‘Most of us are too busy to be better’: the lazy person’s guide to self-improvement

If you can really improve yourself in just 10 minutes a day, as the self-help gurus claim, Tim Dowling is all for it

I am lying on a mat, looking up at the bright blue of the skylight above me. I exhale purposefully, then let my lungs reinflate of their own accord. I am trying hard to concentrate on this slightly counterintuitive way of breathing, but the voices in my head are distracting me. They are telling me about business regulation, specifically about the inhibitory effect of hairdresser licensing in Utah.

I do not, as a rule, make New Year resolutions. As an anxious person, the 12 months that lie ahead of New Year’s Eve do not fill me with excitement or anticipation. I just wonder what else could go wrong. I am as susceptible as the next person to notions of promise, to the idea that, with the right effort, I could become fitter, smarter, happier, better. But each new December, as I coast towards the end of the year on squeaky wheels, I find myself feeling the same way: older, wiser, worse.

It’s the time and effort involved that puts me off most kinds of self-improvement. Many years ago, I signed up for an online life-coaching course, and when I complained about the difficulty of one of the exercises I’d been sent – I was meant to make a list of my qualities, keeping to the strict format “I am (quality)” – the instructor immediately replied by email, saying, “Yes, this is REAL WORK, isn’t it?’ I thought: I already have a job, thanks.

In recent years, however, a new school of self‑improvement has sprung up, one that seems to recognise that, frankly, most of us are too busy to be better. Books with titles such as The 10-Minute Millionaire, The 5-Minute Healer, 10 Minutes To Better Health and 10 Minutes A Day To A Better Marriage represent, if not a global revolution in self-improvement, at least a reliable publishing trend.

I am ineluctably drawn to the quick fix. Could it be possible to cram a year’s self-improvement into a few minutes of effort a day, to get the whole business out of the way before the end of January? It can’t do any harm to try, can it?

***

My first self-improvement guide is a new book called 15 Minutes To Happiness by Richard Nicholls. My first thought is that 15 minutes sounds a lot, especially when somebody else is promising to make me a millionaire in 10, but Nicholls’ book is full of quick exercises interspersed with longer explanations of why and how they work. Some of the exercises are designed to fix problems I don’t think I have, so I’m pretty sure I can skip ahead.

Nicholls posits a model for happiness that I find reassuring. He stresses the value of negative thinking. He says that actively seeking happiness can often end up making people feel less happy. On page 49 he writes: “Be open to the possibility that you bought this book and you don’t actually need it.” This, I think, is my kind of self-help.

Here and there Nicholls inserts a “quick happiness boosting idea”, designed to give you an injection of contentment as and when you need it. In the chapter on gratitude, for example, he suggests you “take a moment or two to send a text message to someone thanking them for being a part of your life”. I embarked on a preliminary challenge: trying to find someone – anyone – in my list of contacts I could send a text like that, without having to send an immediate follow-up apology text: “Sorry about that – I was only following orders.”

Here’s another: “Put your town name into JustGiving.com and see who is raising money for a good cause in your local area. Even if you don’t donate anything to anyone, spending time looking at the good that’s going on in your town will dilute any doom and gloom you’ve picked up from elsewhere.”

I tried this one – it was incredibly easy, and it did make me feel slightly happier. It ended up costing me £30 (donated anonymously, because that’s the kind of person I am now), but the feeling lasted for almost four hours.

Tim
‘I am, I discover, a collection of small aches.’ Photograph: Manuel Vazquez for the Guardian

A dozen years ago, I had an hour-long session with a yoga instructor, and when I asked what sort of benefits I could expect, he promised that yoga would bring me joy. I hadn’t even considered this possibility, but I liked the sound of it. I will try this yoga, I thought. And when I get my joy, everyone else can go to hell.

Then I went to one of his classes in a London studio, full of supple people in leggings, and found the whole experience nerve-racking and humiliating. It wasn’t relaxing at all. It was like auditioning for Cats.

So I’m done doing yoga in front of people, but a book called The 10 Minute Yoga Solution raises the possibility that I could get my joy in the privacy of my home, quietly and quickly. The author, Ira Trivedi, makes a lot of bold claims: she says that 10 minutes of yoga a day will not just make me calmer and more physically fit, it will improve my eyesight, control unhealthy eating habits and cure a multitude of hair problems (it’s all about blood flow to the scalp). She also mentions joy, if only in passing.

The book itself has very few words in it. It is simply a collection of illustrated poses – or asanas – with instructions, grouped into workouts tailored to specific requirements. Again, I find myself in a position to skip bits: yoga for women, for kids, for weight loss, for fasting, for binge-eating. I like the sound of “yoga for lazy people” and “yoga for hangovers”, but for the moment I am concentrating on yoga for beginners: eight poses, 10 minutes in all.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a basic, self-administered yoga programme, but I hadn’t expected it to hurt quite so much. Sitting cross-legged hurts. The seated spinal twist hurts. Even the shavasana, the so-called corpse pose – lying flat on your back, arms and legs spread, palms up, toes pointing out – hurts. I am, I discover, a collection of small aches. As instructed, I contract the muscles in my feet and then relax them. My toes refuse to uncurl. Ten minutes begins to seem like an age.

***

There are, of course, a lot of self-improvement podcasts available – I found one titled simply You Suck: Be Better. Another, created by a former lawyer, suggested that I think of my time as if it were broken down into billable hours, so I learn to prize it more. I’d rather use my headphone time to acquire some actual information. I’ve got the happy book and the yoga routine already. What I really require is a little knowledge.

I’ve always resisted the idea of learning more about economics. It was a passive resistance – I just wasn’t that interested in the subject – but maybe, armed with the right podcast and a decent set of headphones, I could enter into a new phase of passive learning. By common consent, NPR’s Planet Money is one of the best economics podcasts going. I haven’t listened to many – well, any – but Planet Money is entertaining, informative and aimed squarely at the layman. It’s not a primer, but more of a fun way to engage with what for many remains an off-putting subject. I encounter no mathematics.

But there’s a lot of it: two years’ worth, with a new episode posted every couple of days. Where to begin? What’s more, the average length of each instalment is close to 20 minutes, which, in today’s self-improvement environment, is positively leisurely. There is a solution: it turns out you can just speed a podcast up. At first I thought: who would do this? But lots of people do it. My own children, it transpires, routinely listen to sped-up recordings of their university lectures in order to save time. I had to download a new app to acquire the facility, but I can now listen to Planet Money at three times the original speed. Actually, I can’t – it’s pretty well unintelligible at that clip – but I soon find that if I spend a few minutes trying to keep up with the podcast at double speed, it then sounds perfectly normal at a more relaxed one-and-a-half times. Within a few days, I’ve worked my way up to 1.8x. Over the course of a week, I grow increasingly impatient with the pace of actual human conversation. Spit it out, I want to say.

A week in, I rise (10 minutes) early and run through my yoga positions, beginning with some breathing: inhale the future, exhale the past, as the book says. I move on to the spinal twist and the shoulder stand. The corpse pose no longer hurts; in fact, my impersonation of a corpse is so convincing that I worry about my wife walking in and finding me. He died doing what he loved, she would think. Express yoga.

I listen to a podcast about robots taking over our jobs on my way to and from the shops; about 1.6x makes it the right length for the journey. Back at home, I sit down to settle on my next 15-minute happiness task. Deciding often takes longer than 15 minutes, because I reject a few out of hand. Going through Nicholls’ book, I come across the following passage: “If we’re grateful for life then we can’t be fearful, which means that any anxiety we experience gets processed as excitement instead. If we’re grateful, then we act out of a sense that we have enough rather than out of a sense of scarcity or envy.”

He goes on to suggest spending “15 minutes writing about some positive things that have happened to you”. I am extraordinarily resistant to this idea. I only like writing about bad things that have happened to me, in part because I know I will never run out. At first, I can’t even think of any recent positive experiences, but after a few minutes, I recall a long and mostly tedious drive to Exeter the previous week.

I was thinking about nothing but my destination when I came upon Stonehenge at sunset, the stones glistening in the low, pink light. At that moment, traffic slowed to a crawl, enabling me to get a long look. This is free, I thought. A wondrous thing to marvel at, and I haven’t driven an inch out of my way. After 10 minutes, the traffic cleared and I was off again, feeling strangely moved. And then I forgot all about it.

The exercise takes 20 minutes from start to finish – too long. I recall that email from the life coach – “This is REAL WORK, isn’t it?” I begin to think of my time in terms of billable hours.

***

Time is becoming an issue. Ten minutes of yoga is one thing, but when you add in a happiness exercise and the 12 minutes it takes me to listen to a 20-minute podcast, you’re talking about nearly a whole hour. It occurs to me that I might double up on some of this improvement.

There is a certain amount of natural overlap. Both 15 Minutes To Happiness and The 10 Minute Yoga Solution stress the importance of breathing, and the exercises are not dissimilar. But focus is the key to both, and the focal points are different. It’s harder to mix mindfulness and stillness than it sounds. Add in a podcast explaining what GDP is, and the whole thing becomes an exercise in frustration. I am reminded, to my eternal disappointment, that there are no quick fixes.

After a fortnight of this, I would have to say the improvements have been marginal: some extra flexibility here, a little more gratitude there, a lot more to say when the subject of GDP next comes up at a dinner party. The Nicholls book is worth a read even if you do none of the exercises, if only to come away with the knowledge that the successful pursuit of happiness mainly involves not trying too hard. “It’s not unrealistic to think that in stopping trying to be happy, you can find that you’re happy enough already,” he writes. “Paradoxically, it could be that the only reason for you being unhappy is your relentless attempt at trying not be.”

And I’ve learned the lesson I was always going to learn, only faster: stop making New Year resolutions. Again.

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