How To Keep Self-Improving & Not Drive Yourself Crazy


It's the middle of January, which means we're in the height of the media's annual self-improvement attack. Open any website, newspaper or magazine and you're bombarded with suggestion after suggestion for how to better your home and your life and your job and your diet and basically anything you can imagine. 

If you pay attention to it all — let alone act on any of it — life can get exhausting immediately. And then you're stuck where you were. And that's the opposite of the point. 

I had a friend once whose biggest life goal was personal development. Not just in January, but every minute of every day of every year. She focused on self-improvement in everything she did: every book, every movie, every conversation, every visit to a new place was an addition to her growing identity. I learned so much from being around her, of commitment to Self and education and development. But at the time our friendship was stressful to me — I felt inferior constantly, because I felt pressured to spend my own time this way too. 

I used to work in the start up industry where it was kind of the same vibe. The goal was always growth, growth, growth. Iterate, improve, innovate. In the way that I found myself suffocating beside my friend's quest for personal improvement, so too did I find myself demotivated and resistant to the relentless drive for growth in the start up world. 

At this point I feel I've lived and learned enough to know that the problem isn't out there, with my friend or with my former company — it's in me. I also know I'm not a slacker, or someone who wants to shy away from improvement. In fact, developing my best self is an everyday quest for me. But there are days, or perhaps parts of every day, where I am overwhelmed by this long thing called life where we're supposed to move forward and grow and improve.

It took me a while and a lot of help from amazing teachers to find ways not to get completely overwhelmed by this journey. I believe we all do want to be the best version of ourselves — but it's important to avoid burning ourselves out on the way. 

So here are some suggestions that help me commit to a life of self-improvement sustainably. 

1. Give up your hold on outcomes. We're told that we need to set goals. Visualize our goal weight or our dream career or whatever. But once you've envisioned what you want or where you want to be, try your hardest to no longer let that outcome be your concern. It's attachment, clinging, to the outcomes we think we want that stresses us out. 

The difficult part is truly, honestly, letting the outcome go, so it takes consistent practice. I try to remind myself to practice anytime I realize I want something. I set "releasing the outcome" as my intention in almost every yoga practice. I'm still attached, for example, to the life in New York City I saw myself living as a kid. With a businessman husband and a St. Bernard and a fast paced career I wear heels for everyday. 

But everyday I actively try to release that dream to which I'm still somewhat attached (which is not even my dream anymore, crazy how that is) and work on enjoying the life I actually live as it unfolds. If I didn't, every day in yoga pants would be a punch in the gut. 

Reach for the stars so if you fall you land on a cloud, and trust that cloud might be just as awesome. 

2. Make learning your primary purpose. Any experience, good, bad, pleasant, unbearable, can be positive if you look at it from a lens of learning. Every experience is here to teach you — what about, you ask? About who you are

Look at everything and everyone for what they reveal to you about yourself. No moment will be wasted, no experience for naught. You can learn from running a mile. You can learn from baking cookies. Just be on the lookout always for the lessons. 

3. Place more value on being than doing. Early in my career I found a lot of fulfillment and drive from doing a lot. The more hours I spent working, the more projects I brainstormed, the more I felt I was advancing in life. I burned out on that mindset in like <4 years. 

Now I try to allocate the most value to being. How can I create the most time in my schedule to be, rather than to be doing. That doesn't mean I'm not doing anything (although I have tried to create more "free time" for myself). But how many moments can I create where my intention is not for this moment to lead to some other moment, but rather to be a little bit more still and experience this moment fully. 

Let me give you an example of how it works. Take the concept of funnels: the more potential customers you have in your funnel the more opportunity there is to sell. I am in Hiring and the same logic applies. When I first started in my role, I figured having more interviews would lead to hiring the most successful candidates. 

What I've found is that if I do fewer interviews, but spend time being more present with each of those potential hires (from the moment I review their resumes, through my email communications with them, to meeting them), those applicants perform better and our outcomes are just as successful. Rather than doing as much as possible to connect with the most candidates, I try to be with each candidate and then I'm better able to tap into their areas of strength and their needs and what will make them successful. 

Ask yourself what it is to do in the context your life, and what it is to be, and spend more time being. Life is being. 

4. Do for others. So now I just used the word "Do" and I've turned my back on my last point, but it's OK because you can swap in "Be" and this becomes even more effective. 

My only advice is to let this recommendation prove itself to you. Here's how to implement: whenever you're feeling down on yourself, demotivated, stuck, unsure of how to proceed on your path... just get up and do something for someone else. Volunteer somewhere. Clean your friend's kitchen. Go outside and give a homeless person a banana. 

Just do whatever you're going to do without expecting anything in return and you will soon be back on track, whatever that track may be. 

5. Spend time around inspiring people. When in doubt (and as often as possible on a regular basis) put yourself in the presence of people who inspire you. Their words, whether face to face, on film or in a book, will help you find in yourself the motivation you need. 

Joanna Cohen