Self-improvement requires you to look objectively at your thoughts and actions.
Naturally, this is difficult to do. Our thoughts and actions don’t exist in a vacuum—they are wrapped up in our feelings, desires, and insecurities. It’s hard to change our behavior with all the baggage we carry around with us.
But when we look at someone else’s problems? The solution is crystal clear.
What if we could view ourselves from someone else’s perspective? Would we see our own problems with the same crystal clarity we see other people’s problems?
To help me observe myself more objectively, I use a writing exercise from legendary business writer, Jim Collins, author of Good to Great:
The bug book.
Think back to when you were a kid. If you were anything like me, you were fascinated with bugs—at least the type that weren’t too creepy.
You were in the backyard and noticed a little anthill in the grass or a cricket on the fence. You leaned down to get a closer look. You noticed the cricket’s legs, its eyes, and—are those wings? I didn’t know crickets had wings. You watch the ants march dutifully in and out of their home. Why are they doing that? Where are they going? What happens if I poke the anthill with a stick?
Did you have any emotional attachment to these bugs while watching them? Probably not. You were just observing, like a biologist observes a specimen.
Self-improvement is difficult because we’re so emotionally wrapped up in our own stories. It’s hard to separate our actions from our motivations—our true feelings from our insecurities.
You’ve probably struggled with this. I certainly have.
The bug book is an exercise I learned from Jim Collins in an interview on The Tim Ferriss Show. (To see this part of the conversation, go to 1 hour 15 minutes in the interview).
As a teenager, Collins struggled to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. A teacher encouraged him to “study himself like a bug.” He was told to observe his thoughts and behavior like an indifferent, third-party researcher. Collins’ teacher told him to record his observations in a book—a bug book.
When I heard this story, I immediately started using a bug book myself and did so for about a year. It was during a time when I was really trying to figure myself out.
I used the bug book exercise to observe the type of work I enjoyed, activities made me happy, and bad habits I needed to break.
I’ve created over 100 observations in my bug book. Here are a few entries from over the years:
“The bug Ben was extremely hungover on Sunday and didn't like it at all. He was also very embarrassed by being the most drunk person at the party. He's going to try avoiding that in the future.”
“The bug Ben really enjoyed presenting on Friday. He felt in his element up on stage, teaching people and making them laugh. It was stressful and nerve-wracking at first, but he knew his info and did really well.”
“When the bug doesn't get enough sleep, productivity becomes incredibly difficult. It's like pulling teeth. Every step is a drag. When the bug gets enough sleep, everything just flows. Sleep it big for the bug.”
Using a bug book takes a little creativity. Really try to imagine studying yourself like a bug. The more you can disconnect from yourself, the most objective your observations will be.
Here are a few tips for getting started with your own bug book:
The bug book is one of the most valuable personal development tools I’ve ever come across, and I still make entries to this day.
Get curious about yourself, like a child who studies a bug. Try out The Bug Book exercise and let me know what you think.