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Little by Little or Big Push?

Strategies and goals

Over the past few weeks I’ve been through a major effort to go through all of my earthly possessions and get rid of everything I really don’t want or need. I used the “In what kind of realistic situation would I actually want to pull this out and do something with it?” test to decide what needed to go, as mentioned in my recent article “Some Tips for Getting Rid of Things.”

The things I set aside to get rid of went to a variety of places, some like the ones I mention in my article  “Clearing Your Mind by Cashing In.” Many items went to ReSource, a terrific local non-profit that provides a household good reuse store, building materials reuse store, and other departments while creating jobs and teaching job skills. Other materials were sold through Craigslist, given away through Craigslist and Freecycle, and set aside to be sold on Amazon and eBay. Of course our trash cans and recycle bin were also given a thorough workout.

The process, which is still in progress for me (I still need to finish going through books, primarily), took much longer than I would have imagined–but it also yielded a lot more things to sell or give away and freed up a lot more space than I would have imagined. Best of all, it has been taking innumerable little pressures and worries away: things I’ve held onto to fix or reuse somehow that I finally realized were trash, projects of going through things that are now done, and so on. Physical clutter can create mental clutter.

Coming to the end of this big push, I now have to ask myself: would it have been a lot easier on me to do this little by little over time? Or did I need to do it in one big push to do it at all?

The big push approach
The big push has some significant up sides. One of the biggest is that I didn’t have to reorient and remind myself of what I was doing every time I restart, which meant I could work efficiently. Another is that I could attack one part of the house, pull out everything in it, and take over as much space as I needed until I had sorted through all of that material. I also was able to easily keep focus on the job once I had started.

Yet another thing I like about the big push is the sense of accomplishment and catharsis. The change in my house was drastic, fast, and visible.

When doing a big push, it’s generally necessary to plan in advance and carve out time during which not only do you not have your usual responsibilities to attend to, but you won’t be badly distracted by other things you could do with the time, like socializing or relaxing. Big pushes generally require clearing the schedule, locking the door, and unplugging the phone.

The little by little approach
As great as the big push is, little by little has one killer advantage, which is that big pushes have a bad habit of never happening. For instance, if I were to wait until I actually had time to go through every piece of paper I own to get my papers organized, there’s a good chance that would literally never happen. Going through my things has taken about five full days so far–and I do mean full!–and that’s not counting the time I still need to put in selling off some of the things I’ve identified to get rid of. Being able to take that amount of time for organization alone was a rare opportunity, one that I jumped at, and for me, such opportunities come along often.

Another advantage of the little by little approach–and this too is a major plus–is that doing something consistently makes it into a habit. This is very useful for things that we’ll need to keep up once we get to our goal state. For example, if I were to do a major landscaping effort on my yard, doing it little by little would get me in the habit of working on the yard, which would be important to keeping up everything I had done in the initial effort.

Deciding on which approach to use
So if you’re facing a monumental project and are trying to decide whether to crank it out all at once or to do it little by little, here are some questions to ask yourself and some ideas to guide you based on those answers.

  • Does it need to be done at all? Even though the project may be a worthy one, are you willing and able to devote the time it will require? For instance, it might be nice to send Christmas cards to 200 people this year, but is that project high enough in your priorities to be worth the time it will take?
  • Does it need to be done very soon? If so, you may have no choice other than a big push.
  • Is efficiency of the essence? Big pushes tend to be more efficient than going little by little because of not having to stop and restart.
  • Are you going to learn as you go? When doing something little by little, you have a chance to reflect on and refine your methods. This can lead to great improvements in how you handle your project.
  • Can you free up the amount of time a big push will need? If not, little by little is your only option.
  • Will this be something you’ll need to maintain once the initial work is done? If so, little by little can do a better job of helping you develop the habits you’ll need.
  • What if the project goes over? For most large projects, estimates are more guesswork than reliable prediction. If you were to set aside an amount of time for a big push and at the end find you needed twice as much time, what would you do? On the other hand, if you were going little by little and found out the project would take twice as long as you thought, would that push completion too far away into the future?
  • Will you be getting help? Some help is better suited to big pushes, as with decluttering or physical labor. Other help is better suited to a little by little approach, as with processing documents that arrive through e-mail or working with people who don’t have large chunks of time available.

Whatever your approach, connecting with why you want to do the project will help you remain motivated.

Photo by druid labs

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7 Ways to Find Supporters and Partners

Strategies and goals

Following up on my last article, “How Supporters and Partners Help Motivate Us,” here are some ways to find people to help your efforts toward reaching a goal.

  1. Friends and family. It’s not unusual to hide goals from friends and family members, especially goals to fix things in our lives that aren’t going well, for instance getting fit or decluttering. But specific friends or family members who are likely to be sympathetic to our aims–even aims we’d usually keep private–can provide a welcome source of encouragement, feedback, and in some cases inspiration. People you know who are working toward the same goal you are can be especially helpful.
  2. Local groups. The more common a goal, the more likely there are groups to help you succeed in it. Professional associations, Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, writers’ groups, and other organizations can be invaluable. In most cases, it’s preferable for the group to include or be run by someone who is already successful in the area in question.
    Three good places to find local groups are the yellow pages, local daily and weekly newspapers, and www.meetup.com, a free resource for finding and forming local groups.
  3. Cognitive therapists. Cognitive therapy can be particularly useful not only in helping work through emotional problems but also in clarifying goals and priorities, clearing away conflicts, and becoming more effective in life. Until relatively recently, far more emphasis in psychological research and practice has been put on people with serious difficulties than on what is now called “positive psychology”: building on strengths and realizing potential. In the last decade or two, this tide has begun to turn, creating much more awareness of therapy as a means to pursuing our better selves. Kari Wolfe contributed an article on this site that gives a good introduction to cognitive therapy, “What in the World is Cognitive Behavior Therapy?“.
  4. Professionals. Depending on your goals, there may be professionals who can help you succeed: organization specialists, fitness trainers, coaches, and others. Both with these kinds of professionals and with therapists, it’s worth putting a good bit of effort into research, as a truly bad fit can be worse than doing nothing at all, but a very good fit can yield benefits far beyond the expected.
  5. Classes. You may not necessarily need more education in the area of your goal, but if education is useful to you and available, getting involved in a class–whether it’s pursuing an MBA, taking a class offered through your local community, or even in some cases taking a course online–can provide connections to people who are care about your goal and can help you move forward.
  6. Online groups and forums. Online groups in many cases don’t offer nearly as much human contact as groups that meet in person, but they can be easy to access and are often large, active and knowledgeable. They can be a source of support and camaraderie online as well as a possible way to meet people who can become friends in person. One excellent example is the free online fitness and weight loss site, SparkPeople.
  7. Events. Events that focus on your goal area can be a great source of new contacts, ideas, friends, supporters, and colleagues.

Photo by foreverdigital

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How Supporters and Partners Help Motivate Us

Strategies and goals

Recently a reader commented with this useful question: “How do I find people who can support me in reaching my goals, whether by encouragement, having the same/similar goal or even a goal of their own? Are there any tips you can offer regarding how to tell people that I’d like to work on a goal?” In this article, I’ll talk about how other people can fit into your plans for achieving your goals. In the follow-up, I’ll talk about specific ways you can find supporters and partners.

First, it’s worth mentioning some of the benefits of support and buddying up:

  • More resources for information and help
  • More reminders of what you’re doing and why it’s important
  • People to cheer you on and help boost your mood
  • An “audience,” people to witness your progress, making you less likely to just silently let your goal slip (although if you get very anxious about other people’s opinions, this may not be a good option for you)
  • Sometimes, models to emulate
  • Sometimes, companions to do things with
  • Opportunities to maintain a feedback loop, to make it easy to reflect on how you’ve been doing and how you could tweak your approach for the better
  • Increased social time in general, which even if it has nothing to do with your goal tends to improve mood (see “Want to Reduce Stress? Increase Social Time“).

People can help you in a variety of roles:

  • mentors are skilled at doing whatever you’re trying to take on and can provide specific help and guidance. A mentor could be a friend or family member who has already done what you’re trying to do, a specialist like a personal trainer or professional organizer, a therapist, a coach, a teacher, etc.
  • partners want to achieve the same goal you do and can get together with you to work on it. My belief, although I don’t know of any research to back this up, is that partners who are at about the same place you’re in work best, since you two are likely to face similar challenges, and you’ll neither be discouraged by the other person being far ahead of you or impatient at the person being far behind.
  • groups get together on a regular basis to share ideas, witness each other’s progress (or sometimes lack of progress, because occasional failures and setbacks are a normal part of pursuing a goal), offer encouragement, and otherwise help keep each other on track. Online groups generally offer discussion and support without meetings, which adds flexibility but takes away the structure of a regularly scheduled check-in.
  • role models can be people you know or people you’ve only heard of, and have achieved what you want to achieve. Role models offer the opportunity to learn how to successfully reach a goal and a clear reminder that it can be done.
  • supporters include anyone who can make a constructive contribution to your progress by helping to provide information, encouragement, or discussion.
  • competitors are other people trying to reach the same kind of goal as you who inspire you to work harder. Some of us respond well to competition and some don’t. If you’re someone who does, then trying to be the most successful person in your weight loss group or to get an agent before any of your other writer friends can be a good way to stay motivated.

There’s also one group to avoid: detractors. This includes anyone who will get in the way of you achieving your goal, whether or not they mean well. Anyone who encourages or excuses your bad habits, distracts you with things that prevent you from making progress, or actively tries to disrupt you through badmouthing, scoffing, unkind comparisons, or other tactics is worth avoiding if possible, keeping out of the loop if it’s not possible to avoid them, or ignoring if it’s not possible to keep them out of the loop.

Photo by Wootang01

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Control, Direct Influence, and Indirect Influence

Handling negative emotions

Social circles of influence

In previous articles in this series, we took a look at Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed, asking When Is It Time to Make a Change?, and when it is that the best solution is Fixing a Problem By Leaving. In today’s article, we’ll look at the kinds of power we have to make changes happen.

Control
When we are able to make changes, it’s important to understand how much impact we can personally have. The most direct situation is control, when we can change something by acting alone. Most of the articles on this site are about situations where we can have some control, like organization, fitness, building new habits, and how we relate to other people. This category includes things that feel out of control, but where the real choices are within us. For instance, I was overweight for many years and didn’t feel in control of that situation. As I learned how to manage my own body better, though, I began to lose weight, and eventually lost more than 60 pounds. Although I wasn’t willing or able to take charge of the situation for a long time, the control still lay entirely with me.

Influence
Many of the situations we tend to worry about aren’t directly under our control, however, for instance how our friends and partners treat us, whether or not we receive promotions or contracts, or how much help we get from others. Problems with situations like this can often come up in our minds as should statements, such as “I shouldn’t have to do this without help!” or “I deserved that raise!” or “It’s not fair that it’s raining the weekend we were supposed to go camping!” (A note: “should statements” don’t necessarily contain the word “should”. A should statement is any thought or declaration declaring a need for someone or something else to do or not do something.) Should statements are a common example of a broken idea, a type of thinking that creates unnecessary trouble. To regard situations where we have influence only and not control in a healthy and constructive way, it’s important to come to terms with the possibility that things may not turn out the way we want them to.

Direct influence
Situations where we have influence come in two flavors: direct influence and indirect influence. Direct influence means that we can take specific steps to try to get the thing done. For instance, a person who wants a raise can usually go to his or her boss and request one, and someone who wants to be treated better by another person can confront that person.

Indirect influence
Indirect influence means that we can only take actions that encourage the results we want, but can’t control them or even push for a decision. Some examples of indirect influence are practicing more in order to have a better chance of winning a talent contest or writing letters to a representative to encourage a particular vote.

Social influence diagram by Bruce Dupree, via Anne Adrian.

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Can We Expect Other People to Help Us?

The human mind

In their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, sociologist Nicholas Christakis and political scientist James Fowler look at what it means to be a human being in terms of our interpersonal networks. One of the topics they take up is an examination of how selfishness, cooperation, and altruism interact, which helps answer the question in the title: can we expect others to help us?

Christakis and Fowler take results from experiments around the world with three games. In the “Ultimatum Game,” two people are given an amount of money (for instance, ten dollars). Person 1 makes an offer to split it with the other, offering anything from a penny to a 50/50 split to handing over the whole amount. Person 2 decides to reject or accept the offer. If Person 2 rejects the offer, neither person gets anything.

The “Dictator Game” is similar, except that any offer is automatically accepted. All the power lies with Person 1.

In the “Trust Game,” Person 1 can give any amount to Person 2, and that amount triples, at which point Person 2 can give any amount back. If both cooperate completely, they each get more than the original amount. If they don’t, someone gets screwed.

I won’t go into the experimental findings in detail, but instead will head straight for the conclusions Christakis, Fowler, and others draw from the results. Based on the mixture of selfishness, cooperation, trust, mistrust, and other attitudes demonstrated by subjects in these experiments, they identify three types of people: cooperators, loners, and free riders.

Cooperators tend to trust more, are more helpful to others, and are dependent on other people trusting and helping in return. Loners tend not to trust and try not to depend on anyone else. Free riders take advantage of cooperators to get whatever they can for themselves without offering anything in return.

A cooperator in the midst of other cooperators thrives. A cooperator who runs into too many free riders gets screwed. A loner is less successful than others if everyone else is successfully cooperating, but isn’t in danger of being taken advantage of by free riders. A free rider thrives when cooperators let things go, but runs into trouble with a sort of cooperator sub-type that Christakis and Fowler dub “Punishers.” Punishers are willing to exert some effort to penalize people for not cooperating or for taking advantage of the system.

In the ultimatum or dictator game, a cooperator might offer half or close to half of the money to the other person. A loner in the trust game will assume the other person is going to take advantage and act defensively. A free rider will take the most money available regardless of consequences to the other player. A punisher in the ultimatum game will refuse an offer that seems too low even though this would mean both players lose out.

What’s fascinating to me is that according to Christakis and Fowler, a society is made up of all of these types, but the proportions of each are constantly shifting. There appear to be times and places where cooperators spread, which might eventually attract free riders, which in turn will attract punishers and perhaps turn some of the cooperators into loners. If loners are everywhere, then some might band together and be more successful by cooperation, starting the cycle over. During each separate phase of this cycle, which might last for some time, there are different opportunities and dangers, and the question of whether help is likely to be available is answered differently.

So when looking for help in our lives, there are questions we can ask ourselves. Are we given to cooperation, or do we tend to do things on our own? What about the people around us? And whether or not a person tends to help in one area suggests a lot about whether that person is likely to help in another. For instance, a person who gives money to public radio is also more likely to volunteer to help you move or to give you directions if you’re lost. A person who works in a kind of job that emphasizes getting as much as you can, like a stockbroker or auto salesperson, is less likely to trust and offer help to others–though of course it’s inaccurate to make blanket statements about people on this matter; these are just general observations that are often true.

Regardless, making these kinds of observations about yourself and the people you’re connected with can help provide insight both about what you’re contributing and what you can expect from others.

I’ll post a full article on the book Connected some time in the next couple of weeks.

Photo by Michael Kalus

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How to Make Self-Motivation Easier, Part II

Strategies and goals, Uncategorized

 geese_at_dawn

In my previous article, I offered four ways to make self-motivation easier, and talked about stacking up advantages ahead of time instead of waiting to come face to face with a difficult situation. Here I’ll cover five more ways to make self-motivation easier: building up enthusiasm, being more mentally and physically prepared to face challenges, getting help from others, learning, and minimizing temptation.

Visualize and find your enthusiasm
When things are going well, I’m not distracted, and I have time to think about what I want to do, I’m often in a good state of mind to improve my motivation, but by definition these low-demand times tend to be ones when not much motivation is needed. I can build up motivation for harder times by using these opportunities to visualize where I’m trying to get and by otherwise spending time thinking about and especially enjoying my goal, whether I’m reflecting on successes so far, enjoying progress, envisioning future payoffs, or planning ahead. The more time I spend thinking positively about my goal, the more accessible positive thoughts about it will be when I really need them. For instance, if I’m trying to learn to play a musical instrument, I can visualize myself playing it and remind myself why I’m putting in all the hard work.

Take care of yourself
When we get enough sleep, exercise regularly, eat well, and use techniques like meditation to aid mood and mental focus, we’re much more capable of being proactive in our lives than when we are tired, inactive, badly nourished, overstuffed, or carrying around a lot of stress. Mood and physical well-being have an important impact on making good decisions, so everything we can do to improve them will tend to improve  motivation, too.

Get support
Connecting with a friend or family member to talk about your goals, the problems you’re running into, your plans, and your successes is a good way to keep your goal more in mind and to process your thoughts about it. Having someone in your corner can also make it more important to to do well and provides more options if something starts going wrong. A person trying to quit a bad habit can go talk to a supporter when temptation seems particularly strong. Someone trying to get a better job can talk through their plans and strategies if they have a sympathetic ear.

Read, learn
Reading about subjects having to do with our goals serves several purposes at once: it gives us more information to use when making plans; keeps our goal more in our mind; lets us try on others’ ideas; and serves as a physical reminder (whenever we see the book) of what’s being accomplished. Someone trying to get fit can learn a lot from books about nutrition and exercise, like The 9 Truths About Weight Loss. Anyone trying to change habits and running into emotional resistance can benefit from books like Emotional Alchemy, The Feeling Good Handbook, or A Guide to Rational Living.

Minimize temptation
Finally, minimizing temptation can be a real boon, at least in the short term, for anyone who’s really struggling with making the right choices. If you’re working on spending money wisely, you can take any savings you have and put it in a CD or some other instrument that makes it difficult or impossible to withdraw for a time. Someone who’s trying to quit playing video games can actually sell the games rather than hanging on to them to play just a little bit now and then.

This approach is a bit of a crutch, and the problem with relying too much on it is that when a situation comes up where there is temptation–for instance, when the person working on spending gets a tax refund, or when the former video game player is staying with a friend who has a top-notch video game system–the strategies to deal with the temptation may not be very well developed. But like all of these strategies, minimizing temptation–if not relied on absolutely–can help make everything simpler.

Photo by James Jordan

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How To Do Something You Don’t Know How To Do

Strategies and goals

garage_sale

You would think a garage sale wouldn’t be difficult to figure out. You prepare a little, you advertise, you put things on card tables, you wait. I’ve been wanting to help my son set up a garage sale of a lot of things he’s outgrown, where he could be in charge and receive the profits, but I’ve been stopped by the idea that I can’t. I live in a fairly rural area, on a dirt road that doesn’t get any traffic. I’ve been held up by this idea that we should have a garage sale, but I don’t know how to set it up so that people will actually come.

I was thinking about the garage sale this morning and once I really turned my attention to it, I realized the idea that I didn’t know how to make it work was ridiculous. We will either have a garage sale or we won’t. If we do, we’ll either have it here or have it somewhere else. If we have it somewhere else, we just have to figure what lucky friend is going to get us taking over their porch or garage soon, and ask permission. The only reason I’ve been thinking “I don’t know how” is because I haven’t been wanting to face it. Garage sales take preparation, which I don’t feel like I have time for, and they last a whole day, which I definitely don’t have time for, and what if no one shows up and all of the effort is wasted and we still have the things left over? It’s not that I don’t know how to do it, it’s that the idea has been making me anxious. Dealing with anxiety has a lot to do with facing things and answering questions. A few simple answers sorted my situation out. We should have the sale, because my son will enjoy earning the money and will learn about money from it, and because we need the room the old things are taking up, and because it’s a waste to have them here if we can get them to someone who will actually use them. We should have it here so that he can mind the sale and I can do the other things I need to do, checking in with him regularly. And we’ll attract traffic as well as we can by putting signs out on the main road right near us, which will probably give us more custom than we would get in a suburban neighborhood.

Your something may not be as easy to figure out, but there are several useful ways to do something you don’t know how to do. So, what are they?

1. If you really can’t do it, move on
If you really have no way of accomplishing the task in front of you, even after reading the rest of this article,  then the problem isn’t doing the task: if you honestly can’t do it, then it’s not your responsibility. Instead, the problem is facing the inevitable consequences of not doing it. This requires a difficult but powerful tool: surrendering to reality.

The same situation applies if the only way you can do the thing in question is to not do something more important. For example, if the only weekend we could do the garage sale was the only opportunity we’d get for some time to see family members visiting the area, then we’d need to give up on the garage sale. Fortunately, there are often more options than there seem to be at first, which is what the rest of the article is about.

2. You don’t have to do it if it doesn’t need to be done
Sometimes we resist doing things because they really don’t make sense for us to do. If it were for me instead of my son, I probably wouldn’t have the garage sale at all, because the amount of money it brought in wouldn’t justify the time. Instead I’d donate everything to a local recycle shop, which would sell the items to lower-income people for very affordable prices. If you feel concerned about how you’re going to tackle a problem, make sure first that it makes sense for you to do it at all before you start worrying about how.

3. Do it differently if there’s a better way
Sometimes difficult problems become much easier if they’re approached in an unexpected way. If you have something you’re worried about doing, consider whether there are other approaches you could take that would simplify things. If my son had a few major items and otherwise mostly things that would sell for next to nothing, he could sell the major items on eBay or Craigslist, still learning about money and reaping the rewards, and we could give the rest away to the recycle shop.

4. If it can wait, improve your position and then do it
Some tasks need improved skills before they can be done well, in which case a combination of practice and patience will put you in a much better position to get the thing done, provided it can wait. Keep in mind that research overwhelmingly supports the idea that practically anyone of at least average intelligence can excel at almost anything if they get in enough deliberate practice. If I were worried my son wouldn’t do a good job of running the sale, we could spend some time doing pretend sales and finding educational computer games about buying and selling to help him learn. We’d have to decide whether the sale was worth the effort and whether we could wait that long to get the unneeded things out of the house, but it’s possible the effort spent learning about money would be more than worthwhile.

Other tasks benefit from a change in situation. If I were going to move in the near future to a location that’s better for a garage sale, I might store the sale items away and have the sale there once we’d moved.

5. If it would work better with help, get help
Sometimes a little advice or active assistance from a friend, family member, mentor, or even a hired professional can go a long way. This might be as simple as getting a better idea of the task from someone who’s done it already, or as involved as finding and hiring a business manager for your new venture if you’re great at the core activity of the business but not so great at marketing, accounting, and the other general business tasks. For example, I probably have friends who have things they’d want to sell too, and a two- or three-family garage sale might attract more people.

6. If it works best to do it now, just do it the best you can
If it needs to be done, if there aren’t good alternatives, if others can’t really help, and if it’s best to do it now (due to ongoing problems, limited opportunity, a deadline, etc.), then you’re in the same place I was: face things and provide answers. If you don’t know the answers to the questions, get the best information you can and answer them as well as you can. If you’re having trouble facing things, it’s probably due to broken ideas, which means it’s fixable.

7. If you know what to do but don’t feel motivated, get in touch with your reasons
Of course, it might be that when you think about it, you realize you really do know how to tackle this goal, and it really is an important one, but you don’t feel inspired to get in motion. If that’s the case, it can help a lot to get in touch with your real reasons for accomplishing the goal. If they’re someone else’s reasons, or if you’re just trying to fulfill expectations or fit some role, then it may be that it’s not such a good goal for you after all. But if the reasons are your own, get in touch with them: write down what made you decide to do the thing in the first place, or visualize what it will be like to do it–or to have gotten it done.

Regardless of what approach you take, remember that “I have to but I can’t” is a logical impossibility. If there’s really no way to do it, you’re off the hook: no one can make you do something you truly can’t do. If there is a way to do it, all you have to do is figure out whether you’re going to decide to, and if so what the best way is. There’s not always a good way, but there is always at least one best way. I hope you find yours. As for me, I have to help my son go sort through some old toys.

Photo by m.gifford

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How self-help helps everyone else

States of mind

 rescue

The term “self-help,” while it’s accurate and useful and descriptive, drives me nuts. Even though we definitely help ourselves when we use self-help resources, neither word in the term is very appealing: “self” implies that we’re doing something “selfish” or “self-centered,” and “help” implies that by ourselves, we’re damaged or insufficient to the task. Taken together, it kind of sounds like a combination of personal weakness and lack of concern for other people. The reason this drives me nuts is that this is the exact opposite of what good self-help does. Really good self-help does help the person who’s doing it, but it’s often even more beneficial to the people around that person.

Sounds like a weaselly self-justification, doesn’t it? Well, if I do my job well in this post, you’ll feel as comfortable as I do that it’s anything but.

First, we all probably realize already that anyone who’s having a lot of personal trouble tends to require help from those around them. If we want to be a positive force in the world, the first task is to not be a drain on it, which means taking care of our own most pressing personal issues so that we can contribute something rather than requiring other people to contribute to us.

It’s also useful to realize that “self-help” is for the strong but imperfect. Perfect people, none of whom I have ever met, don’t need any kind of improvement. The rest of us can either help ourselves, wait for somebody else to help us, or never improve.

With those things established, let’s turn our attention to the people we spend the most time with. For most of us, that means family, coworkers, and friends.

What do family members need from us? Good communication, care and concern, love, united purpose, sometimes financial support, that kind of thing.

How about coworkers? Productivity, good communication again, responsibility, reliability, focus, and more.

And friends? Some of the same things we need from family: good communication, care and concern, happiness.

If we look at these lists–and I admit, they aren’t anything like exhaustive, but they’re a good start–most of these things that other people need from us have to do with us having our @$?! together. Giving other people what they really need means not being preoccupied with our own problems, being aware of what’s going on around us, and being able to focus. And to do all those things, unless we’re naturally gifted in serenity, willpower, enthusiasm, and kindness, we generally need to train ourselves–to help ourselves, if I may say it. We can extend ourselves more and have more to offer if we have done a good job of managing our own anxieties and hang-ups.

And random strangers? These people, too, are most likely to benefit if they come across us while we’re in a good mood, focused, non-defensive, positive. If you’ve ever had a waiter or waitress who was having a really lousy day and managed to get a smile out of them through just being patient and friendly, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that good moods spread from person to person.

habitat

But what about the wider circle: our communities, the groups we’re a part of, the world at large? Here the situation is a bit different at first glance, because starving children in far-off countries are not going to get any direct benefit from me being cheerful and serene. These larger and more basic problems in the world are solved through volunteering time, putting in effort to advance causes we believe in, donating money, and these other kinds of external activities.

But the trick here is that being ready to do these external things requires an internal attitude that supports those actions. I can’t donate much money to charity if I don’t have my own finances in order, and I can’t have my own finances in order if I’m full of hangups and damaging beliefs about money. Volunteering time or otherwise helping out a cause I believe in requires me to be available, focused, effective, and clear about my goals–and all of those things are easily complicated by anger, depression, anxiety, trouble organizing or prioritizing, lack of drive, and the other kinds of negative states that effective self-help (among other things) battles against.

So we end up with the same answer no matter whom else we want to help: if we don’t start with ourselves, we’re not going to have much to offer people outside of ourselves. There’s a balance, clearly: it would be possible to sit around trying to improve our state of mind all day and never get up to actually help anyone else. But then, truly improving our state of mind has a lot to do with being aware of what’s going on both inside us and around us, so that any really effective self-improvement sooner or later compels us to get up and turn our attention outward.

Having written all of this out, I still don’t feel entirely at ease with the term “self-help,” or the way self-help is sometimes viewed (the phrases “self-absorbed,” “self-indulgent,” and “navel gazer” unfortunately come to mind). And not everything that claims to be “self-help” really does help anyone at all (I’m looking at you, The Secret!).  But actions, as one of my favorite cliches goes, speak louder than words, and in the end people I meet will understand on some level what good self-help really is because the better I do with it, the more likely it is they’ll walk away from me happier than they came.

Rescue picture in the public domain; original photographer unknown.
Picture of volunteers working on house by
FirstBaptistNashville.

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