If self-improvement is killing you, you are doing it wrong

2020 has been exhausting. If you want to be better, you can’t afford to do what everyone is doing. You can’t maintain a “keep up” mindset.

The demands of life in the fast lane come at a price: stress, fatigue, burnout and depression are few effects of aiming for change without deliberate purpose. Pursuing self-improvement at all costs will make you worse.

Many people want to be better — they want to be able to exercise, feed their curiosity, read more books, maintain a healthy lifestyle, embrace meditation and wake up at the crack of dawn in the name of getting an early start.

But here’s the truth — if you are pursuing all these for the wrong reasons — keeping up, because it worked for someone you trust or an expert says it’s the right thing to do, you will get worse in the process.

There are thousands if not millions of resources telling people how they can be more productive, more creative, do their best work, optimize their lives, be more successful and be better at everything they do.

You have to know exactly what you want in life to benefit from any practice, habit, routine or behavior.

Don’t improve yourself to death

The bad news is you can easily fall into a well of self-improvement and things can suddenly get dark fast. The pursuit of “better” can drag you into a life of exhaustion if you don’t take back control.

The good news is, you and you alone are in control of the direction of your life — not a productivity guru or self-improvement expert.

And guess what change is not a power run — it’s a slow and gradual process that is supposed to bring out the best in you, not the worst.

There is no single best way to optimize your life. And there’s no right way to become better, faster or smarter.

There are no one-size-fits-all solutions in life. Your personal situation and long-term goals should determine the practices you apply in your life.

Some self-improvement ideas may not work for you, because you are a unique individual, with different energy patterns, different needs and goals.

What you should be doing is experimenting and sticking to what doesn’t make you worse. If you can’t wake up at 5 am, don’t beat yourself up. If meditation for half an hour does not work for you, try 5 minutes or better still go for a peaceful walk.

If you can’t read 100 books a year, try reading your favorite books slowly and deeply. That can be more beneficial. What’s the point if you can’t remember any of the lessons in the hundreds of books you are aiming to read.

And stop comparing yourself to all the personal stories you are reading. What works for an expert may not work for you. Mark Twain once said, “comparison is the death of joy.” It’s also the birth of misery.

Be better for the sake of enjoying your life, not better than everyone else.

You don’t have to be a superstar at everything you do to live a better life.

The overpowering belief that you can never be good enough is bad for your mental health. If self-improvement is reinforced your feelings of inadequacy, you will come out worst than you can ever imagine.

“The desire to achieve and to demonstrate perfection is not simply stressful; it can also be fatal, according to the British journalist Will Storr, ” writes Alexandra Schwartz of The New Yorker.

Your self-improvement practices —exercising, reading, journaling, eating healthy, working productively and performing at your best should be “right and personal”. That means you should embrace habits that can work for you, not against you.

Stop trying so hard at everything that doesn’t work. Trying so hard to be happy often makes you miserable. Trying so hard to be productive can be counterproductive and cause burnout — find your flow and leverage your energy levels instead.

You should be in control of the change, otherwise, life will become less and less comfortable. You can absolutely avoid a lot of the psychological suffering by doing more of what works for you.

And because self-improvement is not a destination, aim to enjoy the process. Purse anything with an open and gradual process mindset.

“Change is not a one-time explosion of opportunity. It is a slow-burning fire that needs to be tended constantly,” says Jason Harvey, in his book, Achieve Anything In Just One Year: Be Inspired Daily to Live Your Dreams and Accomplish Your Goals.

If improving an area of your life is stressing you or doing more harm than good, stop and reevaluate the whole process and stick to the small steps that will still feel like progress.

Leverage your natural flow — the new normal should not feel like a chore.
So, figure out which small things you do or have enjoyed in the past and work toward maximizing and setting yourself up for more of those.
Lean into the little joys in life when you find them.

If you optimize any area of your life, question the real purpose of it before you start. Is it a habit you intend to keep? How does it fit into your long-term goal in life? Optimize your life for one thing only: joy.

And don’t aim for radical change. You will burnout. Take small steps and stick to the practices you enjoy. Helmut Schmidt encourages us to take baby steps towards a bigger goal. He once said, “Whoever wants to reach a distant goal must take small steps.”

Focus on becoming 1% better every day if you really want to improve yourself without getting stressed. It’s is a simple and practical way to becoming a better you. 1% seems like a small amount.

Yes, it is. It’s tiny. It’s easy. It’s doable. It feels less intimidating and is more manageable. And it’s applicable to most things you want to do or accomplish in life.

This article originally appeared in Medium.