On A Self-Improvement Kick? This Is Hardly the Time.

Thanks to a prolonged state of global crisis, our brains aren't primed for productivity. We're better off reclaiming joy where we can get it, writes Sophie Chandler.

When the lockdown began in earnest, I immediately started making lists: goals to achieve; new hobbies to try; at-home exercises; a daily routine; recipes to cook – adding more and more heads to the beast I consider the ‘ideal self’, but it hasn’t quite worked out.

It's not surprising; I’ve been a long-time member of the cult of self-improvement. My Google search history is a series of ‘how to wake up at 6am’; ‘learn to play harmonica’; and ‘tips for daily writing’. Daily is a common keyword for me, after all: ‘the trick is to do it every day!’.

The constant need to log my progress, count steps, and work harder has sapped the joy from many hobbies I once loved. About a year ago, I downloaded the drawing app, Procreate – but it immediately became a means of achieving the perfect Instagram grid. I became trapped in the paradox of ‘practice makes perfect’ and ‘nobody's perfect’.

It’s especially challenging to be your best self during a global pandemic. In fact, I’m probably at my least-efficient and creative now – and that’s been really hard for someone like me. But there’s another reason (a good one, too!) why I’m failing to be my most productive self at the moment: my brain. Specifically, my prefrontal cortex.

Career coach and author Alexis Rockley recently explained how our brains are coping in the current circumstances through a series of enlightening tweets, and it's done wonders in helping me to reconcile my failures of not propagating the perfect winter vegetable garden.

A slowdown in routine has given me the space to question where this self-appointed need for constant progress has come from. The idea that we need to constantly upgrade ourselves is fed to us by society, but why do we buy into it? "In a consumerist society, we are not meant to buy one pair of jeans and be satisfied," write Cederstrom and Spicer in their 2015 novel, The Wellness Syndrome.

Let’s not forget that self-improvement is a tool of capitalism. By 2022 the self-improvement market is projected to be worth a whopping $13.2 billion; that's a lot of self-help books and exercise bikes. 

Of course, self-improvement goes hand-in-hand with wellness. Wellness is the hot new trend, and the internet is rife with it. Morning routines, 'what I eat in a day' videos and those 25-step skincare routines all present this idea that it’s possible to lead a picture-perfect life. Don’t even get me started on the myth of the Summer Body.

Social media’s preaching of the ‘perfect life’ has extended to the ‘perfect lockdown’ too. From week one, there’s been an influx of articles: ‘how to make the best of lockdown’, ‘new hobbies to learn’, the list goes on. Most of them tell you to 'slow down!' .. while also building the sideboard of your dreams, writing a book, weaving plant hangers, exercising and starting a small business. And while the intentions behind these articles are often good, it feels unsolicited, and a bit judgemental.

Inconsistency, constant fatigue and general lack of caring about stuff we normally would dedicate a lot of our energy to are all symptoms of chronic stress, something Alexis Rockley says we can blame on the pandemic. Our brains are in a prolonged ‘fight or flight’ state, and this is not conducive to productivity. 

So rather than self-improvement, maybe we should spend this time reclaiming joy from small things: evening walks, books and just being with our friends. But learning to live in the moment, that will take time. As someone who is all too often obsessed with ‘the next step', I feel obliged to offer some kind of parting wisdom.

William Storr, author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, says there's value to acknowledging an unhealthy relationship with expectations, that doing so "leads us towards ... a better way of finding happiness. Once you realize that it’s all just an act of coercion, that it’s your culture trying to turn you into someone you can’t really be, you can begin to free yourself from your demands." 

Written by Sophie Chandler. More from her here.

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