3 Top Tips: How to Get the Most from a Self Help Book

With limited space in which to cover complex issues, a standard tactic of ‘agony’ advice columnists is to recommend a self-help book. They also offer a cheaper alternative to life coaching. Of course, it assumes that these books can deliver the results they promise. If a book claims to change your life in a week or a month and the author writes a sequel, then just how effective was the first book that it needs a follow-up and another and another and another?  So is there a way to get the most out of the first self-help book in a series that you don’t need all the spin offs? Before we address that question let’s consider a little background to put self-help books into context. We’ll then consider strategies for maximizing your chances of getting self help books to deliver results for you.

Understanding the background to the self-help movement

I got into writing self-help books as an extension of my work as an applied psychologist and coach. All of my training in psychology emphasized being cautious and conservative with evidence. So that’s how I approach self-help books. After all, if they work so well, then why are there so many of them.

It was something of a surprise to me to learn that the self-help business thrives on repeat business. People become fans of an author and loyal to an author. Two things alerted me to this.First, I read Sham by Steve Salerno (See: USA / UK) who offers the compelling argument that the self-help industry actually makes (and keeps) us helpless! Think about lifestyle magazines, how many times did you not know you had a problem until the magazine pointed it out?  Salerno’s book offers a great deal of food for thought, although in my opinion, the book does trail off into a right-wing rant that only stops short in blaming the self-help industry for the fall of the Roman Empire, the destruction of the ozone layer and the extinction of the woolly mammoth! Nevertheless, the first half of the book is a compelling read and I took a lot of it on board when writing my second self-help book (Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In. . . Swim Out to Meet It). It helped me to keep empowerment at the forefront on my writing. It’s undoubtedly why I didn’t hold back and offered everything I knew about coaching and personal development. So first I’d urge you to read Salerno’s book (and take the second half with a pinch of salt). It will certainly help t put things into perspective.

The second thing that really did drive home the idea of ‘dependency’ on self-books was a review of my book . Someone had written a positive on-line review in which he used the line ‘Certainly miles ahead of some of the nonsense the consumer has had to endure such as The Law Of Attraction’. This provoked a ‘fan’ of the Law of Attraction series to write a counter-review which included the line ‘Name Your LinkThis book is an average self-help book, as you do need to apply the advice within if you are to gain something‘. This line shocked me and amused me in equal measure. It had not occurred to me that people expected to read a book and expect their lives to change automatically.  I checked the other reviews and there were several for the Law of Attraction series. It also had never occurred to be before that people became fans of a self-help series. The reviewer also said that there were too many exercises in my book. Suitably chastened (not!), I put a lot more into my third book. So what is the best way to approach a self-help book if it’s not to stroke the cover and expect change to occur through when the positive energy permeates the fingertips like the process of osmosis? 

Now I have to say that I have not read the Law of Attraction books but my understanding that they are about attracting positive energy and results through positive thinking. I have no issue with this but unless the thoughts are matched by affirmative action then all you have is wishful thinking. My approach is that while you are waiting for the cosmic order to deliver you should give fate a helping hand, set goals and take action. That way you have a better chance of getting results and if the cosmic order delivers and you also get the results from your own actions then you can sell the surplus on eBay!

Three top tips for maximizing the benefits of a self-help book

My three recommendations for getting the most out of personal development books are:

  1. Keep a journal
  2. Practise an active reading technique, and
  3. Find a self-help partner or form a discussion group

Now all if these seem like extra work for one very good reason: they are! If you are serious about getting the most out of self-help books then you have to do a whole lot more than stroke the cover, lie back and think of the cosmos.

1. Keeping a self-help journal

If you commit to just one of these three recommendations then it should be this one. I subscribe to the idea embodied in the Samuel Johnson quotation: ‘A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it’. A self-help book is finished by the results you attain through reading, not by closing the cover and putting it with your collection. That’s shelf-development not self-development. My own books include the kind of things I use in coaching and training. My training is highly interactive and I give plenty of opportunities for discussion and feedback. In my coaching practice I work with the client as a partner or co-pilot rather than the all-knowing expert. By keeping a journal, when reading a self-help book, you get to add your own thoughts, ideas, insights and experiences. In this way the book really comes alive. In effect you by keeping a journal you write the next chapter. Your journal becomes a unique personal resource.

2. Active reading method for self-help books

At university, students are taught methods of active reading that we can adapt for self-help books, one is called the SQ3R method. It was devised by the wonderfully named Francis Pleasant Robinson. SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review.

For the purposes of reading self-help books I’ve changed this to Survey, Question, Read and write, Re-act and Review. So let’s go through each step:

  • Survey – this simply means to flick through the book, familiarize yourself with the layout, style, subheadings and so on. The aim is not to read the book, just to get a feel for it. It helps to create a context for reading and learning. This is something you may do in the book shop or in on-line opportunities to ‘look inside’. You will repeat this repeat this for each chapter as you make your way through the book. I usually start my book chapters with a famous quotation and a brief summary, just to set the scene.
  • Question – for each chapter ask yourself what the chapter is about and what questions would you like it to answer. It’s helpful to write down one or two questions (in your journal). This is another way in which you create a context for your learning.
  • Read and write – as you work through the chapter keep you questions in mind to see if the chapter is answering them. Write down any insights, thoughts or further questions in your journal.
  • Re-act – follow the exercises in the book. If any exercise provokes strong feelings, make a note of those feelings. It’s important to actually do the exercises rather than just think about them. The reason is because in any self-help book there is an element of attitude change. Attitudes are comprised of thoughts, feelings and actions. All three interact and influence each other. Actually doing something often has more of an impact because it takes you outside of your head. This may yield fresh insights that you cannot always predict.
  • Review – In my books I provide a section for an end of chapter review. This is a crucial stage in the learning process particularly to assess the impact of any actions you take. It ties in with my PAR formula: Plan, Action, Review for goal setting. Once you’ve taken action you need to assess the results and the impact. You can then decide whether you need to make adjustments and try again. This is something else for you journal.

3. Get a personal development partner or form a group

I’m aware that it’s easy to lose momentum on a personal development plan so just as you would have a gym buddy, it can help to maintain your motivation if you partner up and get a ‘self-help buddy’. This could be a friend or colleague with similar interests. Agree to meet once a week and discuss a chapter of your chosen self-help book. An alternative is to form a discussion group, either through a website such as Meetup or through your local library which often has free space to use for community groups. There are also online options such as Google HangoutsYahoo Groups and of course groups and pages on Facebook. Not only will this keep on track you will also gain from the shared insights of other people and they will benefit from yours. Connecting and working with other people can also help to increase psychological hardiness, that is, your ability to cope with change.

How to read a self-help book – practising what I teach

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood

So there you have it. At this point I’m duty bound to tell you that I wrote my previous two books with these tips in mind. In the introduction to Unlock Your Confidence I encourage you to keep a journal and I give a less technical description of the SQ3R method. I set the scene to make the learning and absorption of material easier. In Chapter Four of the book on Impression Management (making good first impressions), I include a whole series of fun techniques to be tried out with a self-help buddy, a friend, colleague or partner. Many of these exercises will probably make you laugh. That’s the idea. We absorb information better if we are relaxed and learning should be fun.

The whole self-improvement industry tends to emphasize a passive, self-oriented approach. If a book just makes you want to wait patiently for the sequel then has it really done its job for you?  My recommendations offer a more active, self-directed, socially-oriented approach. Unlock Your Confidence is my attempt to put a bit of social conscience back into self-help. There’s a strong call to pass on what you have learned to others and seek out opportunities to build confidence in other people. It’s about empowerment rather than helplessness. It’s about passing it on. Reflective books have their place in he world but if they do not inspire action then what’s the point?

[If you have enjoyed this post check out other personal development posts from Gary Wood and don’t forget to pass it on by using the like and share buttons below]

If you interested in learning more about one-to-one life coaching, get in touch.


Deja Moo: Heard that bull before!

I like the term ‘deja moo’ (from the Urban Dictionary) and have adopted it as one of the categories for my blog.

It’s used whenever you get a sense that you’ve heard that BS before – and most likely, here, will be linked to gender stereotypes and any other baseless pop-psychology, ‘old chestnuts’ that keep ‘doing the rounds’ largely unchallenged.

Can only an expert deal with a problem?

According to a man I worked with in a former life, in an insurance company,  the definition of an expert is:

  • ‘X’ is the unknown quantity, and
  • A ‘spurt’ is a drip under pressure

Oh how we laughed. . . the first time! No so, for what seemed like the million repeats.

Repetition is at the heart Laurie Anderson’s song ‘Only an expert can deal with a problem’. So I guess an expert may just be someone who spends a lifetime saying the same things over and over again. When a bit of research was carried out on Oprah viewers, one of most popular definitions of ‘expert’ was ‘some one who has written a book’. This didn’t necessarily mean a well-researched, evidence-based book, but more a personal account of  their problems.

It’s also worth pointing out that when we see or hear an expert on TV or in the media that the selection process is not so stringent as one might think. I once asked a radio producer why he favoured one particular self-appointed media analysist (with a religious emphasis) over the official regulating bodies such as Ofcom or the BBFC? The answer came: because they are easier to get hold off and more willing to talk on local radio. So the expert may not be the best one for the job,  just the closest and most amenable.

(There’s also a lot of truth in Anderson’s song, that only an expert knows how to create a problem too).

Evidence-based psychology has so much to say about the human endeavour but is often not see so ‘sexy’ as pop psychology and ‘experts’ without any ethical code, who can say and do just about anything that makes good TV. It’s wise to be wary of ‘experts’  (X-spurts) who invent syndromes that can be cured by buying a particular product, or experts that claim that they can ‘reprogram’ your mind. Also, beware of experts who claim they can read a celebrities mind just be looking an an intrusive pap-snap. They can’t. Body language needs to be viewed in context and if they are a member of The British Psychological Society (BPS), they are not supposed to be doing it anyway.

Each of us has the answers to our own problems, and it sometimes need a qualified professional to provide the strategies to draw those solutions out of us.  If you decide you need an expert to assist you, make sure you check out their credentials. Do they actually have any qualifications? Where did they get them? If someone has a PhD from some obscure, Internet-based organization, it might not be worth a damn. For instance, in Britain, all PhD theses have to be filed with The British Library. However, that is only from accredited Universities. Also, beware of how experts refer to themselves. A qualification in NLP or hypnotherapy no more entitles them to call them psychologists as owning a steak knife entitles anyone to call themselves a surgeon. (There’s little or no evidence that NLP lives up to the bold claims of it’s more enthusiastic practitioners).

The upshot is, if you need an expert to help you solve your problems, make sure your experts have the qualifications, the tools and the skills for the job, not that they are just the first in the phone book or the closest to you. Don’t be afraid to check them out and ask questions. If you don’t get satisfactory answers, then move on!

Here’s a video of Laurie Anderson performing the hypnotic ‘Only An Expert’ (sung in English with French subtitles):