February 15, 2023

Not everything has to be about self-improvement

If it’s not obvious by now, a lot of the articles I’ve written, the software/products I’ve built and the upcoming diary I've designed (more on that soon) are focused on the area of self-improvement.

I've also used those self-improvement techniques in my own life to build businesses, finish my PhD, and change personal habits. I'd like to think I'm a more rounded and better person as a result - while also being more accepting of things that in the past I would have considered 'flaws'.

However, not every single task or thing we do should be looked at through the lens of ‘Is this productive/helping me improve/the 100% most optimal thing for me right now?’. Fun is a core part of life and it’s necessary to have some time away from the completely-optimisied-life for a number of reasons:

- Changing something about yourself is hard and takes a lot of energy. It might be better than the current situation but that doesn’t mean that the change itself doesn’t take effort.

- ‘Play’ as a concept is important - life isn’t always about work (or always about fun either) but it’s definitely possible to incorporate play into your goals. Someone wrote a book about this exact topic!

- Dedicating some time to watching that silly show that you love, or going to Disneyland, or whatever it is that works for you, is really important both for your own mental health and as part of rest and recovery. It can’t and shouldn’t always be about optimisation. Some people even schedule their free time!

There is a great article that’s almost 20 years old called ‘The Making of a Corporate Athlete’. One particular part about rest and recovery stands out:

“In weight lifting, .... given an adequate period of recovery (typically at least 48 hours), the muscle will not only heal, it will grow stronger. But persist in stressing the muscle without rest and the result will be acute and chronic damage. Conversely, failure to stress the muscle results in weakness and atrophy. (Just think of an arm in a cast for several weeks.) In both cases, the enemy is not stress, it’s linearity—the failure to oscillate between energy expenditure and recovery.”

So while I'm not saying to just stop trying to achieve your goals and simply do whatever you want, you can:

-  Take your time! It’s a marathon not a sprint. And sprinting a marathon has never worked for anyone.
-  Incorporate some changes in your life and stick to your plan where possible - but don’t try and do everything at once. Better to do one thing well then 10 things badly.
-  Take some time to do things just for you, it’s both fun and helps you recover. Schedule it if you need to!
- Have some fun! Meet a friend, go dancing, whatever it is that works for you.

One final thing to consider is the guilt we can feel when 'doing nothing', like watching a TV show when we 'could' be doing something productive or better. There is a level of personal judgement in this but this is where the scheduling of downtime can be quite useful - rest and recovery are important parts of the process of achieving your goals. Life isn't all play, but it definitely isn't all work either.

So enjoy that movie, or coffee, or event, and don’t feel guilty about it!