The under-appreciated ritual of avoiding improvement

This post is especially for those who are always trying to improve their business: Improve sales, improve productivity/processes, or just improve the energy you have to do it. You know the advice, right?  “Work ON your business, not IN your business.” Always have an eye on building & adjusting & improving whenever possible and as much as possible. I absolutely do agree that’s a great plan—

Until it isn’t.

I think it was the morning I was listening to a guru podcast about tips and tricks to get more done, while walking on a treadmill, while thinking to myself, “Maybe if I put some sort of calming visual on the TV monitor it would be a little like meditation.”

Cue the sound of the needle screeching across a vinyl record.

I have a lot of respect for the Japanese concept of kaizen—continuous measurable improvement—for all businesses, all the way down to the solo practitioner, author, or coach.

It’s the small adjustments we make every day, rather than the huge ones, that can most help our businesses be peaceful, purposeful and profitable. Not being a person for whom order (mental or physical) comes baked right into the DNA, I’m constantly building in bite-sized improvements.

An hour to adjust colors and categories in my Google Calendar. Coercing myself to do an end-of-the-workday ritual. Scheduling a rest period into the middle of the day, with a reminder notification (which tells me, “Rest or Die. No Kidding.”)

Continuous measurable improvement. It’s a good thing.

It’s not the “measurable” or the “improvement” I’m addressing with this post; it’s the “continuous” part. Because all of us, at one time or another, will rebel against it.

We’ll wake up one morning and think, “My brain feels like overcooked linguine.”

We’ll look at our daily plan and feel irritation rising that we can’t see any white space behind the obligations.

Our shoulder muscles will be knotted already at 8:00am.

We’ll take that magazine article “10 Ways to Crush It with Your Business Marketing” and shred it into pieces the size of a thumbnail, because running it through the paper shredder is too gentle a fate for it.

We will have a powerful, almost impossible-to-ignore desire to go back to bed and read mindless fiction. Or go to the zoo.

I have a particular warning sign that always makes me laugh at myself: It’s when I find myself obsessed with going to work out instead of starting my work day.

As in, “I can’t possibly start working yet, I simply must be on the rowing machine for an hour first.” Now that’s a clear signal.

I, and many of my people, sometimes try to over-kaizen. Are you one of them?

Look at the number of articles you’ve saved to read.
The zillion bookmarks in your web browser’s bookmarks.
The business books waiting to be read, or stacked on the shelf with a sheaf of post-it notes marking the critical places.
The online workshops you’ve signed up for in the next few weeks. The unreviewed notes from the ones you’ve taken in the past few weeks.
The notes you’ve written yourself in your planner/calendar: Fix this. Learn that. Do more. Be more.

Late in 2018, I’d reached this point myself. Going to bed feeling vaguely like a failure, grinding my teeth at night, finding myself frowning at Tim Ferriss and David Allen in my newsfeed… It was too much.

So I took a week off self-improvement. In that week, I stopped consciously trying to get better at anything in my life. For a week, I stayed right in the present moment.

For a week,
my diet was perfectly fine,
my income was perfectly fine,
my productivity level was perfectly fine,
my business was perfectly fine,
my exercise habits were perfectly fine,
everything was fine. I made the choice, and so it was.

I set no new intentions.

I didn’t even check up on any previous ones.
I just stayed in my body, took good care of whoever I was scheduled to work with already, and existed right here, right now, not ranging out into the future or mourning the past.

No business books on the nightstand. No newsletter or blog post reading. No liking, sharing, replying to social media. No online groups or coaching or classes. No Facebook except for furry animals, pictures of sunsets, and Good News Network.

I’ll write more about what happened later. It takes a little explaining and I’ve kept you long enough today.

For now, I’ll just ask: Reading the above, did you resist? Did you get the feeling that the world might stop turning on its axis if you did it yourself? That everything in your life, work, and society might go to hell in a handbasket if you take your foot off the gas?

Or did you feel relief that you might safely be able to take a little time and just be who you are today for a while?

I’ll leave you with this, if you’ve been feeling over-intentioned, over-improved, over-booked, overwhelmed:

Taking some time away from that, even a day or a week, will be a calming, surprising, and—yes—productive time indeed.

No handbasket required.

2 replies
  1. Carol Watson
    Carol Watson says:

    Thank you for this. Too often I / we get caught up in constantly striving for improvement and don’t enjoy the ride. I recently saw a video from Goalcast. It was a commencement address at a college by who I believe was a British comedian. He spoke of 9 life lessons and how by focusing too far ahead you might not see the shiny thing out of the corner of your eye. The same applies when we bury ourselves in all the “must-do” and should do” notes that litter our desks and clog minds. Sometimes it’s best to say and believe that we’re good enough.

    • Margaret
      Margaret says:

      Totally agree, Carol. I was suffering from ever-escalating stress, and I thought it was my work. It wasn’t really — it was from the never-stopping-treadmill of needing to constantly grow, improve, fix, adjust… Taking a break from all of that gave me great clarity.


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