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Your obsession with self-help books could be hurting your productivity

Self-improvement isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, and benchmarking your progress against others can be dangerous and counterproductive.

Your obsession with self-help books could be hurting your productivity
[Photo: Thought Catalog/Unsplash]

If there was a pill that could magically enhance your brainpower, would you take it? For one out of four Oxford Students, the answer was “yes.” In 2015, a quarter of the student population admitted to taking modafinil, a “smart drug” that researchers found does improve thinking skills.

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As a society, we are obsessed with optimizing every part of our lives—our eating, sleeping, studying, exercising, relationship-ing, and, of course, working. As a result, the market for self-improvement content continues to skyrocket. In 2018, the self-help industry was worth about $10 billion per year in the United States alone. Experts predict an average of 5.6% yearly gains until 2022, at which point the market should be worth $13.2 billion, writes the Harvard Business Review.

I’ve had my fair share of experience with self-improvement. As CEO of JotForm, I’m always looking for ways to maintain a balanced life while slowly growing my company.

But at a certain point, you have to wonder if the plethora of self-help advice is hurting us. In our endless mission to be more productive, could all those productivity hacks be harming your output?

When self-help hurts

Self-improvement literature tends to offer a warped view of reality. It compares performance across people and ignores our personal range, which is impacted by a bunch of factors, including but not limited to our experiences and present circumstances. It focuses on peak performance and pays no heed to individual variances.

For example, The 4-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss has written about his method for reading 300% faster in just 20 minutes. This would lead you to believe that anyone should be able to speed-read in less than half an hour. Ferriss writes that “even dyslexics were conditioned to read technical material at more than 3,000 words-per-minute (wpm).”

My top reading rate doesn’t come close to that. After spending a long day at the office, then playing with my kids all evening, I’d say my best wouldn’t even reach half that rate. Plus, I’m sure even those who can read 3,000 wpm have off days too.

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When we inevitably find ourselves not measuring up, it makes us feel inadequate. We start to doubt parts of our lives that we didn’t think (and let’s face it, probably don’t care enough) to improve. The thing is, a technique that works for one person might not work for another. Research shows that people who purchase self-improvement books have likely bought another during the previous 18 months. When one method doesn’t deliver the promised results, we continue to search for one that will.

What’s more, all the focus on self-optimization can come at the expense of time with friends and loved ones. That’s what Andre Spicer, co-author of Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movementfound after 12 months of testing and exploring nearly every facet of life-hacking wisdom, from athleticism to creativity. Spicer had spent a year focusing on himself — to the exclusion of everyone else in his life, including his wife and children. At the end of his experiment, Spicer admitted that his marriage was not at its best, and he didn’t feel like a better version of himself at all.

Spending too much time on self-improvement can also sabotage your productivity. By continually focusing on the newest way to improve and track our progress, we have less time to do our actual work.

A better approach to self-improvement

For starters, stop comparing yourself to others. There will always be someone who reads faster, exercises harder, eats healthier, or works more efficiently. Social media tends to amplify those results and can leave us feeling lesser, no matter how much progress we’ve made.

You need to focus on your own path, including both mistakes and successes. Whether you’re reading a book or scanning your Instagram feed, use others’ stories for inspiration and information gathering, not for comparing yourself. And if people or accounts leave you feeling empty, unfollow or unsubscribe.

John Vespasian, the author of On Becoming Unbreakable: How Normal People Become Extraordinarily Self-Confident, stresses that there’s no one road to success. What works for a self-help guru might not work for you. He explains: “You have to assess what people tell you and see if it makes sense in your personal circumstances. . . . You can learn good ideas and examples from other people, but your path to personal development is going to be unique.”

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Also, it’s essential to be realistic about your goals. I’ve found that real change doesn’t happen overnight—for most things, there’s no quick fix. And that’s okay.

Over the past 13 years of building JotForm from zero to 4.9 million users, I’ve come to appreciate gradual progress. Had we exploded overnight or received a huge injection of VC funding, the pressure to keep things progressing (and fast) would have been overwhelming.

Sure, there were some long days, and it wasn’t always blue skies. There were times when I hoped for a miraculous solution, but in the end, organic, customer-funded growth has allowed me to maintain some semblance of work-life balance. And there’s no life hack I could have adopted to achieve that.

Look, I’m not saying all self-improvement books are useless. There are times when such a book can be a valuable source of inspiration for making positive changes. But approach the advice with caution. Stay focused on your own goals and progress, and resist the urge to compare it with others. You’ll be less miserable that way.


Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.

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