The Improvement Trap

Dune daisies bathed in morning light.

This past month I created a challenge for myself: For five days a week run for 15 minutes, swim for another 15, do five Sun A and Sun B salutations, and finish with a 20-minute meditation sit. I did this not so much because I wanted to improve my physical health, but because I realized I have been running a low-grade depression. For me, movement is my go-to medicine when I notice I’m feeling this way. Movement affects not just my body but the way I feel and think. I also enjoy the high I get when the heart starts pumping faster and I sweat.

I came up with the 15-minute pattern because I can do anything for about 15 minutes without much resistance. I figured I would have less resistance this way. I wanted something I could break down into easily achievable bits of time.

As I come to the end of the month, I noticed a couple of things. Those days I exercised, I felt better. When I followed my program on consecutive days, my mood lifted. Overall, my plan has worked and I’m feeling better.

Here’s the other thing I noticed. Two weeks into my challenge, I started using an app to track my runs. I wanted to see how fast I was going and the distance for each run. My original plan was just to time myself for 15 minutes. I used the app for two weeks and realized that by the second week, I was beginning to hesitate on my runs. I wondered about this and realized I was checking my speed and distance and trying to go a little faster and farther each time.

As I started my fourth week of the challenge, I went back to my timer and ran without noticing how fast or how far I was going. I definitely enjoyed my run a lot more. This experience shows me how easily I can fall for what I call the perpetual improvement trap. It’s something that is hard to avoid in our culture of track everything to make it better. It’s not enough to do something, we are encouraged to do it better the next time every time.

Although there may be some good in the notion of improvement, the trap of improvement is more about not enjoying what we have done and achieved and not savoring the moment because it is not enough. The trap has an addictive quality to it.

This notion of not enough is definitely a poison that rids us of the joy of doing for the sake of doing and enjoying the process just as it is. Improvement may happen when we don’t track, but it is not necessary for us to engage with joy. In the end, I think joy works much better for me than the sense of always trying to improve something or myself.

As I come to the end of my challenge, I’m happy with my movement challenge without tracking and will continue through July. How about you? What are you doing to take care of yourself? What are you learning as you do? These sorts of questions are good to ask, especially when we ask them with the gentleness of care and not with the compulsion of perpetual improvement.

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