Skip to main content

Don't tell me about self-improvement. I've been improving myself for decades. I have dieted, exercised, made to-do lists and then lost them. I have striven to be more efficient and productive, waste less time, watch more TED talks, tidy my desk, write more thank-you notes, be nicer to my spouse, and eat more kale.

After all this practice, I should be perfect. Instead, I'm pretty much the way I always was – rather plump, not too fit, disorganized, impatient, undisciplined, ill-mannered and occasionally shrewish, with a diet that's long on chardonnay and short on roughage. It goes without saying that I rely excessively on electronic devices, which might as well be stapled to me.

I'd feel rotten about this lack of progress, but for the fact that I am probably a lot like you. My weakest muscle is the willpower muscle. That's why the diet/fitness/self-improvement industry is such a juggernaut. It thrives on the weakness of our will. But our vanity and our quest for self-improvement are stronger than ever. In fact they're sometimes indistinguishable.

Can you tone up your willpower muscle? Experts say you can. But it takes craft and guile. You cannot break a bad habit. You can only work around it. If you let your guard down for an instant, your habit will come back to mug you and you'll have to start all over.

I learned this in a seminar on willpower. The seminar was full of high-achieving professionals who appeared to have an abundance of focus and discipline. But when it came to their personal lives, they felt they were deeply flawed. One by one they confessed. They didn't exercise. They wasted too much time. They constantly allowed themselves to be distracted.

In Dante's time, the seven deadly sins were superbia, avaritia, luxuria, invidia, gula, ira, acedia – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, sloth. These were big, important sins, the subjects of searching examinations in great poetry and art. People knew that the human race was fallen and had to work its way back up. So they confessed their sins to God, and prayed for absolution.

Our modern-day sins seem puny by comparison. I doubt God cares that we eat too much junk food. Today we search for absolution in the gym. And our leading deadly sin isn't even on Dante's list. It's distraction. If Dante were around today, the Mountain of Purgatory would be occupied by people who can't turn off their phones.

Why are we so tempted by distraction? Because checking e-mail is so much more delightful than the task that lies ahead, which will probably require effort. Because talking to other people requires an effort, too. But mostly because your devices divert you from that useless voice inside your head – the one that won't shut up about whatever went wrong yesterday or might go wrong tomorrow, the one that's always judging other people and darkly wondering what other people think of you. No wonder you'd rather read the Drudge Report.

A good alternative for calming the mind, I learned, is meditation. I've been meaning to meditate for years. The trouble is getting around to it. Maybe I could get my cellphone to send me a reminder.

In the seminar, we also learned that you need to replace a bad habit with a good habit. For example, if your downfall is chocolate mousse, you should order fruit salad for dessert at the beginning of the meal so that you won't be tempted by the chocolate mousse at the end. (It helps to visualize the chocolate mousse crawling with cockroaches.) Or, instead of having a smoke and a drink when you get home from work, you could do some housework. A friend of mine is trying that. Unfortunately she reports that the good habit, like fruit salad, is a lot less fun than the bad one.

Although I've mostly failed at self-improvement, I have learned a thing or two over the years. One is that if you overuse your willpower muscle, you will collapse and be worse off than before. Incremental changes work best. You don't have to run a marathon. You just have to walk around the block. Also, relax your standards. So what if you're a few pounds overweight? At least you held the line. Do not try to change everything at once. One thing at a time, every year or two, is plenty.

It might also help to think harder about some of those old-fashioned virtues that don't count for much in our lean, goal-oriented, high-efficiency society – things such as charity, patience, kindness, humility. So what if your waist is flabby? The world doesn't care. The world needs good people, not toned ones.

The world could also do with less of our relentless self-examination. I know it's the modern way. But the less you think about yourself, the happier you'll be.

I've resolved to work on that one. And also to stop taking my iPad to bed.