During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of talk about how this was an opportunity to do things differently. Now that everyone was in lockdown, they had absolutely nothing else to do but work on themselves.
Sure they had to balance work, relationships, trying to meet basic needs without catching the plague of the 21st century, possibly dealing with child-care or elder care, home-schooling and the crippling stress that came with living through one of the most psychologically and emotionally taxing periods in living memory… but they were going to make it happen, damn it!
Needless to say: trying to maintain your sanity — with or without the help of your robot friends — during a global crisis is going to take up most of your emotional bandwidth. The fact that you survived to this point is a victory worth celebrating, no matter what else you did or didn’t do during lockdown.
Now that more and more people are getting vaccinated and the tide of the pandemic is slowly starting to recede, we’re all starting to take those first, tentative, trembling steps back out into the world. We’re all in the same boat of trying to dust off those unused social skills and remember how to act like people instead of the feral beasts we’ve all become.
For a lot of folks, that time in isolation means that they’ve had time to take stock, look at their lives and decide that it’s time to do things differently. Plenty of people, after a year in semi- or complete isolation are ready to make significant — even life-altering — changes to their lives.
But the question becomes: how do you radically transform yourself? How can you become a new, better person? Just as importantly: how do you make those changes stick? Following these 5 steps will help you build your best life ever.
Step 1: Let Go Of The Past
The first step is often the hardest: you have to be willing to let go of the past.
One of the reasons why people have a difficult time transforming their life and building the life that they want is because of how the past is never truly past for them. The past isn’t dead, it’s barely even the past. In fact, a lot of men who struggle with dating do so because of their past experiences. Whether it’s the pain of being rejected by girls in high-school or college, the self-imposed shame of missed opportunities or being the victim of bullying, the scars of the past feel like they’re always with us in the present.
Now look, I get it. I have quite literally been there, done that and printed the t-shirt.
The pain of the wounds of the past can linger longer than even physical injuries. Our inherent negativity bias means that we imbue those past hurts with dire importance. It’s all too easy to let those negative experiences haunt our present.
But they don’t have to.
Part of the reason why we let the past dictate our present and future is because of the significance we ascribe to it. It’s all too easy to assume that those past experiences are definitional, that they’re indications of who we are at our core. They aren’t. All they represent is the story that we tell about ourselves… and we’ve been telling the wrong story.
Now I realize that this sounds very woo-woo-project-the-right-energy-into-the-universe-I-read-the-Secret bullshit but stick with me for a moment. For all that people love to go on about sticks and stones, words have power, and none have more power than the words we use to describe ourselves. Negative self-talk destroys the emotional resiliency you need to improve, hampers performance and leads to catastrophization, where even the slightest set-back causes us to make mental leaps to absurdly over-the-top worst-case scenarios that bear no resemblance to reality. And while it can sound insane to give that power to the way you talk to yourself, consider this: the Navy SEALS teach recruits to use positive self-talk and cognitive reappraisal in order to have the mental and emotional fortitude to graduate from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
And one of the ways you can use this is to change the story of your past. Don’t get me wrong: you don’t need to lie to yourself or make up a new past. You just change how you choose to interpret your past.
Think of the movie Rashomon; we see the same story from four different perspectives. In each telling, the basic facts stay the same, but the way they’re interpreted changes depending on who’s telling the story. Each person has a vastly different perspective on the same events, and that perspective is their truth. And just as it is with each character, the most important interpretation of your story… is your own.
After all, we’re all familiar with stories of sad-sacks who rise to the occasion and become heroes. We’ve seen movies and read books about losers who work to overcome their past and transform themselves into champions. A lifetime of pop culture has taught us these lessons… as long as we apply them to our own lives.
Choosing how you tell your own story changes how you see yourself and the world around you. Choosing a growth mindset, where you choose the beliefs that provide you the best results allows you to hack your confirmation bias. Rather than seeing “proof” that you’re a helpless, unloveable loser, you start to see proof of what you’re capable of and how much you can achieve. That proof is just as real and valid as the “proof” of how much you suck. It’s just a question of which mindsets confirm what you believe… so you may as well choose the belief that benefits you.
Yes, you had awful experiences, nobody is saying that you didn’t. You may well have missed opportunities that you regret now. But you can see that as an indicator of how much you suck… or you can accept that you made the best choices you could with the information you had at the time. Now you know differently and you’re able to make different decisions. Your past was the crucible that has made it possible to get to this point, where you are able to change.
Everything that you went through up until now wasn’t you failing at life, that was your training montage. That was what you had to go through to be ready to build your new life…
Which takes us to the next step…
Step #2: Don’t Focus on Making Changes, Focus on Building Habits
If you want to transform your life, then you need to make sure you do it the right way. After all, every year, millions of people resolve to lose weight, learn a new skill or language, live healthier or other make other changes… and they almost always fail.
They don’t fail because they lack willpower, nor do they fail because change is impossible. They fail because they were trying to brute-force those changes. The people who failed were so focused on the end goals that they never considered how they were going to achieve them. Those goals were so immense that they demoralized themselves. They didn’t take challenges like the opportunity cost or extinction bursts into consideration. Willpower is a finite resource, and one that it’s all too easy to exhaust. Like a marathon runner who doesn’t think to conserve energy and use it efficiently, they charge full-tilt boogie after their goals and end up exhausting themselves. And as a result, they become frustrated, they tire themselves out and lose interest.
Now those gym memberships are going to waste, the Rosetta Stone lessons are ignored and they’re back where they started, with nothing to show for it.
If you want to make significant and lasting change in your life, then you need to avoid their mistakes. Instead of focusing on the changes you’re trying to make or the end-goal you’re trying to reach, you want to build the habits that will get you there instead. By focusing on habits, rather than goals, you make it infinitely easier to achieve your goals. Rather than having to constantly pay attention to a seemingly insurmountable change, you make small changes that become part of your muscle memory. They’re small steps that you do without thinking, ones that automatically build the foundation for each new stage of your life.
We are all creatures of habit and routines — all those little things we do every day that we don’t think about. The way that you work, the way that you spend your free time, even the way you choose to look at the world are all habits. You don’t realize this consciously because… well, because you’ve been doing it for so long that this is just The Way Things Are Done. It’s not the best or most efficient way, it’s just what you’re used to. Take a moment and take stock of how you spend your time. How much of your day is exactly the same? How much of your life is the result of your falling into routine without realizing it?
Consider this classic scene from Seinfeld:
Yes, it’s absurdist comedy, but it illustrates the point of how many of the decisions we make on a daily basis are a matter of habit and routine, not conscious choice. But once you recognize those habits, you’re able to change them and incorporate new, useful habits into your life… which takes conscious effort.
I know, I know, conscious effort to develop an unconscious habit. Seems like a paradox. But not only do you have to pay conscious attention to what habits you’ve already developed, it takes time and conscious effort to create and maintain a new habit to replace the old one. One of the reasons so many people fall off the metaphorical wagon when it comes to self-improvement is because they don’t maintain those changes long enough for them to become muscle memory. As a result, the effort it takes ends up costing more, and they fall back to the old pattern. After all, your brain likes efficiency; habits happen without thought and free up mental bandwidth and use minimal energy.
To change a habit and make it stick takes time and effort; studies suggest it takes approximately 66 days for a habit to become automatic, and possibly up to a year to make it permanent. That seems daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Making a habit permanent is a function of practice — and ideally, efficient practice. The best way to make practice more efficient is to focus on underlying fundamentals that you can incorporate into your daily life, rather than specific goals. Losing weight, for example, is a goal, and one that’s difficult to achieve. Getting into the habit of, say, cooking for yourself, eating less processed food and more vegetables, on the other hand, is much more manageable.
(To be clear: this also depends on external factors like time and availability of food, not living in a food desert, etc. These factors also contribute to the habits that are built over time.)
Similarly, becoming more skilled at meeting women is an overarching goal, and one that most people practice inefficiently. Practicing making cold approaches, for example, often limits where and how you can practice. Not only are there few places where flirting with multiple strangers in a short span of time is a viable option, you also have to work on your presentation, overcome approach anxiety and so on. On the other hand, building the habit of being more social in general is simpler, more efficient and one you can incorporate into your day to day life. It’s much easier to practice by starting conversations with people around you; a brief conversation with your fellow caffeine junkies in line at Starbucks, taking more opportunities to talk to coworkers and classmates, even not shying away from talking to strangers at communal tables in cafeterias and food halls.
Becoming comfortable with making small-talk makes it that much simpler to approach people you’re attracted to, because it becomes part of your daily life. Striking up a conversation with the cute stranger browsing the bookshelves next to you is infinitely easier when it’s just something you do, rather than being a moment of dire importance that you would never attempt otherwise.
And speaking of efficiency, you want to make maintaining those new habits easier as well. After all, it does you no good if you let yourself fall out of practice and backslide to your old habits. Start by making it harder to revert to old habits and easier to use the new ones. Many habits are triggered by external, contextual cues. You get a midday slump, so you reach for a soda, you immediately open Facebook or Instagram as soon as you sit at your computer and so on. Pay attention to what triggers your habits and try to either avoid or modify them.
One of the easiest ways to help maintain the habit you want to cultivate is to put obstacles in the way of the old behavior. The more steps it takes to do the old habit, the more likely you are to choose the alternate. Using browser apps to block social media during certain times of day, for example, can help break you out of mindless doom-scrolling and make it easier to put your time towards work you want to complete. Keeping sparkling water in the fridge and soda in the pantry means you’re more likely to grab the water instead.
You also want to make sure you keep up with the new habits, which is why I recommend journaling or using apps to keep track of your progress. Checking in every day and tracking your progress makes you much more likely to stick with it. You may notice how some apps will reward streaks of daily check-ins; these keep people motivated to continue using the app. It’s literally meaningless — just words on a screen — but that feeling of being rewarded for putting in the work can make the difference between developing a new habit and letting it fall by the wayside.
And while we’re on the topic of practice…
Step #3: Express Your (New) Self
Let’s talk about one of the ways people inadvertently sabotage their own progress: they keep moving the goalposts. More often than not, this is a way of avoiding a sense of discomfort or anxiety; people who are afraid to change their behavior after being fully vaccinated, for example, are often still dealing with the trauma of the isolation and despair of the last year and change. It doesn’t feel “real”, or they don’t fully believe in the level of protection that the vaccines bring.
When we look at self-improvement and transformation, we often see people who continually put off certain changes until “later”. “I won’t start going out until I’ve done X,” or “I can’t wear those clothes until I do Y”. But X and Y never come… not really. When they get to X, they change the goal to X1 or X2, kicking that goal further down the road.
This is an easy trap to fall into, and one that affects a lot of people. When you assign yourself a goal post you have to reach before you can Do The Thing, it becomes a way of putting off future progress. You tell yourself that this is because you don’t feel like you’re “ready”. But, if we’re being honest, the real reason that you don’t feel comfortable doing those things is because, at your core, you don’t feel like you deserve it. You feel like you’d be a fraud to, say, wear those cool clothes you want to wear. So you assign an arbitrary goal that you think will make you feel like you’ve earned it.
But it won’t. The issue isn’t about meeting a goal… it’s about how you see yourself.
That’s why you need to do it anyway. Whether it’s being more social, talking to people you’re attracted to or even just dressing up sharp, the way you start to feel comfortable with being your new self is to inhabit that new self… now. The sooner you incorporate those changes, behaviors or activities into your life, the sooner it starts to feel natural. They become the muscle memory we discussed earlier.
One of the easiest ways to start inhabiting your future self is through clothing. Clothing, after all, is an outward expression of not just who you are, but how you see yourself. We have powerful associations with styles of clothes and fashion — ones that often hit us on a subconscious level. In a very real way, clothing is often an external signifier of archetypes, and we associate the qualities of those archetypes with the people who wear those clothes.
Studies have consistently shown that the clothes we wear affect how we act and perform in specific tasks, depending on the symbolic meaning we associate with them. Wearing a white coat we believe to be a lab coat makes people perform better in cognitive tests; tell them that it’s an artist’s smock and that performance boost vanishes. This is effect is known as “enclothed cognition”, and it’s one that you can use to your advantage. The clothes you wear change how you see yourself, and so starting to wear them now instead of some undefined time in the future makes it that much easier to see yourself as the person you want to be.
In fact, adjusting how you see yourself is a vital part of transforming yourself and building that new life you want. Your sense of self isn’t piece-meal, it’s holistic. It’s not just about your build or your height, your clothes or your hair, your hobbies or your interests or behaviors. It’s about all of them, working in concert. The idea of missed opportunities — that you didn’t do this, that or the other thing, back in the day — is a prime example; you didn’t do those things because you weren’t someone who does those things. It’s almost always a case that those activities and choices were well outside your comfort zone; if they weren’t, then you would have almost certainly done them.
But if you want to be the sort of person who does those things, then you have to consciously choose to do them. It’s not about skill; skill comes from practice. Blaming your deciding not to on a lack of skill is more about emotional self-protection than fact. It’s about making the decision to pursue that choice and see that choice through. It means recognizing that your comfort zone is just a cage with familiar furniture and your dreams exist on the other side of the bars. Waiting until you’re “ready” or “in the right place” means that you don’t change.
If it helps, look at this as practice. Think of those choices, those clothes, that hair cut as a dress rehearsal, something that you do to get ready for the role. This is why people tell you to fake it ’til you make it; not because you’re tricking people into believing you’re someone or something else, but because you’re training yourself. You facilitate the birth of your new, improved and refined self by aligning your existence with who you want to be. Adopting the behaviors or dress — even if it intimidates you — is part of how you bring that new self to life.
Think of it as full-immersion education. It’s much easier to change when you live the change.
Step #4: Find Your Crew
Now let’s talk about one of the most neglected and underestimated factors when it comes to building your new life: your friends. There are few things that will help you transform yourself than having the right friends, especially friends who support you and your goals, who have you back and who cheer you on. It’s much, much easier to build an awesome life when you have backup… and much harder when they’re holding you back.
You may have heard the old canard about how you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with and it’s true… to an extent. The people you associate with the most tend to be the most like you — despite what hoary aphorisms and 80s music videos taught us, opposites don’t attract. Like tends to attract like… especially when it comes to friendships. But the people you associate with aren’t just reflections of you; they’re also the strongest influence, whether for good or for ill.
Having the support of your friends — friends who’re actually in alignment with your values and goals is incredibly important. They help keep you motivated when things get tough and your progress seems to be stalling out. They help inspire you and keep you hyped up, encouraging you and coming along with you. In fact, it’s even easier when you’re all working towards the same general goal; you serve as a sort of living feedback loop that can enhance your overall progress.
Consider, for example, how much easier it is to take on a challenge that’s outside your comfort zone when you have friends who’ll be there with you. Trying to go it alone can feel like it’s just too much. But those same daunting or intimidating situations are far less unnerving when you’ve got company. In fact, this is one of the benefits to having wingmen; more than logistical support, they provide moral support and make it much easier to push past your self-perceived limits.
At the same time, however, the opposite can be equally true. It’s much harder to change when your friends are opposed to your changing. There are friends — not frienemies, not people who just try to manipulate or use you, but actual friends — who may actually push back against your trying to change and, as a result, drag you back down.
This could be for any number of reasons — some malicious, others less so. Some people have crabs-in-a-bucket syndrome, where they consistently pull down people who seem to be climbing out. They may feel they have a duty to keep someone from “getting too full of themselves” or that they need to “bust someone’s balls” to keep them in their place. Others don’t want to accept that change and improvement is possible. When others succeed and build a better life, it calls their bullshit into question. They’re forced to realize just how much agency they have and how much control they have over their own lives.
Demetri in the first two seasons of Cobra Kai is a great example of this in the first two seasons of Cobra Kai; he’s a firm believer that identity is destiny and that he and his friends are just screwed by the fact that they’re nerds. He’s the loudest nay-sayer, the one who keeps insisting that Miguel — and later, Hawk — are fooling themselves and that there’s no climbing out of the social pit they’re in.
But in reality, he’s afraid to even try. Watching his two friends — friends who were on “his level” — prove that they have control over their destiny means that he is where he is by choice. It’s easier to insist that they’re delusional, that there’s no point and to try to encourage them to stop than it is to accept that he’s the author of his own destiny. It’s only later on, when he joins Miyagi-Do, that he starts to realize how much he’s actually capable of and how high he can climb.
But some people are just angry and bitter — garden variety assholes who need you to be as much of a loser as they are and may actively sabotage your progress.
This, incidentally goes beyond just who you see in person. It also includes where you spend your time online, and with whom.
A lot of online communities are built on the foundation that better things are not possible, actually, and will fight tooth and nail to hold onto those beliefs. They shout down anyone who goes against the accepted wisdom, using peer pressure and the fear of losing the community as ways of keeping people under control. This is made all the harder by the echo-chamber effect; the loudest and most stringent voices and views tend to rise to the top, and this encourages people to stake out even more extreme positions for clout and in-group popularity. That, in turn, makes it even harder to maintain positive changes; as the group Overton window shifts, even being less shitty becomes unthinkable heresy.
This is why it’s important to pay attention to where you spend your time and what you pay attention to, which communities you spend time in and who makes up your social circle. You want to put your time and energy in places and with people that encourage you, in positive and sensible ways. If you find that your friends or community are always shit-talking your goals or laughing at your attempts to be better, then it’s time to reconsider just why they’re in your life in the first place… and find better friends.
Step #5: Prioritize Action
Out of all the steps you can take to transform your life and build your new self, the most important is to take action.
One of the worst mistakes that people make is that they put all their emphasis on study, theory and planning… but never actually do anything. And to be fair, it’s understandable; doing the research feels like you’re doing something. You’re gathering information, collecting knowledge, getting yourself ready by making sure you understand what you want to do. But the truth of the matter is that all too often, “research” is really just a delaying action. It’s the illusion of progress, something that lets you feel like you’re making strides and getting yourself set up for future success. In reality, however, you’re making excuses; it’s a way of delaying having to actually commit to the hard work of making substantive change. Much like the way people kick upgrading their style or trying to date “until they’re ready”, it’s a way of protecting yourself from the risks of disappointment.
And to add insult to injury… it doesn’t work, anyway. The hard truth is that no amount of study or theory will ever equal actual experience. Theory and book learning counts for nothing without putting it into practice. You can’t study your way out of risk, nor can you critical path your way to success. There is no way to avoid making mistakes or committing errors. These are part of the learning process, and choosing to wait until you have a 100% guarantee of success means that you’ll be waiting forever.
Life is a full contact sport, and changing yours means being willing to leave the bounds of your comfort zone and do things you’ve never done before. It means taking risks and accepting the consequences of those risks. Yes, deciding that you don’t want to take on those risks is an option… but that means accepting that things won’t change.
And, well… how’s staying the same been working out for you?
Straight talk: anything worth doing is worth doing badly the first time out. That’s how improvement happens; you don’t learn from your successes, you learn from your failures. You can succeed through dumb luck or through circumstances that lined up just so. There’s no way to replicate those moments. Your mistakes, however, teach you what you need to work on and where to put your effort. But if you quit because you weren’t perfect right out of the gate… well, then you’re never going to get anywhere.
Now to be clear: this doesn’t mean that you need to go full-tilt boogie at all times, especially when you’re trying to develop your social skills or work towards being more outgoing. Small goals and incremental progress almost always mean faster progress than trying to take on everything at once. Biting off more than you can chew means that you’re much more likely to get frustrated or be unable to maintain those changes. Taking smaller steps that move you towards your overall goal are less intimidating, easier to maintain and help you build your skill organically.
If you want to make your life better and build yourself into the person you’ve always wanted to be, then you need to make sure that you prioritize taking action. This means incorporating practice into your daily life when you can — saying yes when you would reflexively say no, having those short conversations and so on. Those little moments and little choices become your muscle memory, simply part of who you are. They go from being things you have to think about to things that you do automatically, which makes each following step that much easier to take.
And after all, action is the whole point. It does you no good to put all this effort into your transformation if you do nothing with it. Transformation is action.
It may not be fast. It may not be dramatic. But taking action means that you’ll have taken charge of your life, taken control of your future and becoming an active participant in your own life.
And that is what makes all the difference.