When Self-Help Just Makes Your Life Worse
The pitfalls of organizing your days around productivity hacks, scheduled mindfulness, and constant self-improvement
It started with the internet. Every time she was online, it seemed like Bénédicte Kinkolo was served up another story about some successful person doing something great: running a business, winning awards, making millions of dollars.
Kinkolo, then a second-year student at King’s College in London, ate it up. She knew she wanted to be this kind of successful, though she wasn’t yet sure at what. Maybe emulating the people she read about — their habits, their routines, what they thought about before bed — would help her figure it out. She dove into self-help literature, began waking up early to do yoga and meditate, color-coded her schedule. Bent on maximizing her time as much as possible, she made a daily to-do list and followed it rigidly; she downloaded productivity apps that would alert her when her time on a task was drawing to a close.
One day before finals, Kinkolo recalls, she was running around the university library, gathering books for a paper and ticking things off one of her apps, when she missed a step and fell down a flight of stairs, fracturing her ankle. At the hospital, as doctors and nurses shuttled in and out of her room, she continued to work from her laptop, lest her app remind her that she was falling behind.
Her breaking point wouldn’t come for several more years — but this summer, after finishing college and then two graduate degrees with the same frantic productivity, Kinkolo, now 23, finally burnt out. She’s currently taking a break, living with her parents in her hometown of Paris as she figures out what she wants to do next, and leading a very different lifestyle than the one she’d imagined. She doesn’t make lists or use productivity apps or meditate each morning. “I never expected in a million years that I would take a break,” she says. “It’s the weirdest and most difficult and most challenging thing that I have done in my life.” During her time off, Kinkolo has worked with a therapist to try to change her perspective on “success” and her relentless pursuit of goals. “It got to a point where I didn’t have any agency…