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.

Ways to Improve Yourself and Your Quality of Life

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.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.