exciting. Something that includes the possibility of failure. We try to numb that feeling (Dr. Brene Brown) with medication or shopping or by over-eating and loosing yourself in a twilight-zone marathon.
    Unfortunatly vulnerability is also the root of feelings like accomplishment, and satisfaction or contentment. The whole point is that you need to put yourself out there or risk something in order to win. It doesn’t have to be big, but in your own way you always should test your limits. Even if it’s just an hour of sunlight (for the exceptionally sedentary). You cannot attempt to start in the middle, move forward from where you stand.

  21. Cam says:

    Post Script:
    I am aware of the superfluous “however” in the previous post. I am not an ignoramus.

  22. Davina says:

    Cam #21–You might shut off the tv and spend some time improving your spelling and grammar.

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