The Paradox of Self Improvement: Why “Over-Trying” Can Sabotage One’s Ability to Improve


Do me a favour - when you get into bed tonight, try your very hardest to fall asleep. You’ve probably tried this before and my guess is it didn’t go well. But how could this be? Aren’t we told all our lives that if you really want something you must to try your hardest to achieve it? I was and I believed it for a long time.

But this idea doesn’t map well on to our the reality of our daily lives. Ever had to solve a really complex problem? Perhaps a difficult decision surrounding an investment, job or relationship?

Was that key decision solved by increasing your effort to solve it? Did the extra effort assist you in choosing to take job A over job B? From my experience, the answer is most often no.

Effort and Productivity

The reason why is the “try harder” idea only works for very simple tasks like washing dishes, laying bricks, digging holes, moving boxes etc. These tasks have what economists call “linear productivity curves”. This is a fancy academic term that mean that if you put in 2 hours of work instead of 1, you’ll double your productivity.

For most of the work we do today involving complex decision making, productivity follows a relationship of diminishing returns. Meaning that your productivity will be exponentially higher in the earlier hours spent on a task than the later hours. Some studies have shown that office workers on average get more than triple the work done in the first 5 hours of the day than they do in the last 3.

The Strange Productivity Relationship of Personal Improvement

Paradoxically, for issues of self improvement, there is an “inverse relationship” between effort and productivity. In other words, the harder you try to be “a disciplined person” or “a hard worker” the more you will fail to be that.

This observation was first made by Viktor Frankl, the famous Jewish Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist. He observed that often we get in our own way through a phenomenon he called “hyper-intention” that is, focusing so hard on what you aren’t that you can’t become who you want to be.

The reason for this is because often our personal changes are framed in our identity rather than our behaviours. We think that we would benefit if we could just become a disciplined person when the reality is that:

There is no such thing as disciplined people - there are only people that have disciplined behaviours.

This distinction is the reason for the paradox of self improvement productivity. If you are “hyper-intending” to become an identity, you will notice all the instances where you fall short of that intention. This is because our identity is an emotionally charged subject. People want to see themselves in an admirable way so if you tell yourself that you’re not a “good” person if you can’t become a reliable person, you are setting yourself up for a heap of self loathing and failure.

How do we overcome this?

It’s relatively simple, care less about your identity in general. Stop thinking that if you wear this or talk like that you will become a particular identity. Honestly, it’s shallow and narcissistic to do so. Instead, realize that your behaviours are not you in your entirety. If there are some behaviours you need to change, then simply try to change them - don’t ruminate about how that changes your identity.

What you’ll find is doing this makes changing your behaviour much easier because you’ve removed the psychological friction that was in the way of your change.

In sum, change your actions not your identity.