Do self-help books really work?

Here are 5 reads you can get started with

By Tamreez Inam

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Published: Fri 5 Jan 2024, 6:34 PM

Last updated: Mon 8 Jan 2024, 2:55 PM

With the start of the new year, there is usually a lot of initial excitement, followed quickly by scepticism when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. I would urge you to not fall prey to cynicism so early in the year. For my own part, I constantly turn to books to get motivation and inspiration, whether it’s for achieving long term goals or changing certain habits or behaviours.

If you’re someone who is sceptical about new year’s resolutions, then you’re probably also sceptical about self-help books. Your scepticism is not unfounded. A lot of people find that ‘self-help’ or ‘personal development’ books don’t lead to lasting change and can even make one feel worse about themselves. They might roll their eyes at the motivational platitudes contained within. They’ve probably read at least one of these best-selling books and come to the conclusion that the advice sounds good and we may implement some of it for a bit, but then we fall back into our old habits, so what’s the point?

I have to confess: I am a big fan of the genre and gain a lot of inspiration from these books. I steer clear of cheesy books with lots of quotes and mantras and not much substance. Instead, I prefer books that offer cognitive frameworks, based in science and experience, that allow us to change our perspective about a particular aspect of our lives, whether related to work or personal habits. The best books are also those that give lots of examples and practical tools on how to adopt the changes and make them last.

Even more important than the content of the books is how we read them.

Pick the right book

Don’t just pick a book that’s a bestseller — instead seek out the book that you really need. As a woman reaching higher management levels, I found the book How Women Rise really helpful in changing some of my self-limiting behaviours at work. But it may not be the right book for you.

If your main concerns are, for example, around fitness and health then seek out books in that particular area by authors who are well-known and trusted. That’s not to say that a generic best-seller won’t be helpful but perhaps a mix of a generic and a specific one would work best. For example, recently I’ve been reading two books simultaneously: Julia Cameron’s Write for Life to gain specific inspiration for my writing. I’m also re-reading Atomic Habits for overall more productivity and discipline in my habits, especially as I quit my full-time job and became a freelancer.

Take action

The key thing to keep in mind is that these books are not meant to be read passively. The advice contained within is practice-based experiential learning. Most of the books have tasks, trackers and plans built into them. Approach the book like a project and make time for it during the day. If you don’t do the exercises or apply the ‘tools’, then just reading the book at bedtime will not accomplish much more than putting you to sleep.

Read slowly

These books are not leisure reading for breezing through. Read slowly, highlight key points and re-read them; keep a journal or diary to track progress and make notes.

1. Be intentional

Don’t read the book for generic life advice or hypothetical scenarious, instead hone in on one or two issues from your life where you would like to start something new or break an existing pattern. While reading the book, apply the lessons or learnings to your particular area.

2. Revisit

Whether it is a classic like Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or a more contemporary one like Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead, it is not enough to read the book and put it away for good relying that the lessons have been learnt and will stay with you forever. They bear revisiting periodically, perhaps a particular chapter, or the entire book from time to time.

5 books to try in 2024:

1.The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron

2.Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear

3.How Women Rise: Break the 12 Habits Holding You Back from Your Next Raise, Promotion, or Job, Sally Helgesen & Marshall Goldsmith

4.The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture, Gabor Maté

5.When to Jump: If the Job You Have Isn't the Life You Want, Mike Lewis

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