Is Your Quest For Self-Improvement Hurting You?

Trying to be “better” doesn’t always make us happier.

Is Your Quest For Self-Improvement Hurting You?
[Photo: Edu Lauton/Unsplash]

I’m a self-help and productivity addict. In high school, I was reading  7 Habits Of Effective People when all my friends were watching Desperate Housewives. In college, I read every title of Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager series. Every book I’d read, I’d try to implement all the lessons and fail miserably.  I was a 20-year-old who knew nothing about managing people. And I was not about to get better overnight by reading a few self-help books.


As I got older, I became more selective with what I read and tried to incorporate in my own life. But my obsession with self-improvement never stopped.

It wasn’t until recently I realized that perhaps this self-improvement obsession doesn’t always translate to being a better person. In fact, sometimes it probably made me worse–because my “quest” would turn into another item on my to-do list, and I’d stress out if I didn’t get it done that day, much to the frustration (and confusion) of whoever was hanging out with me at the time.

Getting stressed about not getting in my 15 minute of meditation defeated the whole purpose of the practice in the first place.

I still think having self-improvement goals is important, but I’ve found that there are instances where this “mission” can turn from productive to destructive. Here are the signs to look out for.

When It Brings Burden, But Not Benefits

There are some things worth doing that’s burdensome–but you know the payoff will be great. For example, I still find meal prepping on Sundays cumbersome, but I know that my body (and my bank account) will thank me when I come home from work hungry and too tired to put together a meal. On the other hand, there are self-improvement practices that bring me no benefit, but a lot of extra anxiety. I personally found that with time-blocking. When I tried it, I got less done, and ended up stressing out about interruptions (which is inevitable) more than if I just wrote six things to cross off.

At the 2016 Fast Company Innovation Festival, author and Fast Company contributor Gretchen Rubin told the crowd that any efforts to change the way you work or behave are going to fail if they not true to who you are. Rubin, for example, jumped on the meditation train after hearing the benefits from a number of “smart people.” After trying out the practice for five to six months, however, she realized that the practice “was just doing nothing” for her. Instead of soldiering on with it just for the sake of improvement, she simply quit.


Related: Why Setting Goals Can Actually Make You Less Successful

When You Feel Like It’s “Never Enough”

We live in a time that glorifies health and wellness, and the internet gives us plenty of advice on how we can “be more present” and in touch with ourselves rather than chasing power and money. But the “more, more, more” mentality that often surrounds pursuit of money or career goals can happen with self-improvement, too, and we all know that too much of that can lead to burnout.

In a 2015 blog post (which Fast Company reprinted), Leo Baubata wrote about the lack of fulfillment he felt despite achieving a series of goals–from running an ultramarathon to learning a new language. He wrote, “These urges never end. I always want to be more. I’m never satisfied. When will it be enough? When will I be happy with who I am?….The pursuit doesn’t result in anything meaningful. Going after these achievements, always looking to improve myself . . . they don’t result in anything that brings meaning to my life. They’re all about fantasy, not about creating meaning.”

Related: Can Tim Ferriss’s Tribe Of Mentors Really Help You? 

When You Don’t Have A Clear Reason Why

Rich Pierson, cofounder of meditation app Headspace, previously said that any self-improvement effort is likely to feel futile if you don’t personally connect to it, or understand why you’re doing it. After all, as my naive 20-year-old self discovered, any attempts at change is not  going to come overnight. In fact, it’s more likely to be a long and excruciating process.

As Lisa Evans previously wrote for Fast Company, “True personal development is likely to disrupt your life and won’t be a smooth transition.” And to weather those disruptions requires us to have a clear purpose; otherwise our efforts become pointless. And as research has shown, having a clear “why” is a better condition for happiness than the pursuit of happiness itself.

About the author

Anisa is a freelance writer and editor who covers the intersection of work and life, personal development, money, and entrepreneurship. Previously, she was the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section and the co-host of Secrets Of The Most Productive people podcast.