Self-Improvement

"Setting intentions" unintentionally makes achieving goals harder

The phrase “set your intention” is an unfortunate meme that has grown in popularity in the past couple years, mostly among the younger set, and among those inclined to New Age beliefs or yoga. The phrase creates a false sense of satisfaction every time you repeat it, which at best prevents real growth, and at worst, harms people.

The phrase is meant to be an alternative to setting goals. Its appeal comes from two well-intentioned, New Age theories. One theory is the Law of Attraction, popularized by Oprah, which states that if you openly ask the universe for what you want, you are more likely to get it. However, you can still invoke the Law of Attraction by setting goals, which makes setting intentions unnecessary.

The second theory is that intentions don’t cause as much attachment-anxiety as goal-setting. This idea comes from mindfulness practice, which is about reducing attachment. By setting intentions, the theory goes, we do not require that we achieve the goal, but rather that we try to in earnest. For example, if you want to get a job, but you don’t want to get too attached to the outcome, you could tell yourself, “I intend to get this job.” But you’re saying that not because you merely intend to get the job, but rather because you want the job, but don’t want to want it that badly. It’s an attempt to force a mindset, which isn’t mindful.

Setting intentions provides an easy out: If you don’t win, it’s not a big deal. But doing so defeats the purpose of wanting something: It should hurt when you don’t get it.

80% of procrastination can be cured by doing 20% of the annoying work first, then letting momentum finish the rest

The 80/20 rule also applies to procrastination. 80% of procrastination can be solved by the first 20% of work. Consider the process of paying your bills. If you find envelopes stacking up on the table by the landing, it may help to put a letter opener there and to make a rule that nothing on the table shall remain in an envelope. You tell yourself that you don't necessarily have to pay all the bills right then and there, but that at the very least, you'll unmask every piece of mail, throwing away the envelope and throwing away the bundled promotional spam, leaving just the bill on its own.

Once you do that, the bill has a much greater chance of getting paid. It may even get paid right at that moment since you've created a tiny bit of momentum already to continue and finish the rest of the task.

But if those unadorned bills still sit on your table, you can apply the 80/20 rule again, and simply bring your checkbook to the table. Tell yourself that you're not making yourself pay the bill right then and there, but getting supplies ready for when you're in the mood. The process itself is often enough to get you to fill out the fields and send the check right then and there.

Attention-Reactive Problems

Attention-reactive problems are those that by the very act of paying attention to them or working on them, they change. For example, if you enter into marriage counseling, you cease to be counseling a regular marriage. Rather, you are counseling a counseled marriage. There is a component of striving and expectation that is now part of the problem.

So when someone implores you "Don't worry about it" or "You're over-thinking it," it isn't because they're annoyed, but rather because the advice may be the optimal path to a solution.

Be wary of panaceas, except for one: meditation

When embarking on self-improvement, it's important to be weary of panaceas. Panaceas are remedies for all disease, evils, or difficulties, i.e. a cure-all. Self-help, religion, and therapy are all selling panaceas. The body craves them, because it usually doesn't have just one problem, but a pattern of problems, and it usually doesn't want a single solution, but a universal solution so that the solution-finding process can be laid to rest.

There is one glaring exception, though, and that's relaxation and meditation. Relaxation will help with nearly every problem. If you hurt your leg, relaxing will soothe your pain while also calming you down enough to listen to what your doctor is saying. If you have a broken heart, relaxation will not only ease your pain but also reduce the chance of a destructive neurotic episode. What makes relaxation so reliable of a pill is that it very often provides both symptomatic and causative redress. Not only are the symptoms of your problems (stress, agony, pain) alleviated with relaxation, but so are the causes (relaxing helps with problem-solving and deliberation while helping to avoid over-thinking).

Catchphrase Therapy

There is a hidden wisdom in seemingly cliché advice. Even if the expression doesn't have an impact on you, if you watch the eyes of people who say them, you can see the words lock something into place for them, like as if a key is turning. Some example pat advice:

  • Life is short.
  • God will take care of it.
  • Focus on you.
  • Be yourself.

One question this brings up is, Are these statements symptoms or causes? For example, consider someone who tells themselves, "Life is short." Is that a sign of a spontaneous, present-minded person? Or is the statement needed to bring them closer to that level?

The user of these mantras repeats them in their head, usually with a frequency of about once every week or so. And it may result in an extra nudge when there is a conflict between choices. For example, someone with mild social anxiety, who reminds themselves every once-in-a-while, "Be yourself," is probably faced with, from time-to-time, the option of putting on a show or letting their natural social demeanor unfold. The reminder, contained in that mantra, nudges them to choose the natural display.

Cognitive therapy, like all therapies, has the potential for abuse when placebo relief substitutes for authentic relief

One of the techniques in cognitive therapy (and also talk therapy) is self-explanation. Self-explanation is a double-edged sword. The way it works is that by spelling out your issues or concerns, whether in text (or via talk), overly-distorted and overly-negative thoughts may seem apparently dysfunctional, and then have a way of magically disappearing.

The opposite may happen, though, which is where the potential for abuse is. Investigating an emotion or issue necessarily amplifies it, at the very least for that moment, as it's further brought into light. As a result, the epiphanies in cognitive therapy are usually forged after a temporary spike in anxiety. The relief that follows is at least half the result of the simple contrast of moving your attention away from your issues and going about your day-to-day activities.

The potential for therapeutic abuse comes when that automatic relief gets confused with the actual relief that comes from successfully disputing negative beliefs.

Crazy psychologists and sinful priests are proof that we seek rational expertise in areas of natural deficiency

Do people become experts in their area of deficiency? There are a few examples from the sciences: George Vaillant's area of expertise is relationships, yet he has intimacy issues himself. V.S. Ramachandran has done fascinating research in areas related to strange brain behaviors, and yet he has a pathologically incapable memory (he can never remember his wife's birthday—or even birth month). And there are some famous examples from the arts: Beethoven was deaf, and Monet had vision problems when he painted some of his greatest works.

Other classic examples come from the world of oratory: Dr. Laura (the stern advice queen of talk radio) has had a love life that would be considered a failure according to her own message. Also, politicians seem very genuine when they expound about virtue, but perhaps they get passionate about what they say because they're talking to themselves on the stump.

These examples could just be exceptions since there are plenty of people who enter fields that suit their natural talents. But if you apply the principles of flow to careers, it makes sense that the ideal career is one that requires a long ramp-up. Flow suffuses work when the practitioner is constantly in that sweet spot between boredom and anxiety, between proficiency and non-frustrating challenge.

Flow-like conditions would then match situations where you recognize that you're deficient in one area but have a skill in another to compensate. Dr. Laura has had struggles with relationships, yet has always been a good orator (always good enough for broadcast) and so her radio program gives her a chance to slowly learn about relationships by leveraging her primary skill. Likewise, those scientists above compensated by capitalizing on their aptitude for research.

Perhaps the strive to excellence in a niche is evolution's way of helping us achieve balance as a whole.

Dianetics and The Secret are preludes to the day when a self-help book outranks the Bible

Not too long from now, a secular self-help book will compete in popularity and influence with the Bible. In The Secret, the Law of Attraction is essentially prayer. In The Purpose-Driven Life, finding purpose is like finding a guiding light or God. And in Dianetics, auditing is intercession.

There are New Age seminars on The Secret, there are Christian reading groups for The Purpose-Driven Life, and there are Scientologist congregations who study Dianetics. At some point, these stand-ins for religion will eclipse the religions that inspired them in the first place, and someone will take the oath of office of the President of the United States on a copy of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Diaries are negative for the same reason news is negative: If it bleeds, it leads

Certain mediums have an inherent ideological bias or slant. For example, TV news is relatively more liberal and talk radio is relatively more conservative. These biases will be there 50 or 100 years from now, no matter how many Rachel Maddows we hire or FOX News Channels we create. Even FOX News, when broken down to its implied ideology based on where it focuses its attention is slightly left-of-center to the average American.

But what about personal mediums, like diaries? Do diaries have an inherent bias? The contents are often negative. Perhaps it follows the same principle of news: "If it bleeds it leads." The only thing worth mentioning in a diary is adversity. Otherwise, starting an entry with something like, "Today was amazing, the sun was shining, and work flowed well," would be positively boring.

Emotional people need more emotional intelligence

Focus on almost close-calls while driving, since doing so is both scary, frequent, and therefore reliable

The best methods have persistent emotional sources. If you were to construct a tactic to improve your driving attentiveness, you could give yourself a rule, to always remember the last time you were in a car accident. The idea is that the visual will strike fear into your heart, and therefore urge you to pay more attention. While this may work for two weeks, eventually the fear won't carry the same weight. You will become numb to the visual, and return back to a complacent driving pattern.

The better approach is to construct a safe-driving method that taps into a renewable source of emotion. Someone could focus on visualizing what could happen if their bad driving continued. "That sloppy left-turn, had you been a little more distracted, might have made you swerve suddenly away from that pedestrian." The near-near-miss, even though harmless, can become a fresh source for anxiety. The method takes that anxiety and visualizes the consequences of yellow flags become red flags becoming actual accidents.

Since the method is only applied when there is in fact a real potential risk, there is always just enough emotion to summon a correction in one's behavior.

For self-improvement, writing is commitment. Put it in writing, say it make it so

What is it about writing that makes it such a useful tool for self-improvement? In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People there are some writing exercises suggested. For example, you are supposed to, once-a-week, write down your principles in a document so as to center you.

The underlying principle behind this method is that writing is commitment. There's a reason for the expression, "Commit it to writing." A management technique is to tell your subordinates that if they want anything from you, they should "put it in writing." The purpose of this is two-fold. First, it encourages internal vetting. Just as you're about to put something in writing, you evaluate first whether it's worthy and represents what you really think.

Second, it creates focus. Writing, unlike the mind, is less tolerant of ambiguity. Whereas you may think you want something today, and then tomorrow you want something else, you probably wouldn't write it down, because you know that it's fleeting. What you write down is meant to be permanent.

Thirdly, it is like a contract. The document is a constant reminder of you describing what you want, and unless you backtrack (with some embarrassment), you'll be held accountable to it.

Geometric Self-improvement

In mathematics, any point in space can be represented by what's called a "linear combination" of basis vectors. The point (2,5), for example, can be represented as 2 * (1,0) + 5 * (0,1), where (1,0) and (0,1) are basis vectors. Any point in two dimensions can be represented as a multiple and then sum of those variables.

Likewise, virtue can be represented as a linear combination of basis vectors. The Josephson Institute developed the Six Pillars of Character, which could represent the axes of a six-dimensional space: Trust, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Community. Any interpersonal conflict can be represented as a linear combination of those pillars. For example, if a good friend talks behind your back, the act has a helping of mistrust (a * Trust) combined with an element of disrespect (b * Respect). Or if your teammate at work ignores your emails and brings your project down, the act has a sense of recklessness (c * Responsibility) combined with dispassion (e * Caring). There isn't a wrong or slight that isn't some combination of those pillars. The benefit of this model is that if you can master those six axes, you can master whatever it means to have good character.

Goals can organize, they can break ties, and they can force deliberate problem-solving. But they're not panaceas

One of the fundamental points of self-improvement is to get people to set goals. The Purpose-Driven Life, for example, is pretty much just about convincing the reader to set that highest of goals, a sense of purpose. But oftentimes, goals cause more harm than good. For example, when you attach a monetary reward to certain activities that require creativity, workers become less creative and less motivated. (Read Drive by Daniel H. Pink).

The best way to figure out when goals are good and when they're not is to break down the various benefits of goals and turn them into faults.

Goals are good for organizing - By setting a goal, you then have regular high-level side-bars where you break down the journey to the goal as a series of stages that build upon each other. But there are many cases where you don't want this kind of reductionism. For example, if the reason you haven't obtained your goal yet is because you don't know how to get there, then forcing yourself to create false intermediary stages may lead you down the wrong path, when really you need to be exploring or engaging in spontaneous activities.

Another problem with organizing is if the reasons you wanted the goal are defeated when it gets reduced to stages. For example, if your goal is to "find work that you love," you could break it down into stages, with the first stage being, "Obtain $50,000 in savings so I can afford to go back to school." To earn that $50,000, you might take on tedious work that you hate, and it might take you years longer than you expected to earn that money. Taking this route would go against the spirit of your goal, which is to not do work that you hate.

Goals are good for tie-breaking - Let's say you write down "My goal is X," but then you find yourself equally driven towards two activities: one that helps you achieve X and another that helps you achieve Y, the fact that you wrote down that your goal is X would tip the balance in its favor.

This can be counter-productive, though, if you're not just seeking X, but also personal growth in general, the kind of growth that could make X seem silly or moot. If you're seeking growth, a garden-path is actually better, as it leads to more serendipitous activities. There may be subconscious or hidden reasons why you're more compelled to seek Y instead of X, and setting a goal made you ignore those reasons.

Goals are good for justifying deliberate side-bars - For example, if your goal is to squat 200% of your body weight, you could take a side-bar and spend months just working on your arm strength or your back strength. Or you could take cooking classes so that you learn to create tasty, healthy, and protein-rich meals for yourself. These sub-components would then help you build up towards the greater goal.

However, not all goals benefit from side-bars. Sometimes goal-setting is a distraction to actually stepping up to the plate and swinging. If your goal is to be a successful businessman, it might justify the side-bar of getting an M.B.A., but you may already know what you need to get started, and it's just a matter of taking the initiative to start a business today.

Half of self-improvement is measuring

What is one of the most successful tools in the history of self-improvement? Hint: It's right under your feet. It's the weighing scale. Accurate measurements are the easiest way to create a self-improvement system that adheres to the principles of flow. By having numbers, then you have instant feedback that your self-improvement project is working. If you see even just a slight quantified improvement, then it's incredibly encouraging.

Asking "How do I measure this?" is the first crucial step to building any successful self-improvement program. If you're trying to become happier, for example, do you have an accurate measurement of your happiness? You could, for example, count the number of minutes you spend per day lying on your bed, staring at the ceiling, twisting and turning your worries in your head. You could count the number of neurotic episodes you have per week. Then when you try cognitive therapy or meditation, you could measure yourself again and see if you've made progress.

Measurement can open the door to a dimension of self-improvement that you may not even know existed. For example, how do you reduce the friction in your relationships (professional, romantic, or platonic)? While you could measure the outputs, like the number of times you get into a fight, the pattern may be too irregular for you to get meaningful feedback. Even better is if you can measure the inputs.

The Josephson Institute has a concept called The Six Pillars of Character, whereby they define character as Trust, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Community. You could then measure you and your partner's response to a conflict according to that rubric. How caring was I in that scathing email that I just sent? How reasonable are her demands on the relationship? Anecdotally, my personal conflicts became dramatically reduced when I delved into this kind of exercise.

If "loud, repetitive thoughts" are the hallmark of neurotic minds, then "quiet, organic thoughts" are the hallmark of calm, mindful ones

If "loud, repetitive thoughts" are the hallmark of OCD/anxious temperament, then "quiet, organic thoughts" are the hallmark of a calm, neurotypical mind. Another way of thinking about "quiet, organic thoughts" is to consider it a form of "indirect thinking." Whereas a neurotic, when faced with a life problem, may sit in a chair, and actively analyze and develop solutions, a neurotypical person will wait and let ideas come to them.

There are some devices that aid indirect thinking. Examples include Tarot cards, I-Ching, astrology, etc. A Tarot card reading gives you a chance to access the issues in your life without having to confront them directly, which can be stressful and lead to loud, repetitive thoughts.

It's possible to expand this indirect thinking to the rest of your life. For example, you may find yourself in the shower, lost in thought, on the verge of a nervous breakdown over anxieties about work. But instead of turning inward, wracking your head to find a solution, you could turn outward and notice the shower tiles. You could let your eyes drift, allowing you to notice the grout. Eventually, the symbol of a grid appears in your head, and you realize that it's a metaphor for your problems. You could read into it that you're in prison, which might spur you to quit outright, rather than trying to haggle for a raise.

Roger von Oech's The Creative Whack Pack and Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies are both decks of cards that prompt readers to make metaphors, forcing you to remix your world to come up with novel solutions.

Indirect thinking can also be a good compromise between thought-cessation and over-thinking. When over-thinking floods your mind, a part of you might scream to "stop thinking." Initially, this might work, but it's impractical to do it more than once—in many cases, the thoughts you're trying to quell may get stronger. Because thought-cessation seems impossible, many over-thinkers simply give up and assume they're stuck with their condition. Indirect thinking would allow them to continue living their lives, while still searching for solutions in the background, using their intuition and living serendipitously.

If neuroticism is marked by "load, repetitive thoughts," then mindfulness is marked by "quiet, organic thoughts."

One way of describing a neurotic is by saying that they have minds filled with "loud, repetitive thoughts." Likewise, then, the way of describing a calmer, neurotyical person is to say they have "quiet, organic thoughts."

This label also applies to the typical feeling practitioners feel after meditating. Mindfulness makes it easier to zoom into and out of situations, noticing something as soft a pin drop and as large as your life's purpose. Meditation lets you focus on something, while not being consumed by it. Meditation, by quieting distractions, also lets you move your choice of focus more freely.

If you took a bird's eye view of a meditator's mind, you would notice that the thoughts are quieter, and that they flow more organically. Instead of sticking to one topic and obsessing over it, their mind may stick on one spot, then move to another, but it won't be jumpy. Instead, it'll be smooth like a new stream of water slowly developing into tributaries, like a pleasant wander.

Even without the brain scans or meta-studies that confirm this, just inspecting the nature of meditation alone shows why it's so effective of an anxiety-reducer.

If you manipulate others, you manipulate yourself. After all, the person being manipulated spent no effort to change your behavior

Let's say you're in a domestic partnership, and you notice your partner is constantly leaving smelly clothes all over the place, despite you and them having discussions about this before. So you take a different tactic, and try soft manipulation, or "training," to make your partner behave differently. You stop your nagging, and instead you throw indifference at them. If they leave smelly things around, but then come around later to ask what's for dinner, you shrug or proceed to respond with a flat, hyphen-lip smile. Your actions may give your partner pause, who might then think, "Hmm, I wonder what's wrong," and maybe they respond by proactively cleaning up the house to cheer you up or get a reaction out of you.

This strategy is precisely what Amy Sutherland describes doing in What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage. She drew from her background as an animal tamer to provide some lessons for relationship management. She learned that making a fuss when animals do something wrong encourages the negative behavior. So you turn it around, realize that the animal wants your attention, and withhold it until you get the desired behavior. She then applied this to her home and got her partner to pick up smelly socks.

Hearing this practice is naturally controversial. That's why Sutherland has to couch it in cute terminology from the animal kingdom. So what is exactly objectionable about it? Perhaps it's because the effort is self-defeating. By turning into a trainer who creatively figures out how to get what she wants from her partner using subtle techniques, in some ways, that means her partner trained her as well. By just "being himself," he got her to transform into a positive-reinforcing win-win communicator and is now rewarding the home with cleanliness.

Social manipulation is in many ways like a Chinese finger trap. The further you go down that road, the more it mires you in it. You can't deliberately bend others without in some ways bending yourself. It is perhaps why we often deride flatterers and social climbers as having no spine.

Is the fear of writing sometimes just a form of attachment anxiety?

The process of writing, of committing something to paper, expresses the following: "I'm not willing to part with this." Consider the most basic forms of writing: little shopping lists or to-do lists. We make these things because we don't want to forget something. By extension, we write ideas down because we want to keep them, to pin them down. Inevitably we become attached to what we write, and so sometimes we intentionally write something down to form a bond.

Is a fear of writing, in some cases, a kind of attachment anxiety? Perhaps reluctant writers don't want to tie themselves down to a particular idea. Perhaps most brains work with fluid ideas that change depending on when we call them into question. Maybe writing things down forces our brains to prematurely commit. In which case, the act of not writing is a way to keep oneself free from attachment.

Just the attempt to be happy requires self-love and hope, which puts you already half-way there

The most persuasive thing you can tell a depressed person is that depression is self-perpetuating. Depressed people hold onto beliefs like, "Happiness is not important," "Positive thinking is silly," or "Why should I be happy when not everything is okay?" Depressed people often erroneously think their depressions are justified by external events, without realizing that depression is often the biggest cause of depression. The depressed mind wants further depressing thoughts, whereas the happy mind seeks positive thoughts.

While there are studies that prove this, I noticed this clearly in myself. One day, I decided to apply positive thinking, but I couldn't fathom anything positive at that moment. So I pushed myself to keep trying, to dig deep into the events of the day or details about my life situation, and after a few minutes, I noticed myself feeling better. However, I felt better before I arrived at an actual positive thought. By seeking to deliver positivity to myself, I was already emulating the typical behavior of a happy person.

This result suggests that the key pathway out of depression is to want happiness. To look at yourself and think, "This person needs to be cheered up," already implies a certain self-love which is fundamental to a positive outlook on life.

A parallel pattern happens in meditation. When someone works through their reluctance to meditate, they have already made substantial progress toward mindfulness, without even having begun to meditate.

Normally we get our moralists for free, whether its parents, peers, or priests. But in case we need a little more, we can always hire a life coach

Of all the great things self-improvement books can do, improving the self is often not one of them. You still need you for that

Self-improvement literature probably follows the apocryphal Rule of Thirds from psychotherapy: "One third of patients get better, one third stay the same, and one third get worse." So rather than understanding self-improvement literature in terms about whether it works in a general sense, it's better to look at the specific services it sustainably offers:

Empowerment: Often self-improvement is there just to get you up off your chair and out into the world doing things. Tony Robbins is a good example of an author who does this. The goal is to make you more confident. The bulk of empowerment relies on one-line zingers, such as "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

Kinship: Self-improvement can also simply offer kinship. The goal of such books is to simply make you feel better about who you already are. For example, stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul are often of people triumphing over adversity, which may help us with our own trials and tribulations. Sometimes kinship literature offers a new keyword to describe your condition. For example, The Highly Sensitive Person is liable to make its readers exclaim, "So that's what's going on with me!"

Tactics: Originally this is what self-help was designed for. For example, one of the earliest self-help books was Every Man His Own Lawyer, which was published in 1784. There are numerous self-improvement books on how to structure a new diet or how to start a business.

Creativity: Creativity self-help is designed to simply open your eyes and imagination. Some books are explicitly about creativity, such as The Artist's Way, and others are only indirectly about creativity. While New Age spirituality purports to be about the spiritual themselves, functionally, they serve to stir people's imaginations and inspire solutions that can't be otherwise logically deduced. For example, the social effect of Feng Shui has been to simply mediate interior decorating conversations, despite the fact that the practice has a world unto itself.

Psychology makes us believe that talking about our unwanted traits automatically leads to coping with them

The term "method" in self-improvement refers to a word or series of words that someone says to themselves (audibly or inaudibly), to get some desired effect. Positive proclamations, such as telling yourself you're handsome or beautiful, are a form of method, with the desired effect being confidence and improved self-esteem.

Method abuse happens when the use of the method follows an obsessive-compulsive disorder cycle of relief. The method actor feels down, then says the positive proclamation to achieve some relief, but quickly returns to their downcast state.

Some forms of method abuse are so enduring that we've ingrained them into our culture and language. For example, the psychological trope that says our problems stem from issues in our childhood is a series of words and ideas that provide some temporary relief. For example, someone could say, "Wow, you're really shy," to which your response could be, "Yeah, I was told to keep my mouth shut when I was a kid." Somehow that ends the conversation by explaining the source of the shyness. But explaining the source of something doesn't do anything meaningful to it. It is maybe the beginning of addressing the concern, but the childhood trope becomes a repeatable form of half-work that simply gives the sensation of fixing by identifying a cause. One could respond, "Yeah, I'm shy because I have low levels of dopamine," and again the conversation is ended.

But rather than gaining relief and sympathy by implying that it's out of your hands, it might be better just to reply, "Yes, I know."

Reading books about intrinsic motivation is potentially self-defeating since we often read them to maximize our output

Reading a book about intrinsic motivation is potentially self-defeating because we often read these books to maximize our output. Therefore, we are extrinsically motivated to seek intrinsic motivation. Doing so corrupts the process because we don't need to create intrinsically motivating tasks; They should already draw you in.

Perhaps the technique, then, is simply to give more permission and space to intrinsically motivating tasks. But if you tell yourself, "Do more of that thing you love, it'll be better for you," again you've partially corrupted the thing that you love.

Self-help books just re-enforce the belief that small changes to one's circumstances are all it takes to become happy

Reading a book on productivity or success, while for some people may genuinely solve a problem in their life, for most will just re-enforce the belief that small improvements to one's circumstance will make them happy. Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness is then the last self-help book one needs to read because it shows once and for all that circumstances only account for 10% of people's happiness. Those who are happy are scientifically proven to be those who continuously, intentionally make themselves happy, whether it's by meditation, deliberate acts of kindness, prayer, etc., or who already have the wiring for calm temperament.

Self-help books perpetuate "say it make it so" syndrome, whereby talking about one's problems substitutes for fixing them

The "Say It Make It So" pattern is a common rhetorical bias in self-improvement literature. It's a pattern that you also find in hypocritical religious speakers and politicians.

The idea is that the very act of saying something actually makes it so. For example, by getting up on a podium and waxing poetic about the importance of virtue, it's possible to get a sense of false closure. It's possible to believe that the very act of talking about virtue is equivalent to being virtuous. Of course, the speaker is unlikely to be conscious of this. Otherwise, their anti-hypocrisy conscience would intervene.

You may also notice this in compliments have an unnatural tinge. Someone may announce to their friends, after a dinner guest leaves, "You know what, I like her." This statement may be a way to assert approval, rather than a way to reveal it. Perhaps she had some insufferable edges to her personality, and you're stating the compliment in a compensatory way because you want to like her.

Self-improvement writers often use their books and speaking gigs to talk out their own personal problems. By talking about the importance of "centeredness," for example, a speaker may be re-affirming their own aspiration for centeredness, rather than offering practical tips to achieving centeredness in the reader's life.

Self-help books re-enforce the belief that thinking is all that's needed to change the mind, which itself is a leading cause of neurosis

Self-improvement books operate primarily by telling readers what to do with their mind. The books are written independent of readers' personal experiences, and so they must speak through the plane of concepts, with exercises the reader can do right then and there. The books emphasize finding focus, finding purpose, thinking positive, clarifying one's mission, etc., all of which drive towards looking inward at one's thoughts. As a result, self-improvement acolytes develop metacognitive judgment, which leads to internal conflict and neurosis.

Meditation, which is a clinically proven practice for affecting life-change, goes in the opposite direction and teaches people that they are not their thoughts. The reason this works is that real self-improvement doesn't happen in the plane of concepts, but through experience followed by insight.

Self-help only works if you don't expect instant life-change. Treat it like a kick in the pants, and you won't be disappointed

Even though most self-improvement literature does not solve the life problems that readers expect them to, the books are still powerful for a reason. Beneath its lofty promises, self-help reliably delivers in four areas:

Empowerment - Self-help can provide motivation, even if it is short-term or empty. For many people, a kickstart is all they need, and books from authors like Tony Robbins, can deliver enough one-liners to break through a reader's apathy.

Kinship - Sometimes the purpose of a self-help book is to show that we are not alone. For example, stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul are often about triumphing over adversity, which in turn makes us feel better about our own trials and tribulations. Other books simply announce a category, such as The Highly Sensitive Person, which helps certain people not feel like their issues are solely their own.

Tactics - Originally, "self-help" meant "do-it-yourself." One of the earliest self-help books was Every Man His Own Lawyer, which was published in 1784.

Creativity - Othertimes, self-help will simply open a person's eyes and imagination. The Artist's Way, for example, offers exercises in self-expression to help break through creative blocks. And many other New Age books, like The Secret, rather than simply providing the secret to happiness or the secret to getting everything you want, at the very least provide thought experiments or perspective shifts, which may eventually lead to solving life's problems.

Self-improvement depends on renewable energy, which is why positive thinking only lasts as long as one's excitement to try it

If it's the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, and your team is one point down from clinching the pennant, you might need a little help. You could whisper to yourself, either audibly or in your head, "Come on, you can do this, this is your moment." The words will give you extra confidence, focus your talents, and immerse you into the moment. And under this pressure, with these words, you might perform better and hit a home-run.

Why can't we always say this to ourselves? Why can't we whisper to ourselves every time we go to bat, even if it's not a clincher? These mantras—these powerful, encouraging words—are the bulk of self-improvement literature. Nearly all self-help books are empty words with the right rhetorical spin. If they hit the right, vulnerable person, they will feel great at the time.

But after two weeks, those same words stop working. They become satiated, and repeating them no longer carries the same force. Just as the baseball player can only repeat those words when there is a real pressing need for them, the words from self-help literature often don't live beyond their novelty.

The best self-improvement methods, then, are those that have persistent emotional sources. For example, if you were to construct a method to improve your driving skills, you could give yourself a rule, to always remember the last time you were in a car accident. The idea is that, like the baseball player, the visual will strike fear into your heart, and therefore urge you to pay more attention. But this may work for two weeks, and eventually, the fear won't carry the same weight. You will become numb to the visual, and return to a complacent driving pattern.

The better approach is to construct a safe-driving method that taps into a renewable source of emotion. Someone could focus on visualizing what could happen if their dangerous driving continued. "That sloppy left-turn, had you been a little more distracted, might have made you swerve suddenly away from that pedestrian." The near-near-miss, even though harmless, can become a fresh source of anxiety. The method takes that anxiety and visualizes the consequences of yellow flags become red flags becoming actual accidents. Since the method is only applied when there is, in fact, a real potential risk, there is always just enough emotion to summon a correction in one's behavior.

The baseball player can't say those words all the time because it isn't always a clutch moment. Reliable self-improvement methods require reliable emotional sources.

Self-improvement is method acting, but whereas the stage only requires conviction, true life-change requires authenticity

The study of self-improvement is, at its core, the study of "method." Method is when you use a mantra to change your state of mind to achieve a goal. A typical example is when athletes use method to clinch games. They repeat a phrase quietly to themselves, "Come on, you've got this, you're the best, win this, come on, you got this," and that spurs them on to victory. It motivates them, focuses their energy, and otherwise makes them play better. Why does this happen? It seems like magic. These are positive, encouraging thoughts, and the power of positive thinking is a tired trope, but how come you can't use method all the time? Why can't you "pump yourself up" throughout the entire game? Method often operates like a turbo boost; You can activate it for just a few minutes, and then it takes some time to recharge.

Method is the most common output of self-improvement literature, and it usually springs forth from an epiphany. For example, consider a segment from Tony Robbins's Awaken the Giant:

"My answer is simple: I learned to harness the principle I now call concentration of power. Most people have no idea of the giant capacity we can immediately command when we focus all of our resources on mastering a single area of our lives. Controlled focus is like a laser beam that can cut through anything that seems to be stopping you. When we focus consistently on improvement in any area, we develop unique distinctions on how to make that area better.

A similar segment exists in Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life:

The power of focusing can be seen in light. Diffused light has little power or impact, but you can concentrate its energy by focusing it. With a magnifying glass, the rays of the sun can be focused to set grass or paper on fire. When light is focused even more as a laser beam, it can cut through steel. There is nothing quite as potent as a focused life, one lived on purpose.

These books and pages immediately strike the typical reader with an epiphany. The readers think to themselves, "This is it, this is how I will conquer X," where X is some problem or barrier they think is holding them back. They will form a vision of themselves behaving like a laser beam as if they are moving faster than normal and conquering their destiny. This positive visualization gives them energy and enthusiasm, and they make some immediate, significant steps toward their goal. If for example, the goal was to lose weight, they may go to their fridge and throw out all of their ice cream. They may go online and sign up for a membership at the gym. They may even go out for a run right then and there.

That initial burst of progress will further reinforce the method in a positive feedback loop such that they may glow for an entire day, maybe a whole week, fixating their attention on the idea that they personify a laser beam. Every time they think about the beam, it spurs them into proactive action toward their goal.

But at some point, the strength of the method will fade. The reader will eventually reach a point where mentioning the laser beam creates no emotional reaction. This method, of invoking text to get a desired reaction, becomes method abuse when you keep going back to the text, expecting the same response, without receiving it. A common abusive symptom is a neurosis, which lasts depending on how desperate you are. But probably the worst symptom is an abuse of assumption. The practitioner may think their life is changing and so they reorganize everything around that assumption. When the illusion shatters, though, it can be devastating.

Not all methods are like this, though. Some methods do create lasting change, but nobody knows why. The field of psychology may eventually discover a revolutionary insight, where we learn the structure of permanently repeatable methods.

Social skills lead to confidence which leads to extroversion which means that Jung's typologies aren't set in stone

In psychiatric literature, it is taboo to say social anxieties are related to social skills. Yet in folk therapy, i.e. by consulting your friends or reading controversial "underground" guides like The Game, if you explain that you have trouble talking with members of the opposite sex, your friends may suggest a makeover for you and that you take improv classes. It could be that more serious literature is designed to apply to as many people as possible, and a very specific recommendation like that is too unlikely to apply to you. (i.e. You may have already taken improv classes and may already dress well). Literature has to be context-free.

This notion of introversion vs. extroversion is one of those context-free memes that has become ingrained in people's consciousness. People say, "Oh, I'm an introvert" like it's a permanent part of their being. However, we don't have measurements about how flexible introvertedness is. Do people measure the same level of introvertedness one, two, or five years later?

In my personal experience, I noticed an uptick in my extroverted-ness that coincided with each uptick in social skills. When I read The Definitive Guide to Body Language. When I learned about empathetic listening. When I followed Fonzworth Bentley's principles of being a gentleman: "Style, Confidence, and Manners." After each seminar, I became more eager to socialize and make friends.

Now, it could be a confusion between causation and correlation. I may have been fundamentally eager to socialize, and therefore sought out self-help books to aid in that. On the other hand, then that means I wasn't an introvert to begin with, since my desires were so clear to me. So in a way, self-described introverts may cling to the label to resolve the tension between their desire to socialize more and the social anxieties that hold them back: "I don't know, I don't feel like going out, I guess I'm an introvert." In tandem, true introverts may use more blunt descriptions: "I have no interest in going out."

Some Laws of Power and Some Habits of Highly Effective People wouldn't have the same ring, despite being more accurate

When creating new self-improvement techniques, we should strive to make 360-degree descriptions of the things we're purporting to address. For example, if you have a book titled The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, those seven should be free from want. There shouldn't be some highly effective person you encounter who has some Eighth or Ninth habit that isn't included those initial seven. Steve Jobs is a good example of someone who didn't really exercise those seven habits, but was highly effective.

Another term that lacks a 360-degree principle is happiness. You could take Martin Seligman's acronym PERMA for happiness:

  1. Pleasure (tasty foods, warm baths, etc.),
  2. Engagement (or flow, the absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity),
  3. Relationships (social ties turn out to be extremely reliable indicator of happiness),
  4. Meaning (a perceived quest or belonging to something bigger), and
  5. Accomplishments (having realized tangible goals).

However, you could find happy people who are lacking in a large portion of these vectors or whose happiness is built from different foundations. For example, lacking in that definition is the idea of opinion. If you believe that your life is good or that you are good, the thought itself is happiness for many people, even if they are lacking in felt qualities or subjective well-being. Or what about 6. Lack of over-thinking. Meditation can bring about a 50% increase in happiness in most people simply because over-thinking is such a common cause for unhappiness.

An example of something that does have a good 360-degree definition, though, is character. The Josephon Institute defines character as Trust, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring, and Community. What's brilliant about this, is that you can take nearly any transgression between two people, and reduce it to a violation of some combination of those six pillars.

When you have a 360-degree definition, then you can confidently make a self-improvement program. For example, if you did a self-assessment, realized that you were just lacking in trustworthiness and respect, if you worked on those, then would know for sure that you had good character.

The "wisdom to know the difference" between what to accept and what to change most easily comes from meditation

One of the common questions that comes up in meditation is in the following form: "If something bad is happening, let's say I see my children are fighting violently with each other, do I just meditate on it, and accept what's happening?" What you actually do is accept that this is the situation in front of you. You cannot avoid the reality as it exists in that moment. But meditation only goes that far, and therefore acceptance shouldn't be confused with approval. You accept that there is a fight in front of you, that it is not good, and you respond accordingly.

The difference between approval and acceptance may seem minor, but this subtle language difference is a common pattern in meditation. Oftentimes, meditation brings about a response that is perpendicular to the problem at hand. If problem and solution are arrows pointing in opposite directions, meditation often goes toward something that moves in neither direction. Coping is often in that gray area between problem and solution.

In cognitive therapy, one will also encounter that a fear of acknowledging the reality of the situation leads to distorted negative thoughts. And a common distorted negative thought is, "If I accept things the way they are, then it will make me okay with them." While it may be true that some element of non-acceptance feeds a stronger sense of disapproval, it comes at a price of sacrificing objectivity, and potentially harming yourself with exaggeratedly negative thoughts, likely making the problem worse.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People are the symptoms, not causes, of effectiveness

It's possible to read an entire self-improvement book, thinking you're learning a strategy for undergoing a particular transformation, only to realize you are reading a highly detailed description of someone already transformed. Consider, for example, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Do these seven habits describe how to become a highly effective person, or do they describe what highly effective people tend to exhibit?

For example, the first two habits (Habit 1: Be Proactive; Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind) are about the idea of principle-centered living. The logic is based on two points: 1) Highly effective people aren't torn between superficial and always-changing centers, like money or social acceptance; 2) Your principles are unchanging, and therefore are the best candidate for your new center.

The author, Stephen Covey mentions how his philosophy was partly inspired by meditation and Eastern philosophy. Wouldn't the better advice, then, be to meditate? That feeling of centeredness is a common symptom of regular meditation. That sense that our normal day-to-day lives are chock full of misplaced, always-fluctuating centers, is also a common symptom of regular meditation. Reading about meditation can provide vivid descriptions of this concept, but it won't illuminate it as clearly as actually engaging in meditation practice.

On the other hand, reading the symptoms of a highly effective person, and then emulating those habits, may be enough to elicit a placebo effect in the reader. The reader may feel changed, which could retroactively elicit the antecedents of those habits (i.e. believing you are centered may bring about the same mindful feelings that inspired Covey to write about that idea in the first place.)

The 90-10 Rule

The 80-20 rule is a magic rule of business that states that 80% of your business comes from 20% of your customers. After the invention of this rule, it was discovered that it could be applied to all sorts of aspects of business. For example, 80% of the work done in a business gets done by 20% of the employees, or that 80% of procrastination can be eliminated by doing the initial 20% of a task.

In self-improvement, there is a similar rule that isn't as widespread, and it's the 90-10 rule. I first observed it in Sonja Lyubomirsky's The How of Happiness. The book, which is a comprehensive survey of studies on positive psychology, states that 90% of people's happiness is determined by internal factors, like temperament and intentional happiness activities, versus 10% which is based on external factors, like money, good looks, etc.

This makes intuitive sense. We see unhappy millionaires and happy paupers all around, to the point where the money, clothes, good looks, etc. all seem like noise.

I also noticed the 90-10 rule in my cognitive therapy sessions. 90% of the time, my cognitive therapy sessions led me to attitudinal adjustments. For example, I would have a session where I would be upset at my social skills, only to realize at the end of it, that I was harping too frequently on my supposed faux pas. Nine times out of ten, a cognitive therapy session would lead me to correct a distorted thought.

One out of ten times, though, my initial reason for having a cognitive therapy session would bear some truth. I may start a session filled with social anxiety, replaying events from a party the night before. At the end of the session, I may then realize there are specific social skills I should work on, like not prying too much into other people's lives.

Perhaps a recognition of the 90-10 rule, in of itself, is essential to happiness. Some happy people, when quizzed about their philosophy of life, may say, "Happiness is a state of mind." Whereas some unhappy people, when quizzed, might talk about external factors. A common philosophy of happiness states that it's important to have "Something to do, something to hope for, and someone to love."

Believing that your happiness is tied to external factors may lead to a hedonic treadmill, though, where you falsely believe certain goals are supposed to make you happy. You then seek them, possibly achieve them, but then find out that the goal post has now moved further back. And then the cycle repeats itself.

The Momentum Theory of Happiness: Pursuing happiness is half of what it takes to be happy

Pursuing happiness is half of what it takes to be happy. This much has been proven by The How of Happiness and is the result of the self-perpetuating property of depression: depression has a way of inspiring further depressing thoughts.

So to bridge someone from an unhappy way of life to a happy one, a certain amount of persuasion is necessary (a happy person needs no convincing to perpetuate their happiness.)

One strategy is to describe happiness in terms of a means to an end. In Martin Seligman's Authentic Happiness, for example, the author suggests that the evolutionary purpose of happiness is social. Happiness draws people together for mutual enjoyment. So one benefit of happiness is that it'll make you more popular, and connected. Happiness also increases your energy and motivation. Pursuing happiness is therefore expedient.

Another strategy is to describe happiness as a measure of living a good life. When you are doing something that is consistent with your true self you feel better. Therefore the pursuit of happiness is indirectly the pursuit of better ways of living, and thus a worthy goal.

Once the person becomes happy though, such arguments become obviated as happiness becomes intrinsically motivating, and doesn't require rhetorical kickstarts.

The depressed fear that anti-depressants may inhibit their ability to solve their underlying problems, and yet depression is the biggest inhibitor of all

Coping vs. Solving is the central debate when it comes to psychotherapy, anti-depressants, and self-improvement. Do anti-depressants cure disease or do they just mask and postpone it?

We confront issues like this every day. When you have a bad day, what should you do? Should you soak in the hot tub with a bottle of wine? Should you engage in positive thinking? Or should you sit down and figure out why your day was bad and learn how to prevent it from happening again?

Everybody has their own pattern of responses, and they probably do a moderate amount of both. If they have a bad day, they turn on the TV a little to drown out the pain, and then maybe complain a little to a loved one. It makes the rest of the day go by more easily, and by complaining daily, they may eventually accumulate some sort of understanding of what needs to be done to fix their bad days.

There's a simple Roarsarch test for where you stand on coping vs. solving. First, consider the technique known as smile therapy. This espouses that you should, every day, spend some amount of time forcing yourself to smile. The process of doing so releases neurotransmitters in your brain related to the same kind of joy that would make you smile in the first place. Now, after knowing about this, are you going to do it?

Some people will naturally shake their head, objecting that smile therapy fakes happiness. That's a valid complaint, but then again you have to wonder which habitual coping mechanisms fake happiness or provide authentic happiness.

Some people would immediately embrace "smile therapy" thinking it's an all-natural way to find happiness. But then again, what if you're in an oppressive marriage that you need to get out of, you probably shouldn't use smile therapy to keep yourself in it.

The way to get out of this either-or pickle is to use the terms "causative redress" vs. "symptomatic redress." Causative redress is an attempt to handle what is causing the problem. For example, if you failed an exam and became sad, causative redress would come up with a plan on how to do better the next time.

Symptomatic redress is an attempt, as its name suggests, to deal with the symptoms. For example, if you failed an exam and became sad, symptomatic redress would imply exercising to relieve stress.

Some kinds of redress are both causative and symptomatic. For example, therapists argue that taking anti-depressants helps retrain your brain to behave more positively, which in of itself, helps you fix concrete problems in your life.

This then boils the coping vs. solving debate into a simple rule:

You should only apply so much symptomatic redress that it doesn't obscure or mask the opportunity for causative redress.

For example, if your marriage is falling apart, you shouldn't be drinking every night to mask away the pain—that would be escapism. Instead, maybe a nice jog into the wilderness will both relieve stress and help clear up your mind for positive solutions. Or maybe going to a religious service will give you a soft meditative high while also helping you reflect.

The paradox of self-improvement is much like that Escher painting. How can you change the hand that changes?

One of the paradoxes of self-improvement is that many methods require the undoing of the motivation that spawned the method in the first place. For example, let's say you want to improve your social skills. You may try for years with different techniques, such as positive affirmations or social comportment practice, but find that nothing seems to work. In some ways, you may find the effort to be counter-productive as it could re-enforce your social anxieties.

You may then, out of desperation, come up with a novel solution: accept your social skills. The result is that you are more at peace with yourself, which improves your self-confidence, and therefore your social skills. At the same time, though, your motivation to improve your socials skills is weakened, which could theoretically reduce your motivation to accept your social skills (since you were accepting yourself to improve your social skills.)

It seems that most self-improvement solutions involve changing the hand that changes, like that Escher lithograph of a hand drawing a hand. Most solutions involve re-configuring the same motivating forces that made you seek the self-improvement in the first place. If it wasn't recursive, though, it would just be called "improvement" and belong in a different section of the bookstore, like public speaking or legal self-representation. And if it wasn't so challenging, people would just will themselves to be different, and there would be no reason for self-improvement literature.

The pursuit of success is contrary to the cultivation of emotional intelligence

The pursuit of success is contrary to the cultivation of emotional intelligence. Emotions can provide insight into what is worth pursuing, or emotions can be used to motivate oneself or others towards those same pursuits. The ambitious, instead of using their emotions as thermometers, use them as actuators, whipping themselves or others into action. While someone could use their emotions for both, if it's a choice between achieving goals faster or pausing to reflect on those goals, the ambitious would choose the former.

The saying, "10,000 hours of deliberate practice is what it takes to become a master," is compelling because it reinforces our regret for having given up piano lessons

The ultimate career assessment test is to get out in the field, do the work of said career, and assess your happiness

You can read all the descriptions of a happy work life, but they may not really help you at finding one. If anything, it might make you more miserable with work for a couple reasons: a) You find more reasons to be dissatisfied or, b) You strive in vain to mold your work to be more fun or interesting, which further frustrates you.

You could read Drive for example, which talks about the importance of intrinsic motivation. The keys to fulfilling work are a sense of mastery, a sense of purpose, and a sense of autonomy. Autonomy can be broken down into control over three Ts: team, time, and technique.

However, perhaps these qualities should be read more like symptom report. If you are happy at your work, then intrinsic motivation and autonomy are the kinds of things you feel.

You could read up on Maslow's Ladder, about a hierarchy of basic human needs. Once you satisfy your basic needs for survival and your basic needs for self-esteem and pride in what you do, then you have to strive for self-actualization to be happy. But that may not actually help you in filtering for jobs that provide self-actualization.

You can't pull up craigslist, tap a drop-down, and choose self-actualization. You could take a Signature Strength test, but the results that come up--for example, that your signature talent is design--may not be a helpful filter on craigslist.

This matched my experience, whereby I knew all these the concepts from Flow, Pathfinder, _What Color is my Parachute, and Maslow's Ladder. I tried to manually sculpt a career with the ideal attributes and that led to years of frustration with so-called dream jobs that weren't. A good example is my stint as a video game designer.

Part of the problem is that if you already knew how the ideal job was shaped, you would already likely be there. Because the only way you'd know that it has the ideal attributes is because you have had some familiarity and success working in that field already.

Since we don't know what we don't know, the emphasis has to be on a process that will surprise you on your way to what you really want to do. Even just a little bit more emphasis on process instead of outcome can go a long way to leading you to the ideal work-life. Take this very simple process: Quit your job if you're unhappy. Then if your boss objects and offers you a position in a new department, take it. If not, leave the company and just sign up for the next best alternative. Repeat until you stop being unhappy.

In computer science, this could be called a "hill-climbing" algorithm, whereby you simply keep jumping to the next alternative until you finally wiggle your way to a good place. It should actually be called "blind wanderer" algorithm, because the computer has no pre-set notion of what the top of the hill actually looks like. It just knows when its on an incline or decline, and then proceeds accordingly.

To find intrinsically motivating work, one could commit to the theory and only apply to jobs when they feel like it

Reading a book about intrinsic motivation (e.g. Drive by Daniel H. Pink) is at least partially self-defeating. You could sit down and design your workflow to maximize intrinsic motivation, but that design process might not be intrinsically motivating. Job-hunting for an intrinsically motivating job is also often not intrinsically motivating.

You could imagine what an intrinsically motivating work would be, and then take non-intrinsically motivating steps to land a job in that kind of specialty. You would then do the résumé grind on a jobs board, and when you get a call-back, you jump on the opportunity. You are then grilled for 1-5 hours about your qualifications, but you probably won't get a chance to return the favor and interview the interviewers. You could then end up with a boss you don't care for or a project you have no interest in, even though your blueprint said it was going to turn out fun.

To do a pure-play intrinsic motivation, both the meta-work and the actual work would have to be intrinsically motivating. You could stumble upon the work in a spontaneous, organic, pleasing way. For example, you could have a random conversation with someone at the cafeteria about a job opening in another department. Or you could be working on a hobby, not realizing that your side projects could eventually lead to something.

Trying to find the meaning of life is much harder than just doing meaningful things every day

Answering the question, "What is the meaning of life?" is impossible, at the very least, because it's too universal: there's your meaning vs. everybody else's meaning. So the question should instead be transformed into something personal, and maybe more local. Instead of asking yourself, "What is my purpose?" or "What is my meaning?" you could ask yourself, "Is this meaningful?" or, "Is that meaningful?"

A simple syntactic change to the question can make the difference between boggling one's mind with depressing thoughts versus something proactive. Nearly everybody has at their disposal a handful of things that if asked about, they would respond with a deeply affirmative, "Yes, this is meaningful." And if that's the case, then the original question, "What is the meaning of life?" becomes moot.

While people fear life-hacking because they don't want to believe "anything is possible," that fear isn't necessarily irrational

Life-hacking inevitably causes a reaction in many people. Tim Ferris is the leading proponent of life-hacking, selling millions of books with chapter titles like, "How I Learned to Swim Effortlessly in 10 Days" or "Disappearing Act: How to Escape the Office."

But even without in-your-face book titles, some implications from psychology about mastery and work are still troubling. Malcolm Gladwell, with the book Outliers, popularized the notion of 10,000 hours being a common ingredient in the masters of any field, whether it's piano or tennis.

What's troubling to many people about these gurus is the idea that "anything is possible." For example, if you put away the piano twenty years ago, you don't want to be told later that you could have, through certain techniques, have cultivated a very high-level of skill at it. We are attached to our weaknesses.

On the other hand, this resistance and skepticism are healthy in some regards. If you believe that anything is possible (as long as you can find the right secret technique), it could lead you on wild goose chases through sham self-improvement techniques. Ultimately, you could become a burned-out seeker, when you would've been fine if you had just accepted yourself, and stayed within your comfort zone.

While we can all flex into a different persona now and then, it's cultivating new reflexes that ultimately count as true self-improvement

Some mental phenomena operate like muscles. For example, if you try to imagine a pink elephant, the image will appear immediately. However, if you try to hold that image in your mind's eye for longer and longer periods of time, it will eventually fade. It is almost like your brain is flexing, and to sustain the grip any longer requires increasing effort.

Discipline also follows a muscle-based pattern. Studies show that discipline is much like a reservoir. If you push yourself to do something now, it becomes harder to push yourself to do something later. Your general reservoir needs to recharge. In some instances, a compensatory pattern emerges, whereby someone works hard throughout the day, but then binges or splurges on other vices during happy hour.

Perhaps a similar process happens with method. When you first "psych" yourself up, you may get an initial boost of confidence. For example, if there are just a few minutes left in the game, and you tell yourself, "Come on, you've got this. This is it. This is your moment," the words will calm your nerves, increase your muscle strength, raise your adrenaline, etc. However, you can't do this throughout the entire game. At some point, the same words cease to have an impact.

Likewise, consider the onset of a self-improvement technique, like when you first read a self-improvement book. When you first apply the words to your life, the first couple hours or days may lead to increased self-confidence and effectiveness, which may be falsely attributed to the book's qualities. But then, eventually this reservoir gets tapped, and you're left in the same state as you were before you read the book.

The best lessons from self-improvement, therefore, create methods that have some of these properties:

  • They don't satiate right away
  • They don't require constant, sustained visualization
  • They are self-motivating so that they come up automatically without deliberate effort