How do I start making improvements in my life?

Overview: Enhancing one’s life is a process of making incremental improvements across different areas of life. In this post, familiarise yourself with the different areas of life in which a person can make improvements and consider which areas would be appropriate for you to address. Reading time ~ 30 minutes (its a long one!)

If you’ve met me and heard me talk about Mental Fitness or self-care or developing a Be Well Plan, you will know that I am a big proponent of self-improvement or self-optimisation.

I think a focus on trying to make yourself better in some way, shape or form is central to a long-term sense of satisfaction and reward in life. It helps you perform better at the things that are important to you (e.g. study). It helps you build resilience and develop knowledge, skills and habits that buffer you against the difficult times. It helps you develop self-confidence and self-efficacy, when you see your choices manifesting in meaningful improvements to your life.

This doesn’t mean it is the only important aspect of life, but it is an aspect of life that you can have some significant control over. You can make choices about the areas of your life in which you want to improve, and you can make choices about how you will do that.

Now the question of what kinds of optimisations/improvements you should be making is an interesting one to consider. What would be a good focus for one student might not be a good focus for another, given their different circumstances. An international student, recently arrived in Australia and still acclimatising to the new culture is likely going to need to focus on different things than a domestic student, living at home and studying/working.

Yes there are some generic areas of focus that benefit us all (good nutrition, sleep, physical activity) but our life circumstances often dictate that we focus on other things as a priority first.

That is where this post comes in. The purpose of this post is to get you thinking about the different domains of your life that you could be working on. As you consider these, you’ll notice that some are probably more relevant to you than others, based on your life at this moment.

It is important to remember that when we start optimising our lives, the goal isn’t some magical pre-ordained life formula that we must achieve. The goal is to move yourself meaningfully forward from where you are now, to something a little better. And then to repeat the process. It is in those incremental steps that we build better lives, but do so within the constraints of our lives at present.

For each of the domains of life that I cover in this post, I have also provided some starting points for how you might start improving in that area. These are just recommendations and should be viewed as examples of how a person might progress in that domain. You may well think of other options or follow advice you’ve received elsewhere. Regardless, you will be actively picking an aspect of your life to improve and taking steps to improve it. That is all I ask.

Which areas of my life could I work on?

I am a big fan of self-improvement. I believe that at least one aspect of a satisfying and rewarding life is deliberately focusing on trying to get better at different things, whether it be our study, work, relationships, hobbies or our contribution to the community.

The purpose of this guide is to get you thinking about different skills and capacities that you could develop and then giving you some starting points for how you might develop them.

The current list includes 17 skill areas. That might sound like a lot but when you consider the complexity of modern life and the things you need to be good at to function well, 17 isn’t such a large number.

For each skill area, take a moment to consider the reflection questions and then, if you think you could make some improvements in that area, take a look at the suggested resources and tasks.

For more ideas and resources on self-improvement, consider one of our wellbeing-focused programs running out of HCDS and Oasis –

If you have questions about any of the resources recommended in this document contact the eMental Health Project Officer –


Humans experience a rich mix of pleasant and unpleasant emotions/feelings. For the most part this is a good thing. Emotions are motivating and informative. They help us make decisions. They help orient our attention. They connect us with things that are meaningful.

Sometimes however our emotional lives can feel a little bit out of control. When that happens, it is useful to have specific techniques for managing emotions.

Reflection Questions

  • Do I commonly get derailed by feelings of anxiety, sadness, or anger? How good am I at managing these feelings?
  • Am I willing to experience a range of different emotions?
  • Do I know how to bring more positive emotions into my life?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley have been collecting techniques people can use to cultivate positive emotions like awe, compassion, connection, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, happiness, kindness, mindfulness, optimism and self-compassion. All of the techniques have been tested in scientific studies. Visit –

In Australia, we are lucky in that we have many online resources for wellbeing and good mental health. A portal to those resources is One type of resource that can be helpful for those dealing with difficult emotions are online CBT programs. CBT is a type of therapy that is well suited to being put online. Online CBT sites include and They are often free, or very low-cost compared to getting face-to-face therapy.

If you get a chance to do the Be Well Plan here at Flinders, take it. In that program we teach you specific psychological skills for tackling difficult emotions as well as techniques for bringing more positive emotions into your life –

Finally, if you see the Good Vibes Experiment activity book around on campus, grab one. That activity book shows how adding fun activities into everyday life can actually be a recipe for improved mental health through the elicitation of positive emotions –


Stressful situations are a normal part of life. For students these include exams, work placements, speaking in public, conflict in relationships and study setbacks like failing an assignment/topic. We can get better at handling such situations.

Reflection Questions

  • How well do I handle stressful situations?
  • Do I find myself avoiding stressful situations? Avoidance can be behavioural (i.e. getting out of doing stressful things) or mental (avoiding thinking about stressful things).

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Try cultivating a positive stress mindset, that is, recognising that many stressful situations are a) stressful because they are important to us and b) opportunities to learn and get better. Some degree of stress is needed for learning and performance and is not damaging to the body or mind. We learn from a young age that ‘stress is bad’ but this just isn’t the case. Stress can be a powerful motivator, a performance enhancer and a signpost that you are doing something that is important. This podcast episode might help – 

For situations that you can predict (e.g. exams, placements, presentations), the goal is good preparation. Make sure you’ve studied and prepared properly. Practice skills that you know you will need to use. Repeatedly visualise yourself succeeding at the activity. If you’re prone to anxiety in the moment, start regularly practising breathing exercises or meditation, so you have a well-rehearsed set of calming skills going in to the situation. Waiting until you are highly distressed before practising self-calming strategies means those strategies will not be very helpful.

For situations that you can’t necessarily predict (e.g. conflict, relationship breakups), try having a network of trusted people (only need a few) that you can call on in times of distress. Social connection is one of the more powerful antidotes to feelings of distress. Cultivate these relationships during good times, so you have people to call on during difficult times.


The human mind is a remarkable thing but it is also prone to irrationality, distortion of reality and poor logic. Knowing its vulnerabilities can help you make better decisions and think more flexibly.

Reflection Questions

  • Am I able to think critically and flexibly about different issues?
  • Do I have mindsets that helps me deal with setbacks and failure?
  • Am I aware of common errors in thinking?
  • Can I make good decisions?
  • Do I have irrational beliefs?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Learn more about mindsets ( and mental models ( I particularly like reading the weekly newsletter from the second of these resources (FS Blog). It always has little insights into how those who perform at a high level think about the lives.

Discover the cognitive biases that humans are prone to demonstrating ( You’ll probably be surprised at just how many different ways our minds can get things wrong. This graphic is also really cool at listing some of the most common cognitive biases – . Maybe set yourself the goal of remembering these.

Read widely to learn new perspectives and write regularly to help organise your own thoughts and beliefs. This might include keeping a learning journal or blog, where you write about what you are learning in your degree. Writing about something forces us to organise our thoughts on the matter. Why do you think studying involves so many essays and written assignments?

Try this ‘OpenMind’ course – It will teach you psychological skills that relate to improved intellectual functioning.


The ‘examined life’ is one in which you are regularly reflecting on the person you are, and the person you want to be. The better you understand yourself, the better you are at creating contexts and situations that play to your strengths.

Reflection Questions

  • Am I aware of my strengths and weaknesses?
  • Do I know the situations and contexts in which I thrive, and which I struggle?
  • Do I have a coherent sense of who I am across different settings?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

People can tend to get very self-critical. Balance that out by getting to know your strengths – Find ways in everyday life to utilise those strengths. For example, if humour is a strength, find ways to inject your day (and the days of others) with laughter and fun.

As a student you probably don’t want to add more writing to your day, but writing can be very therapeutic – and studying your writing can give you insights into who you are – When we write, it requires us to clarify our thoughts and opinions and then getting those on paper (or in a document) provides a mirror to our own thinking.

The inside of your mind is a fascinating if not sometimes scary place. Get to know it a bit better by taking up mindfulness meditation – Start simple with mindfulness of the breath and then expand to other objects of attention: thoughts, feelings, memories, beliefs, expectations. Just like observing a rainbow can be a catalyst to learn more about rainbows, observing your inner world can be a catalyst to learning more about ‘you’.


If you are fresh out of high school, it might be a bit unfair of me to expect you to know what you want to do with your life, but university is a good period in which to start contemplating this question. Having a sense of meaning and purpose and knowing what is important to us can help buffer us against the challenges of everyday life and get us back on track when we derail.

Reflection Questions

  • Do I know what I am working towards?
  • Do I know the kind of person that I want to be?
  • Do I know what I want to do with my life?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Self-authoring is a psychological process of honing in on what you want to do with your life. There is a small cost but this program can guide you through it –

You might not know what you want to do with your life yet, but it is possible to find meaning in your studies –

Even the simple act of reflecting on photos you take can help you tune into what is most important to you –


Our relationships (family, friends, colleagues, collaborators) are a critical component of our wellbeing – some say the most important. But good quality relationships take time and effort to build and nurture. And dealing with people is not always easy.

Reflection Questions

  • Do I feel like I have supportive people in my life?
  • Do I feel like I am a positive influence in other people’s lives?
  • Am I able to build good quality relationships?
  • Do I feel like I belong?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Contact a friend who you haven’t caught up with in a while and schedule a time to catch up. Simple, small acts of connection may be all that is required to rejuvenate a flagging friendships.

Consider joining one of the many clubs that operate around the university – These will help you connect with people who share common interests: a simple but effective ingredient in friendships.

Consider starting a study group and achieve two goals at the same time: social interaction and better academic results. Google ‘study group’ for advice and tips on how to start such a group.

Utilise sites like to find people with common interests in the community.

Spend some time at OASIS on the Bedford Park Campus – They run regular conversation groups to help students make new connections.


Sometimes the best thing we can do to make ourselves happier is to focus on trying to make things better for other people.

Reflection Questions

  • Can I identify where in my life I am doing things in order to improve the quality of life of others?
  • In what ways would I like to make a contribution to the wellbeing of other people?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Check out the range of volunteer and mentoring programs run by the Horizon Professional Development Awards people – or look at external volunteering opportunities –

Identify small things you could do to make the lives of those around you (partners, family, friends, colleagues) better. It might be as simple as bringing some home cooking for your tutorial group or offering to help a friend with a task they have.

Oasis are always looking for volunteers to help run wellbeing-focused programs at Flinders. It might be working at the Flinders Market or helping greet students when they arrive at the Oasis centre.


It is hard to thrive when we are in situations that threaten our personal safety. This might be threats from outside of us (e.g. abusive relationships) or threats from within (e.g. suicidal ideation, self-harm). These situations can be changed though and typically involve connecting with professional supports to begin the process of moving or healing.

Reflection Questions

  • Do I feel safe in my own home or work?
  • Do I feel safe from myself?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

If you are being impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse, check out They have information and support services and a dedicated support phone line.

If you are in high distress or feeling like hurting yourself, contact Lifeline

If you experience periods of high distress, where you feel unsafe from yourself, consider developing a coping plan – which outlines a set of simple strategies for you to follow during times of distress. This includes strategies for self-soothing, but also who to connect with, both personal and professional.

Remember that Flinders has a counselling service – and an Out of Hours Crisis Line – that you can access in times of need.


Your brain is made of the same basic organic material as the rest of your body. This means anything you do that compromises your physical health will also compromise your mental health. Conversely, anything you do to improve your physical health, will also improve your mental health.

Reflection Questions

  • Do I make conscious choices in relation to looking after my physical health?
  • Am I healthy?
  • Do I get enough sleep and physical activity?
  • Do I eat healthily?
  • How often do I use drugs or alcohol?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Get along to the Flinders Market for good quality, nutritious and free/cheap food – .

Familiarise yourself with the Australian Dietary Guidelines – and do your best to shape your diet around these recommendations in terms of types of food and portion sizes. See your Doctor if you think these aren’t appropriate for you.

The Australian Sleep Health Foundation have a tonne of resources on getting good sleep – I also find this blog by Flinders sleep expert Professor Michael Gradisar to be very informative on the topic of sleep, especially if you like learning about the science of sleep –

Aim for 30 minutes of movement per day. To make it more enjoyable, consider adding people or nature to the mix. This can be sports or formal fitness activities or more casual stuff like walking and gardening.


The places we inhabit (e.g. homes, offices, natural environment) impact on our wellbeing and productivity. A cluttered dark office doesn’t inspire hard work. A grey urban environment with no trees and nature doesn’t help us relax. You can make positive changes to your existing environment, as well as deliberate decisions about where you spend your downtime. This doesn’t just apply to the spaces we inhabit. It also applies to the people we have in our lives. Surround yourself with people that inspire you.

Reflection Questions

  • Am I inspired and energised by the spaces I work and live in?
  • Do I modify my environment in order to improve my own wellbeing and productivity?
  • Do I spend enough time in nature?
  • Do I surround myself with people that motivate and interest me?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Hit up Google with the word ‘declutter’ and discover a whole new world of people making their living spaces more inspiring.

Take David Suzuki’s One Nature Challenge – or simply spend more time each day surrounded by plants and animals. This is definitely possible if you study on the Bedford Park campus that has beautiful grounds and mildly aggressive ducks. There is also that lovely garden at Tonsley.

Create a study space that actually makes you want to study –

Identify which people in your life leave you feeling energised and happy, versus those that leave you feeling flat or lifeless. Spend more time with the former and less time with the latter.


On Monday morning, I see everyone clamouring to get their morning coffee. What they’re doing is using a substance to get a mental lift. Humans have been doing that for ages.

The search for substances or exercises that can safely help us perform above our usual level of functioning is the productivity ‘holy grail’. What is available and safe isn’t particularly impressive, so for now, the best enhancements in cognitive functioning seem to come from the standards of diet, physical activity and sleep.

Reflection Questions

  • What methods do I use to improve my concentration, attention and productivity?
  • What lifestyle factors might actually be holding me back from performing at my best?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Read this article on non-pharmacological cognitive enhancement –

Rest easy – your daily coffee is having some positive impacts although maybe not as powerful as you’d hoped –

Remember that changes to your diet, sleep and levels of physical activity are likely to be the most powerful forms of cognitive enhancement. See previous recommendations on those areas.

Follow the Huberman Lab podcast. He is doing the best work I’ve seen recently of cataloguing the kinds of activities that boost our psychological and physical performance.



Let’s face it, the reason you are at Uni is to educate yourself. This might be purely for the love of learning or it might be because you want to get a good job/career.

The desire for competence and ongoing learning is a fundamental human psychological need. Whether or not you end up using everything you learn, a powerful ingredient of psychological wellbeing is the feeling that we are able to and are actively learning new stuff.

Knowing this, it is wise to be able to take full advantage of the learning opportunities available to you. It is wise to try and become the best student you can.

Reflection Questions

  • Do I know how to learn?
  • Do I know what the best study strategies are?
  • Do I know and use evidence-based techniques for learning?
  • Am I engaged in learning outside of my degree?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Read our Evidence Based Study Tips Guide – 

Familiarise yourself with the services offered by the Student Learning Centre – – who provide great services for student wanting to improve their learning.

Subscribe to the Learning Scientists blog and find out what cognitive psychologists say about how to learn more effectively  –

Check out College Info Geek for videos and articles on being a productive student –


It is one thing to be a good student. It is another to be able to translate that into being a good employee.

Performing in the workplace is a function of the specific skills of a job, but then a whole bunch of other ‘transferable skills’ that make you a good person to have on a team.

Work placements and work experience during a degree are a great opportunity to hone those skills. Also, we realise that many students have jobs alongside their degrees.

Reflection Questions

  • Am I aware of the different skills required for the workforce and which ones I am good at, and which ones I need to work on?
  • Do I think I would make a good employee?
  • How can I get some work experience?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Check out our ‘Preparing Psychologically for Work Placements’ document – – which gives you specific strategies to get the most out of your work placements.

Check out all the professional development programs run by the nice people at Horizon Professional Development Awards – These programs help you build the specific skillsets needed in the modern workforce.

Think about your life beyond your degree and have a chat to the Careers Team –


You might not have much money now as a student, but when you move into your career you might have a bit more. At that point, you will want to know how to manage your finances well.

Talking about money can feel a bit shallow, but feeling in control of your finances plays a big role in determining your overall wellbeing. And it isn’t just about how much money you have, it is actually more about how good you are at living within your means, budgeting, saving, investing and using money wisely.

Reflection Questions

  • Do I feel in control of my financial situation?
  • How good am I at saving, budgeting, investing and controlling my spending?
  • Do I know how to manage money so that I can survive in the present moment but also save and invest for the future?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Develop your financial literacy using the Governments surprisingly good Moneysmart website –

Talk to the people at FUSA if you are having financial troubles –

Subscribe to this guy –

Focus on budgeting first – knowing in detail money coming in and money going out. From there, you can make changes to how you spend, save and invest.


Some people are really good at translating their intentions into actions. If they say they are going to start an exercise program tomorrow, they start an exercise program tomorrow.

I call this ability ‘habit formation’ and the extent to which you can establish healthy habits in your own life is central to your long-term health and wellbeing.

It is often those things that we do repeatedly on a daily, weekly monthly basis (e.g. exercise, get plenty of sleep, eat well) that dictate our long term health and wellbeing.

Reflection Questions

  • Am I good at building new habits?
  • When I decide to make a change in my life, do I follow through?
  • Am I good at manifesting my intentions to change into actions?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

I like what these guys write about habits – &

We have our own brief guide on building new habits that takes wisdom from health psychologists who spend their days trying to get people to make healthy investments in their own lives –


Sometimes when I use the term ‘creativity’, people think I’m referring to people who are ‘artistic’ – people that can draw or paint or play music. However, what I really mean is simply the process of bringing something new into the world – new concepts or ideas or projects or objects or ways of looking at things.

Being more creative therefore is about getting better at bringing something new to the world.

Reflection Questions

  • How much do I value coming up with new ideas and concepts?
  • Do I like working on projects where I get to create something new?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks?

I’ve heard that more ‘creative’ people, tend to also be more productive overall. They produce more ‘things’ which in turn means they produce more interesting and unique ‘things’. Thus a pathway to greater creativity, is to increase your output. If you are an artist, that means drawing or painting more. If you are a musician, it means writing more songs. If you are entrepreneurial in nature it means coming up with more business ideas.

Another aspect of creativity that I’ve heard psychologists speak about is the ability to draw connections between objects or ideas that aren’t normally linked together. For example, when I think about ‘building a website’, I commonly think about websites being used to bring people together (e.g. social networking websites). What is interesting is to practice is trying to connect the concept of a website to activities that one wouldn’t normally associate. For example, a website to disconnect people. So another creativity tip is deliberately practising developing ideas out of combining concepts/objects that don’t normally go together.

Finally, creative people tend to be very knowledgeable in the area in which they are creative. Want to build the next big ‘app’? Learn as much as you can about app building. Your ability to innovate will increase as your knowledge increases.


You might have been thinking, given everything written in this document that I am interested only in hard work and always ‘getting better’.

Whilst those are important parts of my philosophy, I am also a firm believer that you need times to unwind, have fun, let loose, and simply enjoy your time on this planet.

I can’t tell you how to have fun. But I can recommend that you at least set aside time to do so.

Reflection Questions

  • Do I know how to have fun?
  • Do I know what relaxes me?

Suggested Resources/ Tasks

Remind yourself of what people do to have fun – Add some more of your own.

Learn to distinguish between activities that have only a superficial impact on your wellbeing, versus those that genuinely help you unwind and have fun.


Want more resources and ideas about self-improvement?

Try our self-care guide – 

Access some of my mental fitness materials – 

Sign up for one of our wellbeing-focused programs – 



Posted in
Academic skills eMental Health Resources Fact Sheets Health Information Healthy Lifestyle Life Skills Mental Fitness Mental Health Recommended Reading

Leave a Reply