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.