Step away from the almond milk. You pressed snooze, Michelle. You don’t deserve it. You didn’t earn it. This morning coffee dilemma happens more often than it should. I’m not as insane as I sound. Let me explain.
I listen to a lot of podcasts. Like, a lot. I run every day around Los Angeles for about an hour and listen to podcasts the whole way. I’ve also read hundreds of books on self-improvement. I love finding new ways to be better at crushing life and I work hard to improve every part of my life based on the research detailed in these books and podcasts.
This should be a good thing, right? I set my alarm every day for 5 am, I work out religiously, I drink a lot of water, I eat a largely plant-based diet, I experiment with different workflows to optimize my productivity, I intermittently fast for at least 12 hours per day, and I try (not so successfully) to meditate on a regular basis.
All of these habits have come from the writings and podcasts of the likes of Robin Sharma, Tim Ferriss, Darin Olien, Tom Brady, Lewis Howes, Brendon Burchard, and Shawn Stevenson (amongst others). The more I can design my life, the happier I will be. At least, that’s what we’re told.
Could Self-Improvement Be Bad For Some of Us?
So, every day, I begin anew in my Los Angeles home with my quest to optimize my days, to be as healthy and productive and perfect as possible so I can be even more of a baller than I am. I’m fallible, though, and I screw up and fall off the self-improvement train. Here’s what happens:
I hit snooze on my 5 am alarm and end up dragging my body out of bed around 5:45. I look at my watch and inwardly begin a monologue that sounds something like this. Why can’t you just get up, Michelle? You just lost 45 minutes of precious work time. Why are you so lazy?
Then, after doing my morning bathroom self-care ritual — (created after reading Atomic Habits), I schlep into the kitchen and start the coffee while I do my stretching and feed the cat. I begin my calculations.
When did I finish eating last night? I really want some almond milk in my coffee. Has it been 12 hours yet?
Type-A achiever Michelle answers in my head:
You know 14 hours is better. You slept past your alarm and now you want to slack on the intermittent fasting? You don’t deserve almond milk. Do you want to get cancer because your body doesn’t have time to fight the bad disease-causing whatchamacallits because it’s too busy digesting your inability to have the self-control to drink black coffee?
So, I forego the almond milk. Or I don’t. But the guilt usually overrides the need for tasty coffee, so black it usually is. I tell myself that if I drink black coffee for long enough, I will like it more.
I won’t bore you with the details, but the rest of my day is similar. If I get distracted from the task at hand, I begin the inner monologue again. Lack of time optimization, choosing to peruse Los Angeles streets during my daily run, eating some of my kid’s chicken nuggets, “doom scrolling” Instagram after my “go to sleep” alarm goes off. All of these self-improvement transgressions grate at my brain and my self-esteem.
Sure, self-improvement materials have and probably will always help many people. But there just might be a dark side to the world of optimization of one’s life. The small subset of people who already put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed might be feeding their stress, anxiety, and perfectionism with the neverending stream of advice on how to be better.
Perfectionism and Self-Improvement
Psychology Today says, “Perfectionism is driven primarily by internal pressures, such as the desire to avoid failure or harsh judgment.” I may not completely be a perfectionist. My therapist chooses to “not put any labels” on my complicated self, but one of the few things she will fess up to is that I “have perfectionist tendencies.” I took that very seriously. And, sadly, with a small nugget of pride as well.
An article in 2017 in SBS calls out concerns that may arise when perfectionist folks encounter the self-improvement craze that has taken the world by storm. It says, “let’s face it, perfectionists are already convinced they’re not good enough — taking on more of this is exhausting.”
Similarly, Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann who wrote Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-improvement Craze says, “Nothing is wrong with self-improvement as such … The problem is that self-optimization has become a duty, a burden throughout our lives, which means we’re never good enough … And I think this is weighing us down.”
Yes, self-improvement can be a valuable tool to help some people improve. But when is it too much?
It’s a really great thing to, say, incorporate 15 minutes of journaling into your life. Exercising is also a huge part of a healthy lifestyle. But, I can personally attest that, as I continue to add things to my list of ways to slay my days, I become increasingly overwhelmed with the number of things that must be accomplished to even begin to accomplish things. It's the Los Angeles way. We all try to get better every second.
Here is the list of things I am currently incorporating in my life that I have gleaned from self-improvement materials:
- 72 ounces of water per day
- 8 hours of sleep per night
- Exercise every day
- Minimum 12 hours of intermittent fasting (ideally 14–16)
- Plant-based diet
- Day batching for productivity
- Morning planning for the day
- Wake up at 5 am
- Evening reflection/gratitude list of the day
- At least one networking call/email per day
- Standing every 60 minutes
- No electronics before bed
And that’s just the baseline. That’s just to get to the workday. And, within the workday, there are a bajillion different things that need attention. Each piece of self-improvement information and advice becomes a new plate for me to spin alongside all of the other things I’m doing.
The problem is that if one of these many things falls by the wayside, the negative internal monologue begins anew. (Case in point my snoozing through my alarm.) I understand that I’m not your average person and that I have some issues, but I don’t believe that this problem is mine and mine alone.
There are simply too many plates to spin if I try to apply the wisdom of too many gurus. And with each new book or podcast I consume, I add another plate to the pile. At some point, I am inevitably going to drop at least one.
A Solution For Us to Try Together
I don’t have all of the answers. I also don't believe I’m alone in being the only person in Los Angeles (or the rest of the world) experiencing the dark side of self-improvement. I seem to have a lot of answers from a lot of sources, but I believe that the real answer is finding a few answers that work for me. If you, in any way, relate to a little bit of this article, I encourage you to join me in an experiment.
I made my list of things I am working on incorporating into my life above. I am going to choose three with which I will set my bar for the next three months. This doesn’t mean I won’t do the other ones (I have been waking up at 5 am for years and probably will continue to do some version of early bird-ness). But I will consider myself to be accomplished based on my completion of the following daily tasks:
- 72 ounces of water per day
- Day batching for productivity
- Exercise every day
If I do these three things, I will consider myself successful. If I happen to accomplish the other things, that is great. But I will only force myself to juggle three balls at a time. If I decide to change my three self-improvement goals in July, I will do so. But, I will only keep three. No more juggling 20 different things in a day (without even thinking about work).
So, if I happen to eat a chicken nugget, snooze a little late, or forget to meditate and I have accomplished the three things above, I will attempt to replace my judgy inner voice with a voice of gratitude. And then, perhaps, instead of juggling 20 balls, I will make three of them my own over the next three months.
During these 90 days, I hope to juggle only these three balls so successfully that I can make them my own, I can put them in my pocket, and then I can continue to juggle a few more in time.
I believe that sometimes too much of a good thing is just plain too much. There is absolutely a place in our world for self-improvement in Los Angeles. But, for people who have, as my therapist says, “perfectionist tendencies,” today’s self-improvement movement can be overwhelming.
If we can focus on just a few things at a time and give ourselves the grace to be flawed in our execution of the rest, I believe we will be happier, whether we live in Los Angeles or anywhere else in the world. Yes, there is a dark side to self-improvement, but self-optimization also should include a little bit of self-love which, in turn, requires a little bit of room for imperfection.