Improve your mind without losing it.

As human-doings, we’re always striving for self-improvement. To optimize our minds and our time, we listen to motivational podcasts at the gym and meditate on breaks. In our ardent desire to “get there,” however, sometimes we rush through the miraculous opportunity to live for today. If it feels like self-help is becoming a hindrance, here are a few reminders to keep you growing without going insane.

1. Reframe Mindfulness
A recent New York Times article, “Actually, Let’s Not Be In The Moment,” argued that mindfulness has become “a special circle of self-improvement hell” where we have to be “constantly policing our thoughts.” The practice, the author argues, is “likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments” and sometimes, “we should be grateful that our brains allow us to be elsewhere.”

If that’s her definition of mindfulness, no wonder she’s not a fan. While it is tempting to give in to the endless escapism provided by our creative minds, you are reading this because you refuse to resign yourself to a life of powerless daydreaming.

The good news is that escape is always available in the present moment. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, we have the ability to retreat into ourselves whenever we so choose, for there is nowhere more quiet or with more freedom than our own souls. Nothing’s wrong with a little wandering, but remember that there is no such thing as future happiness and nostalgia is often the pain of not being able to keep things the same.

Mindfulness, after all, is a practice, not a goal. When we bring out the thought police to berate us over every inattentive moment, the struggle can make our brains backfire. Put the baton down. Instead of viewing mindfulness as an evil force working against you, look at it as a gentle guide, there to help you shift back to the here and now. Even if the moment is not a “privileged” one, it is better to be alive in the present than lost in the future or left in the past.

2. Be The Tortoise, Not The Hare
Try to focus on one improvement at a time, whether it is practicing daily meditation or ridding your mind of negative self-talk. It sounds obvious but concentrating your focus can be difficult when there is a shelf full of unread books peering at you from across the room whispering, “I’m the one that will change your life!” There is always going to be a next thing. By giving yourself permission to slow down and apply one thing at a time, you’ll not only be able to reap the full benefits of the task at hand, but you’ll keep your desire to improve burning strong.

3. Put Down The List
Don’t keep lists that only serve as a reminder that you’re not doing enough. We all have lists of “meditations to try” or “books to read.” Unless you’re regularly checking off items, continuous additions will overwhelm. This goes for the literal books on the shelf, too. If they’ve been gathering dust for over a year and you haven’t read them, or your first thought upon seeing them is, “I really should get to these,” donate them.

But what if I want those books in the future? There’s always the library. If it is that important, you’ll remember the title. As for the list making, if you absolutely have to write something down, do so with a deadline in mind and delete it if you haven’t read it after a month or two. Giving yourself a time frame will force you to take action or act as a reminder that your “must-do” really wasn’t that significant in the first place.

But what kind of person grabs the trash bag when handed “The Secret” to life?Feeling resistance is normal. After all, books are symbols of who we want to be. Know that you’re not giving up hope for your future self; rather, you’re getting rid of physical and mental clutter so that you can focus on the present. You’ll be amazed at how much lighter you feel.

4. Self-Improvement Doesn’t Always Equal Downtime
If yoga or meditation truly feels restorative, then congratulations! If you are using either practice to make lists of things you will do when you finish, however, it’s time to reevaluate. The point is not to quit down-dogging or meditating (keep going!) but to make sure you’re giving your mind some additional free-time.

But that’s such a waste! Much like sleep, downtime gives your brain a chance to break from the day-to-day struggle, solve problems, and is vital for keeping you inspired. Even with good intentions behind it, over-optimization blocks off access to creative parts of the brain. Whether your free time involves Netflix, reading fiction, or just listening to some music, that pause will allow your mind to enter a looser, analytical process and find options that were previously inaccessible. Quite simply, you’ll grow because of your downtime, not despite it.

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