Why self-help can’t save you

In 2014, I became interested in personal development: that includes self-help and productivity. I was reading all these articles (such as this one) on influential people earning their success to self-help and productivity methods. I read books on how to improve everything and anything about my life. I watched more inspirational videos than I would like to admit. Within a few months, I had a morning routine, a bedtime routine, five different to-do-lists, a vision board, daily positive affirmations, and took yoga classes. Long story short, I was hooked. I became a productivity and personal development junkie.  This went on for several months and gradually took on a life of its own… to the point that it became burdensome. I grew insanely frustrated at the slow pace of my personal development. I would read all these articles about successful people, whom all had in common “doing yoga 5 times a day” or “writing in their journal at 4am”. Meanwhile, I had a morning routine AND a bedtime routine: why wasn’t I on Forbes 30 Under 30 list yet?! (Or on any such list really). Hence, I decided to add more steps to my routines and write longer to-do-lists. Surely, success would not hide from me much longer.

And then one day, my to-do-list almost killed me.

Fast forward to an afternoon of November 2014. It was the height of essay season at my university. My beloved to-do-list was guiding my steps through the ocean of papers I had to write. As I am running around the library, carrying a dozen books, I received a notification from my WunderList App. I started panicking because I realized that I was severely behind on my to-do-list of the day and my productivity would suffer if I did not increase my pace. So here I am in the library, (literally) running after productivity. When suddenly, I missed a step when walking down a staircase and fell down 20 flights and saw my eyes flash in front of my eyes.

“A fractured ankle. A couple of bruised ribs. 3 weeks in bed and she’ll be okay” the doctor at the hospital said a few hours after my fall.

It was a bit dramatic of me to say that I ‘almost died’, and I don’t think I saw my life flash in front of my eyes either. But I was definitely not okay.  I was hysterical because I had things to do in order to become successful, and not being able to walk was not helping my plans. Once I was able to walk again, I went back to the to-do-lists even more aggressively, trying to make up for time wasted… but I had burned out of positivity. My vision board was no longer a source of motivation but rather an aesthetically-pleasing reminder of everything I was yet to achieve.The positive affirmations, the books, the inspirational talks felt useless. I was not prepared for this. There was no ‘how to keep living when personal development does not work anymore’ blog posts. There was no ‘7 steps recovery program for failing productivity addicts’ either. I soon realized that I was putting too much energy in doing the routines right, but left out the most important thing about productivity (and personal development): YOU DON’T HAVE TO FINISH THE TO-DO-LIST.

I repeat: you do not have to finish the to-do-list. I know this is the opposite of what all these self-help articles say, but then again these same articles write that Steve Jobs, Oprah and Bill Gates all own their success to doing yoga at 5am *roll eyes*. The advices given by these articles can be misleading as they tend to attribute all the success to a set of routines, without acknowledging the hard work behind. The trap of productivity and personal development is making us believe that being productive alone, will get us where we want to be. Productivity is only 10% of the job: 90% is resilience and unwavering belief in the hard work you provide. Even if you ‘fail’ at sustaining routines and finishing to-do-lists everyday, it’s okay because your talents will not go away. Your insights are still valid. Your intelligence is here to stay.

I wanted to share my story (as ridiculous as it is) in the hope that it can help someone in a similar situation. Focusing on personal development is important but it can lead us to fall into certain traps that I think we should all actively avoid:

The ‘death by to-do-list’ trap
For others, self-help has led us to always do the most, to the point where it is counter productive. That’s what I call ‘death by to-do-lists’ which is a trap that many fall into. This was my case and I am still striving for BALANCE every single day. So far, I have not ended up on a hospital because of a list again, so I think I am doing all right. The best advice that I can give you though, is to take it one day at a time and then be done with the day: don’t torture yourself on what more you could’ve done. Tomorrow is another day, that you can look forward to in time. But tonight, we give thanks & we rest.

The ‘Forbes 30 under 30’ trap
I have always dreamt of appearing on ‘Forbes 30 under 30’ list: to me it’s one of the highest public acknowledgment of success. I became obsessed with the idea, to the point where I thought what project could get me on this list one day, which was unsustainable. Because what happens once you make it on the list? Or if you don’t make it? Life does not end once you have achieved an intended outcome or reached a goal. That’s where I feel personal development can be a trap, because it’s always by goals ticking and bucket lists etc. which makes us forget how to enjoy the process on the daily. Whether it’s the Forbes 30 under 30 list, or anything else, we should not be attached to the outcome more than we enjoy the process.

The #GOALS trap
We spend a lot of time talking about our dreams and goals, instead of actively working on them. We make it all pretty on vision boards, and tweet so much about it, that it gives us a false sense of completion. However, there is no substitute for hard work. Positive affirmations is here to keep you going mentally or spiritual, but it does not replace the actual sweat, tears and blood that come from putting in the work.

The dependence trap
One of the scariest thing about self-help, is that we can become dependent on seeking help and motivation from books, podcasts, talks, seminars etc. To the point that our own voice is no longer first. It’s good to ask for help, but the whole point of SELF-help, is to be of assistance to oneself, and not completely rely on a personal development guru to guide you. The books, the workshops, the podcasts, the TedTalks etc… these are great resources, but only you have the answer to what is right for you. So don’t kill yourself trying every routines out there or following a million of tips and advices. You can do great just without. 

As I am still trying to find balance in my personal development journey, I cannot tell you what to do, but I can share what I have learnt so far in the hope that we can help each other! 

Thank you for reading and riding with me,