Mind & Body

Minimalist Self-Improvement

Self-improvement isn't about reading books, it's about consistently doing the thing that will make a difference
TIMEDecember 12, 2021

I think of self-improvement as a subcategory of philosophy. It deals with some of the most practical questions of life, the kinds of questions that any person intent on living well will ask themselves from time to time. Questions such as, “What are some goals that are worth aiming for?” and “How do I change myself and my habits?”

This is good stuff, but I think there are two traps that any would-be self-improver should be aware of. The first is the very real possibility that you might aim for the wrong target. Self-improvement is no magic pill. Many smart and ambitious people throughout history have used their impressive self-improvement powers to become ugly humans. To truly improve oneself, you must make sure that the direction you are moving toward is better, and not just different.

The second trap is the temptation to become a self-improvement junkie. I’m sure you know people such as this in your life. They are always reading about how to change, but so rarely changing. They know all the techniques, but so little of the practice.

The rest of this article will deal with the problem of the second trap—how to avoid becoming a self-improvement junkie. The approach I’d like to share is one that I’ll call “minimalist self-improvement.”

Are You Procrastinating or Improving?

As I mentioned above, there’s a real temptation for some of us to get sucked into reading about self-improvement all the time so that it becomes something of a hobby. I think the reason for this is simple: reading about self-improvement gives you much of the initial pleasure of changing your life without any of the demanding aspects.

As long as we’re making plans to change or reading about the best ways to change, we don’t have to begin the hard part. And so, reading about self-improvement can be a kind of procrastination.

The first step in changing this behavior is simply to recognize that it applies to you. That’s it. Just notice that what you are doing is daydreaming, rather than real thinking. Notice that the practice is pleasurable, but not actually productive.

The goal of minimalist self-improvement is to spend as little time as possible in the “researching” phase, and more time in the “application” stage.

Counter Self-Doubt With Simplicity

One of the main reasons why people turn into self-improvement junkies is self-doubt. They want to change, but they don’t trust themselves. They assume that most other people have some special knowledge or skills that they don’t possess, and so they keep searching and searching for the key to magically eliminate the struggle.

It’s true that change is hard, but it’s also surprisingly simple.

Some human disciplines really do require special knowledge accumulated over time. Take medicine or engineering, for example.

But for most everyday human pursuits, there is no special knowledge. The path to improvement is beautifully simple. You just have to do the real thing. Over and over again. Find the one or two habits that really matter and focus all of your energy on doing those things well.

For example, if you’re not happy with your general health, you might be tempted to read 100 blog posts or a dozen books on the latest theories of human health. But unless you are already exercising 20 to 30 minutes a day, you don’t even need to do that. Just start exercising. Don’t miss a day. Do that for six to 12 months and see how you feel.

This simplicity can be applied to almost any endeavor. Identify the one or two practices that deliver 80 percent of the results, and then focus on those.

Take Simple Ideas Seriously

The power of minimalist self-improvement is that it removes the false sense that we’re doing real work by merely reading about how to change. Minimalist self-improvement eliminates the excuse that improvement isn’t possible because it recognizes that self-improvement is mostly about taking simple ideas seriously.

The chances are you already know exactly what you need to do in order to improve a certain aspect of your life or character, you just haven’t stuck with the plan long enough to see results. Or you keep changing the plan along the way. As cliche as it sounds, it’s not rocket science, it’s consistency.

Once you start making a little progress, or showing a bit of consistency with your one thing, you’ll probably be tempted to add something else. Or maybe you’ll want to do more research on how to do that one thing better.


Just keep doing that one thing. Do it well. Do it with focus. And do it for a long period of time. The true magic of minimalist self-improvement is giving yourself a consistent target and a long runway. The real magic is the magic of consistency.

When this habit becomes so deeply ingrained in your life that you can’t imagine your routine without it, only then should you consider adding something else.

What’s a simple idea that you can start taking seriously today?

This article was originally published on This Evergreen Home

Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.