The Self-Improvement Trap

“The Power of Tiny Gains”

James Clear, author of the NYT’s best seller “Atomic Habits”, has done an amazing job inspiring and helping people change their lives by showing them how to develop good habits. It’s built upon the basis of improving 1% every day.

“If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.”

– James Clear

I’m a huge advocate for James Clear’s principles around habit formation. Amazing things get accomplished when consistent action is applied on the right things.

Hard work is not a substitute for good judgement

That’s the kicker though. Making sure you are applying the self-improvement principles on the “right” thing is key. Then having the wisdom to see when you are getting diminishing returns and having the judgement to change course. Without it, you’re in a trap. What James’ graph doesn’t show is the other side of the distribution.

In the real world, your improvement in one area will not go to infinity. It must stop somewhere.

Results are slow, fast, then end up slowing down. At some point, you get diminishing returns for the amount of time and effort you put in.

What happens next?

Results are convex to a point, then become concave.

The amount of time and effort to become 1% better outweighs the value gained. Opportunity costs rise as you miss out on improvements elsewhere in your life.

A fitness journey to build some muscle turns into a bodybuilding obsession, optimizing for muscle mass and sacrificing health.

A better way to maintain productivity turns into creating a complicated to-do system and a filled calendar, optimizing for “things done” and sacrificing happiness.

A path to a better mindset turns into meditating on affirmations for hours on end.

The moral of the story?

Get the 80/20 out of self-improvement and move on.

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