Is Reading Blogs Like This One Keeping You From Improving Your Life?

One idea I’ve been pondering over lately is to what extent reading about self-improvement is a complement versus a substitute for taking self-improvement action.

Complements and substitutes are terms that come from economics. A complement to a product is something you buy more of when you buy the product. Think popcorn and movies. The more movies you go to, the more likely you are to buy popcorn (at least here in North America). Wine and fine dining. Cars and gasoline. These are all complements.

The standard view of self-improvement writing, whether it’s fitness books, cookbooks, business books or popular psychology is that it should assist with personal development. That is to say, the more books you read, the more likely you are to actually work on improving yourself.

The alternative view, of course, is that reading isn’t a complement but a substitute.

Substitutes, again from economics, are products that compete with each other. When you go to the movie theater, each movie acts as a partial substitute of the others. If you go to see one, you forego the other. Similarly, Italian wines and French wines are substitutes, as is gasoline from different gas stations.

Here the theory is that what we really want out of personal development, both in active efforts and passive consumption, is that good feeling that we’re doing something to improve our situation. It’s an anxiety-reducing effect that the challenges we’re facing are somehow being dealt with, even if they aren’t being resolved immediately. Since both reading and doing something alleviate this tension, they are substitutes, and consuming one will decrease consumption of the other.

Which Dominates: The Substitute or Complement?

My own feeling is that both of these effects exist, and which dominates won’t be a universal consideration but will depend on a lot of factors.

One factor probably has to do with the material itself. Some types of self-improvement probably work as substitutes. They provide a large emotional payoff (and, thus, work well in anxiety-reduction), but they may be weak on substantial follow-up. Being weak on the latter, they don’t make good complements.

Another factor, however, is probably the nature of the self-improvement task itself. Some types of self-improvement work are probably particularly difficult, emotionally unrewarding and complicated. Because the anxiety-reduction from working in those areas is so hard to come by, it might be easier to seek it from consuming self-improvement material passively instead.

While I’d like to think I avoid the worst of the self-help vapidness of the former, I admit that many of the self-improvement problems I focus on here are exactly the kind of nebulous, hard-to-work-on, abstract categories that may encourage substitution.

As an example, compare what I write to a cookbook. The latter has a quite straightforward application, and therefore is more likely to serve as a complement to actual cooking. Of course it’s not a pure effect—some people buy cookbooks to alleviate the anxiety that they don’t cook enough, or need to learn to cook, and then don’t actually use them. But I imagine this is not the majority.

On the other hand, consider improving your ability to learn effectively, combat procrastination or improve your career. These are all hard pursuits that, even when you’re doing them right, have mixed emotional payoffs in the short-term. As such, I can imagine people consuming self-improvement material here as a way to get that emotional payoff more reliably than doing the actual work.

Note: Let me be clear that I don’t think anyone is actually conscious of this distinction, even if they abuse it. What probably happens, psychologically, is that there’s a desire to improve something, or more accurately, a desire to feel like things are going to be improved. When this desire is strong enough, it can trigger motivation to do something about it. Sometimes that manifests as taking action. Sometimes that manifests as buying a book that you tell yourself you’ll use, but never do.

The Problem with Substitution

I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is doing her doctorate in clinical psychology. I mentioned another friend of ours who was having some anxiety and who I was trying to offer encouragement.

To my surprise, she told me that this was likely harmful in the long-run. The best treatment doesn’t get patients to reduce their anxiety by consoling them, but by confronting that anxiety, which will increase it in the short-run, but has the long-term effect of reducing the intensity of anxiety the next time it comes up.

The problem here was, again, one of substitution. By offering consolation, you are escaping from your anxiety. It provides short-term relief, but it only reinforces the pattern that created the anxiety in the first place.

This is the problem with the substitution effect in self-improvement. If you are using reading a blog like this, buying books or doing “research” as a way of reducing the tension you feel that something needs to be improved, that can be potentially harmful. Without doing something and solving the underlying issue, consuming more information is counterproductive.

When to Decide If You Need a Break?

I’ve experienced self-improvement both as complements and as substitutes in my own life.

The key difference, it seems to me, is a question about how much effort are you expending to actively work on the areas you’re reading about. If the answer is low or zero, and it has been for some time, but the amount of time you’re spending consuming information is significant, you may be having some kind of substitution effect.

I’ve had success in cutting down my consumption. That tends to increase angst about whatever issue you wanted to use the material to solve, momentarily, but that same energy can hopefully be redirected towards taking some action.

Similarly, I’ve had times when I’ve been engaged in a lot of action and really benefited from having complementary material guide me through. Unfortunately, this isn’t an area I can give an easy prescription to read less or read more. Both might be useful! Instead, you need to look more closely at yourself–what are you using the time you spend reading books and blogs on. Is it a substitute for real action or a complement to it. Only you can decide.

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  • vivek raykar

    Very good article.I always find creative way to tackle problems faced in life. You have found a fresh angle to improve life. It requires wisdom to know when to take action and when to contemplate,savour,think,digest ,read,
    experience. Though to think is itself action at brain level and consumes energy. So it is not dichotomy but dynamic interaction.

  • Musedpony

    If I remember correctly, you also wrote an article about the inherent value of learning, and that you can’t necessarily anticipate what information might become useful. Under that light, for one to determine whether the activity they’re engaging is complementary or a substitute seems a pretty difficult proposition. My feeling is that this is an optimization problem where after some point, information foraging returns diminish – and at some peak value the efficiency is maximized. But what’s the practical way to determine this? I feel like it’s not very clear, so I’m going with the intuition that over-thinking this topic probably falls somewhere in the domain of diminishing returns.

  • Lucas Borja Peinado

    I definitely substitute more than I complement. There have been times of unstoppable action but I can recall these as short bursts, and whatever I had been consuming before became useful during those short periods. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m not particularly happy with my active/inactive curve, and lately toy with resignation more than I would like.

  • Hey Scott,

    A few years ago I wrote a similar article to yours about how reading self-improvement blogs leaves you with a positive feeling that can be mistaken with taking action.

    I recommended reading ZERO personal development blogs for several months or just forget about these blogs altogether, so that you can identify if you have a “self-help reading addiction”.

    I was telling the story about the fact that most self-help blogs are actually just marketing instruments for products or consultancy, including mine. I started a blog about books, nobody was reading it, then I mixed personal development with non-fiction recommendations and it took off (becoming one of the most popular in Romania at that time).

    I also wrote about the fact that by creating more information, and usually just rehashing the same information all over again (most self-improvement articles are just remixes of old personal development books & blogs), blog authors were creating a gap between what you need to know and what was useful for taking action. The more clickbaity articles you write, the more you are widening the information gap (

    The best way to avoid writing “information gap widening articles” is to write content based on actual experience, let’s call it “experience-driven writing”. Basically, the types of articles you wrote based on your learning experiments. Because your experience is highly subjective, the content you create will be highly personal & personalized, and that means it will turn out quite original, at least to some extent.

    Overall, the substitute/complement analogy works with any kind of reading, not just personal development, and it works on reading you tend to binge on: psychology, behavioral economics, science, whatever.

    This type of heavy binge reading on just one subject alters your optics/mindset to see only a certain kind of side of the world.

    It’s good to read.

    It’s good to read a lot, the problem lies in the output.

    When you read too much, you take too much input. If you don’t have any activity to process that information so that you create an output based on that information, you might end in the situation you describe, or even worse, in a certain kind of analysis paralysis limbo, where you cannot take any kind of important decision, because you have to much information available and you know for sure there’s more information available.

  • Scott Young

    I think I agree.

    Although I think the gap itself isn’t the problem–it’s more what the gap is a symptom of. If you have a large gap between consumption and action, that might be a sign that the consumption is used to fulfill needs that really should be filled by taking action.

    The challenge here is having the introspective clarity to realize when you are using material as a way of avoiding your goals instead of working on them.

  • Scott Young

    I agree, this isn’t easy, but I don’t think it’s quite as hard as you describe.

    You just need to run a simple experiment–limit your access to books and blogs for a short time and see if you start actually doing more work on your goals. If you do more, then there was probably some substitution going on. If you do less, then they were probably complements.

    I think there’s probably going to be some gray areas where you’re making an emotional tradeoff some of the time but the other parts of the time you’re taking higher quality action. However, these areas I’m less worried about. I’m more concerned with the “all reading, no doing” risk.

  • Vlad-Adrian Ilie

    Hello Scott,

    I am pretty happy to say that I complement more than I substitute by reading your blog posts. More exactly I think that your posts have a priming effect on me that lasts me through the day, I keep noticing opportunities to further develop myself. I’ve tried giving up all such blogs and the results were negative.

    Thanks for writing!


  • John

    Hey Scott, I think your articles might do well as a youtube video. I think you should try it

  • Shubham Gupta

    I think you should continue this. Your blog is a good resource for Inspiration and positive Attitude

  • Marilyn

    That is a very interesting concept. I think more people should take note of this, so that they can be aware of how they may be unknowingly falling into the trap of using self help books as a substitute.

  • Brian

    This is something I’ve noticed for the past several years, and it was only until, in the last 2.5 months, I’ve been actively trying to get away from self-help material. When I first discovered that I could change my life via Internet, I had this intense need to research everything. From philosophy, psychology, productivity, to things such as Zen Buddhism, I learned a massive amount of things, and I saw myself as a God among sheep.

    Ultimately, it became very counter-productive. Since I spent extraordinary amounts of time researching, the time spent researching could have been used elsewhere. For example, I know how to get straight A’s. However, my grades were falling. I know quite a bit about the psychology of charisma. I’m still pretty damn lonely. I know a lot about being incredibly productive; however, I keep procrastinating.

    It eventually became so sorry that I realized that I was using this self-help material as an escape to solve my problems. I knew that I had more than enough knowledge to explain it, but I always felt there was this magic bullet that would solve all of my problems. It was only until I had to force myself to balance thinking with doing literally.

    Aristotle himself advocated for the Golden Mean. Too much of anything is a terrible thing. In my case, it was also much thinking and not enough action. You eventually have to realize that enough is enough, you know far more self-development advice than the overwhelming majority of people. It’s time to take action.

    And one last thing, I noticed that I kept going back to the same material because I developed this fear of forgetting, so what I did was I made a compilation, several pages, in fact of all the lessons I learned online on how to improve my life. For example, there’s a page on how to get good grades, how to be more productive, how to be healthy, etc.

  • Zlatni decaci

    Great article, something I struggle when offering support to my kids with their piano practice and school anxiety.
    Personally, I read self-help article or book as encouragement, to put me in right frame of mind and for motivation since being a full-time mom with 2 small kids can daily steer me in different direction. Personally, self-help reading increase a positive anxiety in me to do something about it rather than being a substitute.
    Your article summarized it perfectly at the end, the theory needs to be followed with action.

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