The Troubles with Self-Improvement

Every December and January, the world turns introspective and looks for ways to improve. I follow Chris Guillebeau’s suggestion of an annual review, assessing all aspects of my life for ways I can improve. Self-improvement can feel banal, this time of year, because so many of us want the same things – to exercise, to eat healthily, to complete creative projects, to travel. I have to believe that working to improve myself is valuable, because it’s such an important part of who I am. Yet the act of self-improvement needs some consideration. It takes care to craft a truly meaningful annual review or new years resolutions that will positively impact our lives.

Setting the Right Goals is Challenging

Our goals themselves need critique. How do you know what the right goal is for you?

  • Goals should stretch the boundaries of skill, not just stubbornness and willpower. It’s been proposed that 10,000 hours of practice will get you to an expert level at a given skill – but not all hours are created equal. Mindless hours aren’t necessarily helpful – the hours that count are the hours that push you.
  • Goals need to help us meet our ultimate motivation. Are they the best tool to help us fulfill that long-term need? While we might set a goal of exercising three times a week, our ultimate motivation behind that goal is to live long, healthy lives, unlimited by our bodies in our old age.

When you’ve achieved a goal, does that mean the goal was too easy, or the wrong goal for you, or do you get to celebrate reaching your goal? When you meet a goal, do you have to set a harder goal, or is repeating or continuing the first goal sufficient? Like the economy, must we always be expanding? At what point have we achieved our potential? It’s easy to feel obligated to keep upping our goals, but it’s important to think about what we really want, the hidden desire behind the goal we’ve set.

I’ve participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) four times, now, and it isn’t as challenging a goal as it once was. This year I reached the 50,000-word threshold a week early, and wrapped up the month with more than 70,000 words. Does that mean it’s not a worthwhile goal for me anymore, or should I be happy that I was able to surpass my goal?

Part of achieving my goal – 50,000 words written in a month – was shaping good writing habits. I tried outlining for the first time this year (I’ve always been a pantser), and found it incredibly helpful. I attended two or more write-ins a week. And at home, I used the Pomodoro Technique to focus in on my writing. NaNoWriMo, this year, has served me more as a tool to meet my ultimate goal – to finish my novel – than a goal in itself.

Do We Really Want What We Say We Want?

What I think I want to do and what I actually want to do are different – and I need to square my image of myself as someone who wants to do those things with what I actually want for myself, outside of the real or imagined expectations I feel from society. By looking at where we actually spend our time, we see where our true priorities lay.

For example, one of my goals from my past several annual reviews has been to ‘make a name for myself’ in the design community – yet I lag on updating my portfolio and make little effort to spread my work around. I don’t really feel the need to be known, persay, as I want recognition for my work. As a self-trained graphic designer and artist, I often wonder if my work is up to snuff, while I’m sensitive to comments that highlight my lack of education. I crave the comfort and reinforcement of having other people telling me my work is good. So, this year, I’ve removed that goal from my list.

I’m also at war with myself over my choice to work a full-time job – I want the lifestyle to pursue every creative avenue that strikes my fancy, to hike and backpack and travel as my heart desires. But I know that I work best when I have scheduled hours, so a full-time job actually makes me more productive.

Goals or Habits? Both!

Forming habits might be just as, or even more, important than aiming to achieve goals. We are what we do on a daily basis. We are either someone who exercises or does not. We are either someone who writes or does not.

While I have a goal for my writing (a submittable manuscript of my science fiction novel by age 30), right now I think building the daily habit of writing is more important. I’m using the Seinfeld method of marking off every day that I write, paired with the Pomodoro Technique, to write for at least 50 minutes every day. I can’t even remember what I was doing with my time before, it’s been so easy to fit an hour of writing into my schedule.

And yet, the act of doing isn’t enough, sometimes. Sometimes you need the goal of that end product or achievement to really push you. Real artists ship.

Our Eyes are Bigger than Our Stomachs

Once we see our flaws laid bare, it’s easy to want to tackle them all at once. Yet, even with dozens of objectives, it seems they don’t reflect our daily lives, and the amount of time we have available for change. This year, I’ve tried to represent all aspects of my life more closely, putting a greater emphasis on personal relationships and my daily life (compared with creative pursuits in the past).

Are Goals Limiting?

Valuing activities and ways of thinking is inherent to self-improvement, requiring us to imagine ourselves in a different lifestyle, and valuing that lifestyle higher than how we live now. Life is more than happiness – but does setting goals cause us dissatisfaction with our current selves and abilities? Leo Baubata works essentially without goals, emphasizing habits in his life and work.

We set our goals at the beginning of the year, but our priorities may change through the year. Other priorities and obstacles arise throughout the year that we can’t necessarily anticipate at the start. Conducting quarterly or bi-annual reviews / check-ins can help mitigate those problems.

On top of buying a house in 2013, my partner and I also threw a one-year anniversary party (we eloped, so this served like a wedding), and I broke my arm in May. These personal accomplishments “got in the way” of my personal, creative goals – but they were also important aspects of my life that my goals didn’t accurately reflect.

Getting to the Root of the Issue is Painful

Truly benefiting from a personal review requires us to dig deep into our failures. We need to identify the root cause of our failings to figure out how to solve them. We have to face our own imperfection. I’m not as good a person as I imagine myself. Why doesn’t my self-image match my reality?

For several years, I’ve known that I over-commit myself to personal projects, and also have a hard time finishing projects. Why do I keep repeating the same patterns?

  • I don’t like doing the boring parts of projects. Once I’m not having fun, it’s hard to pull myself back to the project to finish it. It’s hard to recognize that in myself, let alone write it.
  • I have too many interests, and switch back and forth too much to actually accomplish anything, jumping away from a painting when I reach a tricky spot – and who knows when I’ll bother to jump back, knowing it’s going to be a pain in the ass. While I miss drawing, I’ve been forcing myself to focus on writing my novel the past year or so. (Likewise, I haven’t been posting on Cascadia Inspired – sorry!) I read somewhere about setting priorities, and putting all your time towards your top priority, not giving any time to the next two or three priorities.
  • I hate confrontations, even as simple as saying “no” to requests for help. I feel obligations that need fulfillment, I sense opportunities for growth, Happily, I’ve gotten much better about this.

Recognizing my repeating issues, I’ve been improving at all of these root causes over the past few years, but still have room for growth.

When it comes down to it, I believe that directed self-improvement is valuable and important to meaningful lives – worth the troubles above. How do you make sure your goals are focused and effective? What are your issues with self-improvement?

About Tracy Durnell

Seattle-area graphic designer and SFF writer inspired by the Pacific Northwest, crafting a sustainable and intentional life.

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  1. Pingback: The Self-Quantified Writer | PNW Art, Nature, & Outdoor Lifestyle BlogCascadia Inspired

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