A quick look at some of my blog posts here over the past few years will tell you that I am all about self-improvement. I treat it like a hobby. Oh, you play video games and cross-stitch? Never heard of them. No, I’m working on myself, baby. I need to address all these yucky flaws in my personality. Therapy is expensive, and your girl here is a self-motivated self-improver.
But something has happened to me along the way. I don’t feel any better. I have made progress overall, but I feel worse in some aspects. I still feel like I’m not good enough, still feel like I’m constantly trying to keep up, still feeling empty and lost, like there’s something I still haven’t figured out.
After my epiphany in September about finding peace and doing things that made me happy, I thought I’d stay on that track. A foolish notion proven vain. After 32 years of living, I still haven’t figured it out. The pattern emerges again: I think I’ve figured it out and then come crashing down again when I fail. I haven’t found that Golden Answer we all seem to be seeking.
One can only appease the void for so long before it hungers again.
The Happiness Equation
I am not going to blame self-improvement books or gurus who specialize in productivity. I’m going to blame toxic productivity culture and our obsession with being just 23% more productive. We have to stay #OnTheGrind, gotta keep #hustling. What’s your work flow like? Are you doing these 83 things in the morning or are you a poor, unsuccessful LOSER? Productivity means meeting your goals and meeting your goals means being successful and being successful means you will be happy.
Productivity = happiness.
I’m performance-based and like to see empirical results. Self-help tactics and productivity strategies help me see results. Pomodoro Technique? Awesome. I didn’t know there was a name for the thing that got me through some of my college classes. Atomic Habits by James Clear? Bought it and love the core principles it teaches. Things successful people do? I’m certain if I can do all these vaguely-explained things that are concisely worded into bite-size paragraphs that belie the true nature of work involved, then there is nothing stopping me from being successful!
Journaling, meditating, exercise, healthier eating habits, supplementation and nootropics, practicing gratitude, getting enough sleep, habit-tracking, tidy workspace, time-blocking–if there’s a productivity hack or a “secret to success”, I’ve at least read about it, if not tried it.
A lot of these things have value, even things I would recommend for one reason or another. But have any of them made me happier?
No. Not even close.
I keep thinking productivity and self-improvement will get me closer to success, which will get me closer to happiness. After all, productivity IS next to godliness. Isn’t that how the proverb goes?
The problem is that nothing is ever that simple. I can’t keep up. I’m back in the same familiar places of dissatisfaction–perfectionism, getting bored with the things I do, lack of motivation, wondering if I really care about what I think I care about, general sadness and apathy for no reason.
It leads to a cycle of feeling bad for my perceived failures, becoming unhappy and discontent, and then turning to more productivity and self-improvement resources to motivate me back into doing things.
Lack of results + feeling unmotivated = feeling like a failure.
There’s Another Part to This Equation
The Fear Of Missing Out is a HUGE motivator to me, both unconsciously and consciously.
Thanks to social media, I can see exactly what all my friends, peers, colleagues, acquaintances, and favorite influencers are doing that I’m not. It creates a sense of jealousy and sadness within me.
Why can’t that be me? Well, it could be, first of all. They do things I don’t do, so why should I feel sad or jealous? If I want what they have, why am I not implementing the work ethic they have or making the sacrifices they made?
Second of all, social media is often contrived, if not downright fake. It’s not fair for me to compare my whole life to a cherry-picked, filtered highlight of someone else’s.
I don’t want to get rid of social media though. It has a lot of positives. I also justify social media as necessary for promoting myself and my “brand” as a writer, blogger, and YouTuber/content creator. Gross. I called myself a “content creator”. But, now that the phrase “branding yourself” exists, we all have to be conscious of our online self and how it aligns with our fucking “brand” and what we’re putting out in the world. It makes sense and I acknowledge the benefits–it just sucks and I hate it.
This leads to a constant pressure to be “present” on social media all. The feeling that if I’m not regularly posting or interacting, I am invisible according to the Almighty Algorithm. This is exacerbated when I see peers, or people I admire, flourishing on social media in the form of multiple projects and some form of “success”. I feel like I’m not doing enough by comparison.
If I could only do more, then I will be happy like them.
You can probably spot a number of fallacies and logical leaps in this thinking, but it hasn’t stopped me from feeling like crap and trying to uproot my entire approach so that I can re-do it in the name of being happier. That’s what it’s all about, right? Being happier. Somehow, I get from social media to feeling like I need to do more, thinking “this will make me happy!”
It never does though. Wonder when I’ll learn.
To sum this up another way:
Lack of results + feeling unmotivated x FOMO = really unhappy.
Productivity Isn’t the Solution Because It Isn’t the Problem
Being more productive isn’t necessarily going to help me when the problem isn’t that I can’t produce. It’s the cycle in that happiness equation. Lack of results leads me to feeling unmotivated, which makes me feel unhappy and unfulfilled.
I need to re-write the happiness equation. Because it has nothing to do with results or motivation.
Happiness doesn’t come from productivity. Hell, I’m starting to think it doesn’t even come from success for me.
I still want to create things, like writing for this blog, writing for my music blog, and making YouTube videos at a pace that even glaciers would call slow. I still have career aspirations and goals. But, I don’t want to live and die by the success of those goals. God, I’m sick of that. Though I am performance and results-motivated, I don’t want my happiness to be conditional on the outcome of these things I produce. And I DEFINITELY want to stop comparing myself to others, using them as a ruler for my own progress.
So here are some actionable items I have been implementing over varying lengths of time that are helping.
Stop trying to create on a schedule
Right now, what is working for me is not doing creative things on a schedule or time-table. Yes, I may want people to see this blog, for example. But I do not want to force myself to write out of obligation just to meet quota each week. I want it to be born out of love of the craft. That’s why I started doing it in the first place. Quotas and deadlines are creativity killers, at least right now.
One day, I can focus more on scheduling, optimizing my output, and social media marketing. Today is not that day. Today, I want to enjoy what I do. I want to be an expert in it and master the art of showing up, before worrying about if it’s being seen or making me money.
The reason I love writing and the idea of making video essays and streaming video gameplay is not just because I want to get thousands of views. That potential end result seems to cloud my vision because I conflate it with being successful. What if I could just enjoy the things I love without worrying if anyone sees it though? What if I just start there?
Do the thing I love to do because I love doing it. That’s it.
Deleting social media apps
I have switched to only accessing Twitter and Facebook on the desktop versions (or the mobile site counterpart, if I am convinced the world can’t live without a meme or cat photo). This method helps me control impulsive and mindless scrolling, while also making my sessions far more intentional and mindful.
I have deleted social media apps before. And yes, I ran right back to them because I was sad and bored. Worse than that, I justified that I “needed” the apps because it was easier to post pictures. In other Lies I Tell Myself, this totally wasn’t because the crappy mobile versions are ugly, slow, and hard to interact with. I’m sure it’s a total coincidence that the mobile and desktop versions of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are shitty and it drives you to download their app and be on it more.
What I’ve discovered since changing my approach to social media is that it’s truly underscored the lie I had been sold by “experts”. I don’t need to be on multiple times a day to be successful as a writer or YouTuber. Networking will absolutely help you in creating a “brand”, but there are better ways to use social media. After all, it is just a tool. I can schedule posts or dedicate a set time once or twice a week to posting. I don’t need to be addicted to social media to get any benefit from it!
Keep an open-ended task-list of next steps and “one thing”
I have two task lists on my phone that are sort of like a “soft schedule”. They function as reminders for everything I want to do, whether it’s chores around the house, bigger projects I want to tackle, or creative things. I don’t set dates or deadlines. I just use it as a storage space for my thoughts so my anxious, inner voice doesn’t harass me about it. It’s on the list! I know about it. I will get to it when I have the energy and time.
I also have a similar version that I will sometimes write down in my journal to help me categorize everything and process it. I have split into Career, Hobbies, Physical Health, Mental Health, and Tasks/Errands.
Whereas in the past, I would set goals and deadlines and be upset when I couldn’t hit them, this is just more like a gentle reminder if I want it. What was I working on? Oh yeah. Here it is. What do I want to focus on in this area? Got it. Back on track.
What really helps is seeing my “next step” . The next step is just what I need to do next to make progress in what I am working on. It not only helps focus my intentions when I pick a thing to work on, but it really helps it seem less overwhelming.
Remember the “moments of joy”
Happy is just a mood; it’s not a constant state you can be in. But moments of joy–doing the little things that fill you with light as often as you can? That’s attainable.
Things that give me light are: creating things of my own (writing, especially), connecting with others, music, and time for myself/fun. I don’t want to do these things on a rigid schedule or do them for any other reason except myself. Not every hobby or passion has to have some greater productivity goal or monetary value. The value is that it exists to edify me.
Beyond that, moments of joy are what make life worth living. These things might not be the meaning of life, but they give your life plenty of meaning.
I’ve really devalued this over the years, but it’s so crucial. This looks different for everyone. Personally, I take more of a hard stance on what self-care is–it’s anything that helps you take care of yourself. It’s not always beautiful, Instagram-worthy, fun, or “feel-good”. Something like eating a bunch of cookies and watching Netflix for 3 hours isn’t really taking care of myself. It might take care of my mental health or feel good in the moment. But more than likely, I will feel worse after I’m done.
While I do believe in making time to decompress or take care of myself in more “relaxing” ways, the kind of self-care I am talking about here are things that might not feel good right away but are good for you. Exercising, eating well, keeping up with my skincare routine and oral hygiene, going to bed at a decent hour.
It’s not glamorous. It sometimes sucks. It’s definitely the harder route than just eating a whole pizza and melting into the very fabric of the couch, but it’s worth it. I definitely feel better in the long run when I commit to self-care.
Productivity had nothing to do with any of these steps. I kept trying to shove it into my happiness equation because that’s the lie I have been sold. That equation is bullshit.
Here’s a new one:
Moments of joy (connection, creation, fun) + self-care x manageable goals= contentment and satisfaction. Or something like it.
I’m not great at math–and I’m even worse at metaphors–but, I’m getting better at finding the solution.