Embracing messy improvement

Do you ever find yourself annoyed at the mistakes you make over and over? The ones you thought you had corrected?

If you do, you aren’t alone. It can be anything you struggle with: a fitness routine, a creative habit, writing mistakes, learning something new that is a tough climb.

Many of us struggle with repeated mistakes, misses, and half-attempts that end in failure. It’s part of being human.

But you really want to improve and move past this stuff. You want to get to a new level where these mistakes are finally behind you. We all want this and struggle daily with it.

Is there any easy solution, a hack to try, a secret cheat?

Not really!

You have to accept that improvement takes effort.

The real problem with improvement is that it’s always messy

Any improvement curve is going to have ups and downs with lots of static and noise and plateaus, just like a share price on you favorite stocks.

Nothing ever goes up and up without little hitches along the way. But that doesn’t mean the overall direction isn’t upward or that there is any reason to give up.

So, let’s look at how you can think about improving your writing or any other area you really want to improve.

What sort of improvement do you expect when you start something new?

Most people expect improvement to be a linear. A straight line upward that gives fair rewards for each bit of time invested.

Some self-help gurus say you can be 1% better every day if you work at it … in every area of your life.

That’s actually really difficult to manage day by day. You can’t always run farther and faster each day. The human body doesn’t work that way, nor does your mind. You will have tired days, slow days, off days and distracted days. Progress is going to be messy.

You often get very fast improvement at the start of a new project, but after that, it slows down dramatically.

When you hit the rocks, what do you then?

If you are like most of us, chances are you do one of the following…

  • get angry or frustrated and quit
  • lose interest and quit
  • realize how hard improvement really is and quit
  • look for hacks and shortcuts and quit when they don’t help

I’ve done all of these at some point with some of my creative pursuits, and there is no reason for any of it.

I do something for awhile, get a few results, then I start faltering when improvement doesn’t come so easily. I realize how much effort and practice improvement requires, and I lose my commitment. The funny thing is, if it’s something I really want to do, I will be back and regret the lost time. That’s a true shame.

It’s easy to lose sight of both the process and the goal

Improvement requires both.

Over and over we hear, stay focused only on the process because you can’t control the outcome. That is true. You cannot control outcomes. But you certainly do have a major influence on them through your efforts and commitment to improvement.

In reality, you must become adept at switching between the two modes, process-focus and outcome-focus.

And although the outcome seems too future-oriented to think about, it isn’t. What you do in the process creates the outcome, and the better your process is, the better the outcome is in most cases (no guarantees!)

Enter the mess

Here is where the mess is, in switching back and forth between the process and the outcome. It’s easy to lose sight of what you are doing and repeat mistakes. It’s easy to get distracted and try to hurry ahead. Even mistakes you thought you corrected resurface again.

So, it often feels like two steps forward and one step back. Or worse, it’s a total back slide. It happens to the best of us.

Improving is a messy business. I have never met anyone that doesn’t need to make a mistake a few times before never making it again.

In writing this can show up as…

using passive voice

  • repetition and unnecessary phrases
  • forgetting comma rules
  • too much telling and not enough showing
  • using the same word too many times
  • forgetting to fully express yourself

You might have your own set of mistakes that pop up repeatedly. I certainly do. And some things are so hard to remember to not do.

We learn slowly, even if it isn’t at the pace we want it to be.

If you want to learn something deeply, you give it time to sink in. And you don’t rush this process. Think of how much you remember from exams you crammed for the night before. Most of that disappears the next day because we don’t learn on that time frame.

Instead focus on doing what you do with all the passion and energy you have with your kindness and compassion near at hand.

The way forward is never clean and clear and rarely as fast as you want it to be.

Appreciate your own messy improvement

  • Embrace the mess.
  • Embrace the ups and downs, the flat-lining, the bottoming out.
  • Embrace the struggle.

Pick yourself up and make another attempt, no matter how slow it is, no matter how annoying it is, no matter how limited or unworthy you feel.

Every person who has accomplished something great has gone through their own improvement messes. You will have your own to learn to love.

You can learn to push yourself to do harder and harder things, to practice with deliberation. This is the true path to mastery. You can take on harder and more challenging tasks, and projects that will train a specific skill. This can speed you up, but it will still be messy, maybe even messier because you are at your edge.

Remember to look back

Often you don’t even see your improvement as you grind your way forward. You forget where you started, where you were a year ago, how much you struggled.

It’s always helpful to look back and give yourself a little boost now and then. You will see the progress, and in doing that, you give yourself positive feedback that will allow you to keep going.

Remember, success builds on success, so be sure to notice even the smallest successes.


Improvement rarely comes at the pace you dream of. It comes in fits and start and is in proportion to how much you push yourself with tougher challenges.

There is no shortcut to becoming the writer you want to be. No hacks either. It’s the simple act of writing over and over and embracing all the days when the results aren’t what you want. You keep on working at it day after day in spite of the lack of obvious improvement.

You learn as you work to value the process and keep yourself centered there while at the same time planning for the outcome you wish for. You learn this art of hopping between the two, keeping all the lessons you have learned in mind as you move yourself forward.

Make the choice to keep improving, not matter how rocky it is. And keep dreaming of the writer you really want to be.