As modern people, we love our self-improvement. We’re constantly absorbing articles, books, and videos about how we can better ourselves in some way. Yet if we’re honest about it, how much is that really helping? I don’t mean to suggest that its of no help at all, but proportionate to our consumption, it seems a weak remedy. The problem isn’t even really about the advice we might take in either. It may very well be perfectly sound, and good advice.
The problem is us.
We’re more limited than we know, or at least more limited than we’re willing to acknowledge. There’s perhaps a handful of things we can meaningfully juggle in our mind and put into action at any given time, and beyond that, the remainder falls off a very steep cliff.
So for example, when we read a dozen of these self-help type articles in day, however good those articles might individually be, most of what we read is liable to take a nasty tumble over that cliff, never to be heard from again. And that’s even assuming we don’t have other competing considerations in our mind already (our job, relationships, obligations, existential crises, etc.), which is almost never the case.
The short of it is that we’re terribly limited. I don’t just mean our focus either. There’s also our willpower to consider.
Most of our current habits exist precisely because they’ve become well-worn paths in our lives. Some of these might be good habits that we pursue to our benefit and other might be ponderous time-wasters, addictions, or even harmful behaviors which are devouring us in some form. These latter categories are most likely the ones that we’re trying to change, or even simply trying to summon up the desire to want to change.
It’s a nice bit of fiction to imagine that we’re going to go charging in with drums beating and horns blaring and retake all that lost ground in one decisive battle…
…but it simply isn’t so. It’s like pouring a bucket of water on the ground and expecting it to flow uphill. It’s just not how these things work.
Let’s say for argument’s sake that I’ve persuaded you that you are in fact limited in what you can give your effort and energy to at any given time. What does that mean for us then?
Whatever you can’t act on in is just noise
Many of us like to over-prepare and formulate elaborate plans for how we’re going to conquer the various mountains in our lives. It’s not wrong to figure out the lay of the land and get some ideas, but it’s often the case that there’s some beneficial small step that we delay in taking because we haven’t figured it all out.
To drive this nail just a bit deeper, the good that we might have done is squandered for the sake of the great things we imagine we’re going to do…eventually.
You’ll accomplish more if you’re not trying to accomplish everything
Prioritizing your focus will allow you to bring more energy to the things you’re focused on. It seems stupidly simple, right? It is! Sometimes we resist this kind of simple advice in favor of magical solutions.
The sort which offer to “revolutionize your life with this one amazing trick!” Forget the magical thinking! Forget the noise! Just pick the thing or handful of things (at most) that are going to have the biggest positive impact on your life and focus on that. Then as those things come together, turn your attention to the next thing.
Good advice is worth more than lots of advice
To put this another way, meaningful connections are worth more than a pile of information. You’ll commonly hear it said that you should “read as much as you possibly can!” This sort of advice appeals to the inner zealot in us who likes to imagine that success is only an information binge away, but I have a more modest suggestion which comes from an Orthodox priest named Fr. Thomas Hopko.
He wrote, “read good books, a little bit at a time.”
Now you can substitute the word “books” for articles, or videos or whatever your preferred means of ideological absorption is…
…but the principle remains the same. We often don’t even give ourselves a chance to make the kinds of connections that would reveal certain possibilities to us. We’re guzzling when we should be sipping.
You might be thinking that this is all well and good, but the big question is how do you go about implementing this in your life? As it turns out, that’s pretty simple!
Start by determining what your focus is. What’s the primary thing you’re wanting to accomplishing right now? Maybe it’s a project you’re trying to finish, or a negative personality trait that you’re trying to work on, or perhaps its some goal that you have in mind.
Beyond this you might consider up to 2 or 3 secondary focuses, but more than that just isn’t realistic. Content yourself to focus on just a few things.
Now that you have those things in mind, ask yourself, “what’s the next small step?” and “what do I need (or need to know) to accomplish that?” If there’s some information that you lack, then by all means, mend your ignorance. Otherwise, take the step.
Lastly, begin to filter out whatever doesn’t support or contribute to whatever your focus happens to be. There may be many terribly fascinating articles and great ideas, but remember, if they’re not facilitating your ability to take action, they’re not really helping you. They’re just more noise.
It’s so easy to get lost in all the various possibilities of what you could do or could become. Yet we have to be like a dog, fresh out of the bath and shake it all off. These are all abstractions…mere fantasy. The only thing that’s real is what we are or aren’t doing in this moment.
Chances are you don’t need more advice or information or inspiration for that matter to figure out what the next step is. You just need to silence the noise, and take it.