Are You Also Doing Self-Improvement Wrong?

Photo by Andy Holmes on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered that? I was a bit of an improvement junkie. Everything from my calendar to my apartment received make-overs more than once. The most popular subject of all: myself and my perceived lack of productivity.

Miracle mornings, zero inboxes, meditation, scrum, Marie Kondo, you name it, I tried it. It’s amazing to hear about how a small changes made a huge difference in people’s lives. I still love those stories. Mine is not one of them.

I tried a lot of things and some of them improved my life. However, it doesn’t seem to entirely live up to the promises made by the authors, speakers and coaches whose advice I’ve followed. Sound familiar?

I’m going to make an analogy you’re probably not going to like. I realized self-improvement is a lot like losing weight. Consider that for both:

  1. It’s about getting closer to being the person you want to be.

And more often than not, there’s a rebound. I might have a great run for a couple of months and have an amazing routine set up and all my messages replied to, just to have an off-week and things start piling up again and motivation tanking.

Most popular articles are the ones exclaiming how the mainstream approach is all wrong and we should do basically the opposite. Because, well, how many people are going to read a book that’s about how you should keep doing what you’ve already been doing and that isn’t getting you the results you want?

These are the 3 conceptual mistakes we make, that cause us to “fail” self-improvement plans:

1. The self-objectification error

“You are not a chair” — personal coach

Consider that often we treat ourselves as objects rather than living beings. We want ourselves to be a certain way and just have to find the right method of getting there, like finding out how to turn a chunk of wood into an eagle statue. What that makes us ignore is the process it takes for living things to be anything. Processes can be sped up, but not skipped.

Under the right conditions, plants will grow much faster than under impoverished conditions. However, they will never go from seed to adult plant within 1 day no matter what you do. Children can grow to be strong, educated and independent individuals in less than two decades. They can’t go from babies to self-sufficient individuals within 3 years. It can’t happen because there are a thousand things that need to be changed and adjusted and learned.

With all the things that have changed drastically in my life, it was the same. My relationship with my mom is 10x better than what it used to be. Five years ago I wouldn’t have dare dream being able to talk with her the way I do now. I worked hard for it and I’m sure she did too. Could it have been done in a shorter time period? Probably. Could it have been done in a week? No way. We are not some mythical essence that can be a candle one minute and an elephant the next. Changing ourselves means literally changing the pathways in our brain, our bodies, our social circle, our living circumstances. All of these are attached to processes, and those have a minimum amount of time they take. Just because something doesn’t improve right away, doesn’t mean that what you’re doing isn’t working.

Having something changed yesterday is better than having it changed next year, but if you’re not patient enough you will never stick to a path long enough to have it change at all. Some day, next year is yesterday, and you’ll be happy it has changed by then.

2. Time-estimation incongruence

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” — Bill Gates

Even though I’ve known about this wisdom for years, I still struggle to apply it in every day life. It’s like my mind intuitively rejects the concept.

The problem is that humans have a bias to assume everything goes in a straight line. If you managed 1 article last week and you managed 1 this week, you’ll most likely manage 1 next week. So how long will it take to have written a 100 articles? But most processes don’t work like that.

Compound growth is not only the driving principle behind having a fat retirement account, it is also what drives skills, customers, health.

I experienced this first-hand going from not being able to run 2K to running a full marathon in less than 5 months. The increases in the beginning are tiny. Of those 4.5 months, the first 6 weeks was spent on just getting to be able to jog for 30 minutes. In the last weeks, the increase per week was almost 5K. One week I’d run a 20K and the next I’d run 25K. If I used the first 6 weeks to estimate how long it’d take me to run a marathon, I probably would’ve said it’ll take me over 3 years.

Even having these experiences and knowing these facts, I still struggle to be consistent and think big when it comes to business. The challenge is that if you don’t have a roadmap, like a training program, you have no idea whether what you’re doing is getting you closer to your goal. If I wasn’t convinced the running schedule would get me to a marathon, I might’ve not stuck with it because of my doubts whether I’m wasting 5 months only to find out it wasn’t going to happen. However reasonable that might be, this train of thought ignores the fact that those 5 months will pass by no matter what I do. If I don’t take consistent action in that time, I am guaranteed to not reach my goal. Taking effective action is better than taking ineffective action. But taking ineffective action is better than taking no action.

3. The reward hypothesis

The best solution I’ve found to counter these biases, is to go with the grain. I used to tell myself that it might SEEM like I’m not making progress, but actually was. When I was constantly battling my own tendencies, it was exhausting and honestly, a losing battle. Now I try to make plans that work with me instead of against me. I make plans that give me small rewards fast enough for my non-rational self to stay interested.

For example, I often wondered: how was I able to keep that running schedule in spite of hating running? A big part of it was that every single week I got a huge sense of accomplishment. The progress was so palpable that it was hard to resist. I see the same process in the stories of people who have gone from couch potato to iron man athlete; they started with some training program that worked for them and they got results that impressed themselves. That was enough encouragement to get them to start the next program and the next. Progress is addictive. It’s a reward in itself.

Often we make up “fake” rewards that don’t really make us feel better. Getting a night off, having a sushi dinner, buying a new gadget; it might seem like a good reward and often it motivates us for a while, but these rewards are often arbitrary and not at all linked to what we’re doing. Our brains are not stupid. That just makes them think: isn’t there another way we could get this? Why do I have to do this to get that? And in a moment of weakness it crumbles apart.

The rewards that intrinsically come with an activity are the most effective. It’s obvious even to myself that to run 20K next week, I have to push myself to run 17K this week. And each step that I take past the 15K I did last week screams at me: YES! THIS IS A NEW STEP! A STEP I’VE NEVER TAKEN BEFORE!

Whatever it is that you want to achieve in your self-improvement journey, be patient with yourself and choose a path that has plenty of rewards along the way.

Five years might seem a long time to achieve anything right now, but those years will fly by and you’ll be happy you stuck to the plan by the end of that. Because the alternative is that you didn’t stick to any plan and ended up at pretty much the same place as five years ago, still having five years of work ahead of you.

Since you’ll be sticking to it for a while, spend a good amount of time coming up with a plan that resonates with you. Something you can stand behind even in the times you don’t feel like it. Make sure the progress isn’t just theoretical, but something that you can see and feel and be proud of.

I started writing medium articles 3 weeks ago. For a week or so nobody read them. Zero, not a single person. Today I checked and I saw there were 5 views. Is it a lot? No. Is it progress? Yes. Thank you for being the 6th!

Entrepreneur. Humanist. Medium addict. B.Sc. Artificial Intelligence. M.Sc. Cognitive Neuroscience. Learning through sharing.

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