I sit in the mental health/ wellbeing/ self-care/ mental fitness / self-improvement space.
As a result I spend a lot of time giving people advice on how to be happier or more productive or more satisfied with their life.
I’m also aware that I am not the only one.
The self-help section of most bookshops (print or online) is huge. On top of this our media and social media feeds are full of people wanting to sell us something to make our lives better.
It can get quite overwhelming.
First, there is this constant sense of ‘if everyone is telling me how to be a better person, then it must mean I am not good enough as I am’. That paradoxically can become a source of stress that keeps us from actually making changes in our life.
Second, there is simply more advice than there is time in the average life to action that advice. I live and breathe the wellbeing space and I am mindful of the fact that there is way more for me to learn about wellbeing/happiness than I could possibly digest in a lifetime.
So how can one strike a balance between making meaningful improvements in one’s life, whilst not becoming overwhelmed?
One way is having a good framework in your head for working out:
- what advice you hear is going to be appropriate for you, whilst filtering out the rest
- how to action the advice you’ve been given in your existing life
Here is how I do that. Keep in mind that what I’ve written below sounds quite robotic in its implementation. I assure you it doesn’t work as neatly in real life, but I have given a lot of thought to the topic and what is below helps me keep some kind of balance between the sheer volume of self-help information and what I am using in my own life.
- First, I consider that my life consists of a number of domains. Each of these domains can be independently rated in terms of importance and how well I think I am doing in that domain. Domains that I think of are:
- Study skills/learning
- Mastering emotions
- Caring for your body
- Thinking effectively
- Building positive relationships
- Helping others
- Self-awareness and understanding
- Meaning and purpose
- Maintaining personal safety
- Shaping your environment
- Work skills
- Financial control
- Unwinding and having fun
- Presenting oneself
- When I hear a bit of health or mental health advice, I try to mentally allocate that piece of advice to one of these domains. This helps me remember things better. For example, when I found the Farnam Street Blog, I noted that as a resource that fits in the category of ‘thinking effectively.
- I try, where possible, to only attend to information/advice that I think is coming from a reputable source. I’ve talked about this previously. This usually means information/advice coming from subject matter experts and found in peer-reviewed journals or from reputable organisations. I also look for ideas/concepts that seem to pop up regularly and repeatedly, across different sources. If multiple people/organisations are telling me that meditation has value, my personal interest in it increases.
- If I come across some health/mental health advice that I’ve already previously allocated to a domain and assessed as reputable, I don’t tend to spend additional time investigating it, unless it is related to a personal goal.
- In terms of what I pay attention to personally (i.e. what changes I am making in my own life):
- I particularly warm to advice/ideas that help me improve something I am already doing. For example, I have recently taken up yoga to improve my physical and mental health. When I come across yoga-related information I am receptive to it because I can build it into my existing yoga efforts. This is a good way to build wellbeing, which is to enhance existing wellbeing activities that you are already engaged in.
- If the advice is something that I don’t already do, but it seems like something that I could implement in my life relatively simply and quickly, I use the Tiny Habits approach to doing so. For example, at the moment, I am trying to develop the habit of using the time before going to sleep to think about 3 things I am grateful for that day, 3 people I am grateful for in my life and 3 things I am looking forward to the next day. This is another good way to build wellbeing, focusing on small habits that can be built quickly. At any given point in time, I am usually trying to establish at least 1 tiny habit. I keep a record of them in a Google doc. These small habits might expand over time to become bigger routines. For example, a small scheduling habit I used to set tasks for the day slowly became my whole planning approach.
- There are domains in my life (and I imagine in yours too) that are very important to me, but in which I don’t think I am doing well. These are the areas of my life that cause me the most suffering. They are also likely to require the most complex amount of input to improve. I find I have to be very picky in terms of what I take on in terms of advice in these areas. It is valuable to be working on these areas, but this work may be mentally and physically demanding, so I tend to limit it to one thing at a time. I strongly recommend that you have one activity in your life that is working towards improving your performance in a domain that is both important but in which you are not doing well. But be careful not to overload this area.
When I’ve added something to my life to make my life better, I try to commit to it for a decent length of time (e.g. couple of months for a daily behaviour) before making the decision about whether it is helpful or not. This is from experience that many changes take a while to yield positive outcomes.
I’m cautious about painting a picture here of me being the some kind of life-improvement master. I am most certainly not. I have started and stopped and failed on many life improvement projects. Yes, I’ve had a few successes and I am getting better at it as I get older, but my efforts at self-improvement look very much like the average person’s.
The more you learn about the process though, you’ll develop a personal system that works for you. Even a basic personal process for self-improvement will outperform random attempts. It will also help you filter through the vast amount of self-improvement advice that you are exposed to on a daily basis.