If you’ve met me and heard me talk about Mental Fitness, you will know that I am a big proponent of self-improvement.

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.

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.

This morning I spent some time upgrading a handout that I developed a while back that identifies different skill areas you can build and how might do so.

The handout is attached, but the content is reproduced below as well. For those that love the tangible nature of print, you can get print copies of this handout at the Health, Counselling and Disability Service, outside the reception on the wall. I’ve also added it to our ever-growing list of handouts.

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 handout 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 15 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, 15 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 our Introduction to Mental Fitness Course – www.flinders.edu.au/mentalfitness.

If you have questions about any of the resources recommended in this document contact the eMental Health Project Officer – gareth.furber@flinders.edu.au


Mastering emotions

Humans experience a mix of pleasant and unpleasant emotions/feelings. For the most part this is a good thing. Emotions are motivating and informative. They can help us make decisions.

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 – https://ggia.berkeley.edu/

In Australia, we are lucky in that we have many online resources for wellbeing and good mental health. A portal to those resources is https://headtohealth.gov.au/ 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 https://thiswayup.org.au/and https://mindspot.org.au/. They are often free, or very low-cost compared to getting face-to-face therapy.


Thinking effectively

The human mind is a remarkable thing but it is also prone to irrationality 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 (https://mindsetonline.com/index.html) and mental models (https://fs.blog/).

Discover the cognitive biases that humans are prone to demonstrating (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases).

Read widely to learn new perspectives and write regularly to help organise your own thoughts and beliefs.


Self-awareness and understanding

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 – http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey

As a student you probably don’t want to add more writing to your day, but writing can be very therapeutic – https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/writing-therapy/ and studying your writing can give you insights into who you are – http://www.secretlifeofpronouns.com/

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 – https://www.smilingmind.com.au/


Meaning and purpose

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 higher-level sense of meaning and purpose can help buffer us against the challenges of everyday life.

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 really honing in on what you want to do with your life. There is a small cost but this program can guide you through it – https://www.selfauthoring.com/

You might not know what you want to do with your life yet, but it is possible to find meaning in your studies – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2018/06/09/derive-meaning-study/

Even the simple act of reflecting on photos you take can help you tune into what is most important to you – https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/meaningful_pictures


Building positive relationships

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.

Consider joining one of the many clubs that operate around the university – https://fusa.edu.au/clubs/

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.


Helping others

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 – https://students.flinders.edu.au/student-services/careers/horizonor look at external volunteering opportunities – https://www.volunteeringsa-nt.org.au/

Identify small things you could do to make the lives of those around you (partners, family, friends, colleagues) better.


Personal safety

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 (suicidal ideation). These situations can be changed though and when they are, new opportunities arise.

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 https://www.1800respect.org.au/. They have information and support services.

If you are suicidal, contact Lifeline https://www.lifeline.org.au/

If you experience periods of high distress, where you feel unsafe from yourself, consider developing a coping plan – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2017/12/01/my-coping-plan/

Remember that Flinders has a counselling service – https://students.flinders.edu.au/student-services/hcd/counselling and an Out of Hours Crisis Line –https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2018/09/10/new-hours-crisis-support-counselling-line/


 Caring for your body

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 but cheap food – www.flinders.edu.au/flindersmarket

Familiarise yourself with Australian Dietary Guidelines – https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/ and do your best to shape your diet around these recommendations. 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 – http://www.sleephealthfoundation.org.au/


Shaping your environment

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 – https://davidsuzuki.org/take-action/act-locally/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.

Create a study space that actually makes you want to study – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2018/07/11/create-study-space-makes-want-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.


Cognitive enhancement

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’. For now though, it’s 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 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028390812003310

Rest easy – your daily coffee is having some positive impacts although maybe not as powerful as you’d hoped – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2018/09/06/caffeine-cognitive-enhancer/


Learning and education

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 – https://bit.ly/2PDp3Za

Familiarise yourself with the services offered by the Student Learning Centre – www.flinders.edu.au/slc

Subscribe to the Learning Scientists blog and find out what cognitive psychologists say about how to learn more effectively  – http://www.learningscientists.org/

Check out College Info Geek for videos and articles on being a productive student – https://collegeinfogeek.com/


Work skills

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 – https://bit.ly/2VC4UYUwhich 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 – https://students.flinders.edu.au/student-services/careers/horizon

Think about your life beyond your degree and have a chat to the Careers Team – www.flinders.edu.au/careers


Financial control

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 – https://www.moneysmart.gov.au/

Talk to the people at FUSA if you are having financial troubles – https://fusa.edu.au/financial-advocacy/

Subscribe to this guy – https://barefootinvestor.com/


Habit formation

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 continue to do (e.g. exercise, get plenty of sleep, eat well) that dictate our health.

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 this guy writes about habits – https://jamesclear.com/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 – https://bit.ly/2vusF6v


 Having fun and unwinding

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 – https://bit.ly/2Z2vZn5. Add some more

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


I want more!

Want more resources and ideas about self-improvement?

Try our self-care guide – https://blogs.flinders.edu.au/student-health-and-well-being/2018/07/25/dr-gs-guide-self-care/

Or tune in to our Introduction to Mental Fitness Course – www.flinders.edu.au/mentalfitness

About Gareth Furber

Need to get in contact with Gareth? You might want to ask a question about the blog, give him feedback, contribute an idea for the blog, or contribute a post.

You can by either commenting directly on the post of interest, contact him on Skype (search for 'eMental Health Project Officer Gareth'), or email him (gareth.furber@flinders.edu.au)