Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Friday, June 4, 2010

Stop Me Before I Improve Myself to Death!

A friend I haven't seen in years once shared something she'd read in Reader's Digest, about the impossibility of putting into effect all the suggestions we receive for self-improvement.  The article, as she summarized it, listed a plethora of instructions, each of which would require only so many specified minutes per day, and all of which proclaimed their indispensability to anyone wishing to live wisely and well.  They included the kind of urgings we've all seen, to exercise 20 minutes a day, to meditate 20 minutes a day, to spend 15 minutes decluttering, to spend 30 minutes talking meaningfully with one's life partner, to read to our children for 20 minutes, to spend 15 minutes on the kind of mental activity that could stave off Alzheimer's, to devote 15 minutes  to keeping in contact with friends, to spend 30 minutes preparing nutritious meals at home, etc., etc.  The kicker was that the total number of minutes required to operationalize these requisite directives was more than those available in a 24-hour period!  And they didn't include attending to elimination, and other essentials.  Obviously, something's got to give!

I noted in yesterday's post that I am in danger of increasing my overall stress levels by assiduously applying stress reduction methods.  As I thought about this through the day, I became more aware of how my procrastination recovery process has inadvertently exacerbated my tendency to overuse of self-help and self-improvement resources.  My tendency has always been to hit the library, and now the internet, when in the grip of any problem or challenge in my life.  And so, in pursuit of the unprocrastinated life, I have been reading, and reading, and reading some more.  And the improvement posture has not stopped with learning about procrastination and time management--as if I hadn't already spent a good deal of time doing so in the unimproved past.  No, I've gone on to read and learn about how to decrease my hypertension; how to deal mindfully with depression and anxiety; how to reduce stress; how to deal with grief, stimulate creativity, defeat writer's block, declutter my house, be "greener," become a multisport athlete, be a wiser parent, etc., etc., etc.

Taken to its worst, this form of mania fosters the already out of whack "doing mode" referred to in the mindfulness literature.  Our gurus in this arena would have us learn to spend more time in "being mode."  There is a fine line between acceptance and sloth, in my experience, and I've had difficulty finding it.  And I've had almost no experience in trying to do without overdoing.  And that is what meditation and other mindfulness practices have to teach me.  "Piling on" solutions and programs is, I believe, unlikely to lead to sustainable satisfaction with how I'm spending my days, and living my life.  In itself, it amounts to flight from the anxious feelings generated by past procrastination, as well as by a move in the direction of giving up that familiar response to feeling overwhelmed.  But it is short and ill-fated flight, the predictable crash resulting from too many planes in the air, and poor traffic  control.    

I am clearly not the only reader/viewer in America with this predilection.  Our bookshelves, private and public, community and commercial, print and virtual, sag under the weight of advice.  Some write of self-help addiction, and of how reading about self-improvement can be a way of procrastinating.  It is certainly a way of generating income--$8 billion a year--for what has become an industry in its own right, according to Steve Salerno, author of Sham:  How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless.   Micki McGee's Self-Help, Inc.:  Makeover Culture in American Life explores the cultural underpinnings of this nearly perpetual pursuit of the personal upgrade, in socioeconomic inequities and personal dissatisfaction in a consumer culture.  In McGee's view, what one reviewer called the "obsessional treadmill" of self-help mistakenly treats as individual and correctable flaws, problems that are systemic in our society.  

But whatever the impulse, I am presently brought to the recognition that I cannot simultaneously commit to an 8-week program for moving mindfully through depression; a 45-day plan for rewiring my brain to deal with stress, anxiety and depression; a "strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play" of unspecified duration; a 31-day schedule for reclaiming my home (and my sanity); and an 11-week sprint triathlon training program.  I need to slow waaayyyyyy down, and stop reading self-help books for awhile, and resist the temptation to read about self-help (Ooo, maybe I could find a "strategic ten-step program" for overcoming my addiction to self-help books!).  I will incorporate small thoughts from the materials I've already read, without adopting any more wholesale package approaches.  My brain will have to limp along for the time being with the wiring I've got, and whatever improved pathways are created by my efforts to live more fully and more peacefully.  My house and my sanity will have to depend on the attentions I can spare on a daily basis, and the wisdom I can glean without signing on to yet another cult of change.

I'm getting off the treadmill, for now.

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