Why Improving Yourself Is So Freaking Hard

And why you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself

Sam Cook

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Photo of a man in a kayak paddling in water. Green hills are in the distance.
Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

When I write about making a personal change — whether it’s a change in health, finances, or anything else — I make a point to emphasize that changes are hard, and you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself as you pursue them. We have a lot of guilt around our ability to change ourselves, and nothing feeds that guilt like a failed attempt at self-improvement. At some point, we’ve all had the experience of working hard to make a change, then slipping back into our old ways after some brief progress, and it often comes with feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness.

Why are we like this? I’ve thought about that question through many years of making changes for myself, and often struggling with the same tendency. Here’s how I look at it now, and what it reveals about why improving yourself can be so hard.

Imagine a small river running through nature. Over many years, it’s worn away soil, smoothed rocks, and pushed debris out of the way. It has cut out a path for itself, and gradually changed the terrain. That river is your baseline behavior. Like the river, the way you typically operate has altered your lifestyle, carving out a path that accommodates it. It’s a path that is now familiar, easy, and comfortable.

Because of that path, making a change is not a simple matter of deciding to do something different. It’s not just about “will-power” or “discipline.” You are changing the course of your river. You’re trying to divert your behavior away from a course — a lifestyle — that is far easier for you to follow than the new one.

And this is why we struggle with self-improvement. We are working against a current that’s not always obvious to us. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

  • You decide to start exercising more, so you begin going to the gym and doing an intense routine. But you don’t have rest and recuperation built into your schedule, so you can’t sustain it.
  • You want to spend less, but you haven’t found the right tools for managing your budget. So you don’t see where your money is going, and you’re frustrated that you’re still over-spending.
  • You want to diet, but you have regular social events where you typically eat and drink a large amount. Since you haven’t planned around those calories, you struggle to lose weight.

In all those examples, it’s not you that’s the problem. It’s that your lifestyle hasn’t had time to adjust to the change, and that familiar riverbed keeps pulling you toward your usual habits.

How do we overcome this problem for personal change? I think that deserves its own post. Follow or subscribe to get it when it’s published.

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Sam Cook

Former writer for Tested.com and Geek.com, currently a technology professional, teacher, and father. I write about whatever is on my mind.