Why Your 2020 Self Improvement Journey Needs to Start Small
“Confine yourself to the present.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Taking it Slow, Even if You Have Nothing But Time
Boredom has a way of driving people to find any means available to quell it. And during the age of COVID-19, boredom is an abundant resource.
While some flock to episodes of TLC’s scandalous show 90 Day Fiance, clad in bathrobes and eating DoorDash delivered takeout (and no shame meant here-we live in a stressful time), others are posting about the infinitesimal hobbies and skills they are attempting to learn in the midst of the lock-downs. Would-be learners are gathering in droves to free language learning apps like HelloTalk as well as programming education sites like Code Academy to pick up a new marketable skill to enhance their lives or buff up their resumes. Personally, I’ve bought a LingoDeer subscription and have taken it upon myself to dedicate at least a half hour each day to studying Japanese (as of this writing, I’m on a 29 day login streak). I’ve also been exercising at least an hour 5-6 days a week and have seen some fairly impressive results within a month. Which, speaking of weight loss, the “Quarantine Transformation” is apparently trending; there are countless YouTube videos, Instagram posts and TikToks made by people who’ve lost weight and undergone massive changes in their physical fitness while locked indoors.
The particular sort of existential dread conjured by the overhanging threat of the pandemic as well as the surplus of free time many of us have on our hands can be overwhelming. Even in times of peace and prosperity people still tend to feel the fear of death seep into their bones and motivate them to make something of themselves in this short time on Earth. Under the current circumstances of 2020, where the news seems to bring word of a new calamity each day, the sense of urgency culminates into a horrible state of anxiety. The best way to cope with the unstoppable change of the new decade seems to be changing ourselves.
Self improvement is never a bad thing; however, it is prudent to remember the timeless wisdom of Daoism practitioner Laozi: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. The virus seems to be on track to last throughout the rest of 2020 and will seep into 2021 before a vaccine is made-therefore, there is plenty of time to change. Many, many miles can be traversed between now and then. Rushing will only burn yourself out.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
On "Quarantine Transformations"
One of the main modes of self improvement is the arena of physical fitness. As Socrates once said, “No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training…” Our bodies are our forever homes, so it makes sense that reinforcing our fleshy architecture is a chief concern of many. This unfortunately leads thousands of people each year to seek out fad diets and extreme workout plans that inevitably fail.
As per the American Cancer Society’s official website: “According to the National Institutes of Health, however, diets that severely restrict calories or the types of foods you can eat usually fail in the long run. Most people quickly tire of them and gain back the weight they lost or even more. In addition, fad diets often fail to provide all the nutrients your body needs”. There is no end to the number of “Two Week Shred” and “Beach Body Ready” weight loss programs that try to sell an impossible ideal of Herculean self improvement in a brief expanse of time. While some testimonials do prove the effectiveness of these programs for some individuals, for most people the methods utilized are just not sustainable for everyday life.
Within the realm of fitness, as with any facet of self improvement in one’s life, the key to progress is to take a single step towards it each day. Imagine, for instance, how silly it would sound if a company offered a course online that promised fluency in Mandarin Chinese in two weeks (granted, it would not be surprising if such a suspicious offer did exist). Studying a subject takes a few hours a day; weight loss should take at most an hour of investment per day to yield viable long term results.
Our Short Attention Spans Predispose Us to Gradual Change
So, if it’s been established that permanent results require incremental changes, how can they be implemented effectively? Well, the answer lies in the tenth word of the above sentence; they must be incremental. There are a bevy of methods employed in a variety of fields, from studying to piano playing, that advocate for practice in increments of no longer than an hour, followed by intermittent breaks. One prominent study on attention spans shows that “...participants who took a short break while focusing on a visual task maintained the same level of performance for 40 minutes, but performance declined for those who didn't take any breaks...” Even if a person managed to focus their attention on a particular task for several hours one day, that doesn’t guarantee that they’d be able to keep up the pace over an extended period of time. I myself have gone through a number of fad diets, new hobbies and pasttimes and through all these failed attempts I learned that new habits can only be established if they are both sustainable and done in manageable parts over a long period of time.
It's All About the Journey
The desire to meliorate certain aspects of ones’ self is admirable. Self-improvement should be a priority in everyone’s lives. And, while this year’s circumstances are quite stressful and not ideal, the amount of free time they have given some of us can be conducive to a newfound sense of determination. That being said, change can and should proceed gradually if it’s meant to last. There is much to be said about enjoying the journey itself and not ruminating too much about the destination.
Of course, if one would rather sit back with a cup of coffee and watch Netflix instead during these trying times, that is perfectly fine too.