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.


What does “don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it” mean?

Pic: Advert for Coaching Services from Dr Gary Wood

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“What does “don’t wait for your ship to come in, swim out to meet it” mean?” has appeared in the list of searched terms on my blog quite a lot, recently. It’s the title of my goal-setting book on psychological skills for elite performance. So, I thought I’d write a short blog post to explain the phrase more fully, without you having to buy my book to find out.

You may have uttered the phrases ‘someday my numbers will come up’ or ‘someday my ship will come in’. These words are based on the idea that a stroke of luck will change our fortunes. Now wishful thinking is fine but it should be just the start. What often eludes us is knowing exactly where to start to turn things around in our lives. It might be that you feel overwhelmed. It might be procrastination. Whatever it is, you need an action plan. It’s the ‘swimming out to meet your ship’ that alludes to the all-important action. You can trust your life to the fickle hand of fate or rise to the challenge of taking matters into your own hands. The phrase ‘don’t wait for your ship to come in. . . swim out to meet it’ means ‘don’t wait around for fate, identify your goals and take action to achieve them’. This is the essence of life-coaching. After wishful thinking there needs to be planned, purposeful, decisive action.

Book cover: Don't Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . .

Read a sample on Amazon UK or Amazon USA

In the book  I break the phrase down into three stages of goal-achievement:

  1. Don’t Wait. . . represents INSIGHT. . . and the recognition that something needs to change.
  2. Your Ship. . . which acknowledges OWNER-SHIP. . . It’s your ship, your dream, so it’s up to you to do something about it.
  3. Swim Out To Meet It. . . represents ACTION.

The book recognizes that it’s not easy and offers a series of tools and techniques for positive lasting change, based on the underlying principle “It’s your life so take it personally”. So the formula for change is:

Positive Lasting Change = Insight + Ownership + Action

I use this basic principle in my coaching practice where I work with clients through this process, using a strengths-based, solution-focused approach. Recognizing that action takes courage, I’ll begin with the green shoots and nurture them in line with your goals. That’s how we build motivation and confidence.

So that’s it. ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It‘ is basically a challenge, a call to action. You can still believe in destiny, fate or the cosmic order, but there’s nothing to say that you can’t give fate a helping hand. In fact, it’s a must.

If you want to find out more about coaching with me, get in touch for your free telephone/Skype consultation.


Any questions, please get in touch:


Solution Focused Life Coaching with Chartered Psychologist and Author Dr Gary Wood

Are you in need of a confidence boost? Motivation? Better work-life balance? Help with career changes? Business development support? Need help to make lifestyle decisions? Ask for your free consultation with Dr Gary Wood

Getting the Gratitude Attitude (Free PDF Diary Sheet)

Where as ‘bad news comes in threes’, or so it’s said, there doesn’t seem to be any comparable unit of measurement for good news. This perceptual bias of vigilance for the bad stuff at the expense of the good stuff means that our perception of the world may become distorted.

The daily hassles and uplifts theory of stress maintains that it is often the small stuff that strongly influences our stress levels. At the end of the day we mentally weigh up the hassles versus the uplifts. The result is a ‘good day’ or ‘one of those days’.

So given that we’re led to believe that ‘bad things come in threes’ maybe we need to look three times as hard to find the good stuff. That’s where The Gratitude Experiment helps. I use this technique in my training and coaching practice. It’s a simple exercise to help you to develope the gratitude attitude and focus more on the good stuff, and to balance out those hassles and uplifts.

To get started, download the free PDF diary sheet which is from my self-help and coaching book: ‘Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It’). Now run off a few copies. Start with a week’s worth or better still a month’s worth. Then, every evening list three things that you were grateful for during the day, no matter how small. It could be a compliment, a perfect cappuccino, a bit of scenery, anything. You could also list three people you were grateful to that day. The second part, each morning, is to list three things you are looking forward to that day. Resist the temptation to write the same things everyday; add something new. The overall idea is to retrain your perceptions to include more of the good stuff. At the end of the week or month, assess what changes there have been in your life. The idea is also featured  Richard Wiseman’s :59 Seconds, and is grounded in evidence-based research.*

Focusing on the blessings instead of the burdens can help to improve optimism and increase happiness, and it’s so simple to achieve.

I’ve posted on this topic before but knowing that it’s sometimes the smallest of obstacles that prevent us from making changes, I’ve included a PDF download to make it just a little easier to give ‘The Gratitude Experiment’ a go. So try it and out and pass it on to family and friends and feel free to post a comment of your results.


Notes: * R.A.Simmons & M.E.McCullough (2003). ‘Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, pp 377-89.

I’m not anti-self-help. . I’m anti ‘yo-yo self-help’. Saying ‘Yes’ to Action Plans & Goals!

Judging from the flurry of activity on my blog posts about New Year’s resolutions, I’m guessing ‘nerves are becoming frayed’ and ‘will power’s on the wane’. However it’s no time to give up. . . it’s time to take stock, recoup and move forward. Stumbling on your new year’s resolutions is not about ‘failure’, it’s about feedback. And when I write ‘Say ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions’, I’m not anti-personal development’. Far from it. I’m just anti ‘yo-yo self help’. There’s a big difference. Making positive changes in our lives is not about random ‘getting caught up in the moment’ vague wishful thinking. Real life changes require real planning. Your will power is not the problem; your planning is, that’s all. You can fix that. Creating a compelling action plan gives you an opportunity to develop confidence in your strengths and skills.

So if you find your resolve weakening, don’t take this as an indication that you should give up on your goals. Instead, take this opportunity to use this feedback to adjust your action plan. If what you are doing is not working for you, make the necessary adjustments and try again. Don’t wait until next year or next month or any other symbolic date. Use the feedback while it’s ‘hot’ and take action, now!

The following links will help:


See my other personal development posts.

See my other posts on goal-setting.

Book: Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It!

Other personal development books at: PsyStore.

PsyCentral Top Ten from 2009

Here are the top ten PsyCentral posts from 2009:

  1. Who Says So? Gender and the Social Construction of the Sewing Machine (& Other Power Tools)
  2. Dematerialization: Crystals & Car Keys
  3. The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains?
  4. Myth Busting Human Sexual Anatomy Quiz
  5. Body Language Myth: The 7% – 38% – 55% Rule
  6. Saying ‘No’ to New Year’s Resolutions
  7. The Clitoris, the Penis, Political Correctness & Biological Fact-ness
  8. Celebrity Body Language: Fact or Flim-Flam?
  9. Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing!
  10. Gender, Cave People & an Apology for Psychology

Introducing PsyStore – for recommended psychology and self-help books

PsyStore for Psychology Books

Click here to visit PsyStore for recommendations of books (and other resources) with a psycholohgical and personal development emphasis

For book recommendations with a psychological and personal development emphasis, click on this link PsyStore (or link in the sidebar). Overall the store focuses on evidence based books and resources. So many self-help books tread, re-tread and veritably trample outdated research,  so the aim of the recommendations in PsyStore, is hopefully to raise the self-help bar!

Items in the store are grouped according to category for ease of browsing. New recommendations will be added as and when including brief reviews of each item. As PsyStore is an Amazon-based store, it will also show ‘similar items’ and ‘listmania’. However, these are not necessarily recommended items.

Any recommendations for items to be included in PsyStore are welcome, so please feel free to comment.

Happy Browsing.


Visit PsyStore

Yet More Personal Development Quotations

More of my favourite motivational / inspirational quotes:

A thinker sees his own actions as experiments and questions – as attempts to find out something. Success and failure are for him answers above all.

– Friedrich Nietzche

Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.

– William James

He who postpones the hour of living rightly is like the rustic who waits for the river to run out before he crosses.

– Horace


Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It

Become Your Own Time ‘Lord’

Become a time 'lord'

Becoming your own time 'lord'

Where did the year go?

If you’ve found yourself uttering this, you’ve recognised that time speeds up as you get older. The main reason is that as we age, each new year becomes  an ever diminishing proportion of our total time on the planet. Between the age of one and two that year represents living half of your life again. Whereas by the age of ten, another year means living a tenth of your life. And on it goes, the incredibly shrinking year. When you were a child and you were told ‘we’re going out in a hour’, you’d think ‘No! Do I have to wait a whole hour?’ Now if someone says you’ll be going out in an hour you’d complain ‘An hour? I’ll never be ready in time’.

So the question is, can we do anything about it? Can we slow time?

Slowing It Down, Spicy Style
In Making Time,  Steve Taylor sets out the psychological laws of time and how we can change our perception of time. One law follows the theme of ‘variety is the spice of life’ or ‘a change is as good as a rest’.  So to slow down time you need to seek out new experiences and new environments. Do you have any secret goes or ambitions that you forego for a few hours in front of the television? Just breaking up your routine can help. Have you ever noticed that the first time you go somewhere no, the journey seems longer than the next time? That’s because the second time you go your brain has mapped out the journey and it’s already started to become familiar and for some of the decision you react automatically. So mix things up a little. Take different routes on familiar journeys, try a new food every week, go shopping at different places, read a type of book or newspaper different to your normal choices, try out some classes and so on. Try some personal experiments doing different things to see if you can slow time. Also, write down some short-term, medium term and long term goals and act on them.

Speeding It Up (but being happier)
Another psychological law of time is something of a paradox. When we are absorbed in something we love doing then time seems to go more quickly. However to balance this, time spent in these states of total absorption is one definition of happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Chick-sent-me-high) calls this state of absorption being in ‘flow’. At the heart of his philosophy is also goal-setting. I remember a conversation with my granddad when I was about 14 years old. I asked him if he had any regrets. He had two: getting a tattoo and not planning for his retirement. I never understood the significance of ‘planning for retirement’ until I read Flow. We can set goals for just about anything, they are promises to ourselves – something to get out of bed, or off the couch  for.

The Alternative
Now there is an alternative ways to slow down time. Just sit there and do nothing just staring blankly into space. Paradoxically, each day will drag interminably but years will seem to fly by.

It’s Your Life So Take It Personally
As a teacher and a coach I subscribe to the philosophy  ‘It’s your life so take it personally‘. So don’t ‘kill time’ and don’t complain about having too much time on your hands or not enough time to do the things you like. Many of us waste time by choosing to do nothing else instead. You don’t have to look back over another year and ask ‘where the hell did the year go and what have I done with it?’ Okay, so you may not become a time ‘lord’ in the sense that you can travel across the universe but by using the psychological laws of time you can take charge of your destiny. So take a deep breath and get started. Time flies – seize the day.


Self-Help Videos

More Personal Development Quotations

More of my favourite motivational quotations:

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

– Marcel Proust

In the field of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind

– Louis Pasteur

In times of change the learners will inherit the earth, while the learned will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists

– Eric Hoffer


2 Metaphors for Learning: The Baby and the Fly

Let’s consider two role models for your learning and  personal development: the baby and the fly. Now I’m going to start by assuming that you have more in common with a baby than a common house fly, or at least I hope you have.

The Baby
Babies learn to work by trial and error. It makes an attempt to walk but quickly topples over and lands on it’s butt! The shock may make the baby cry but what does it do? Give up, try exactly the same again or try something slightly different? Well by this time the baby has a working hypothesis of what’s working and what isn’t based on feedback of previous butt-floor encounters. Baby may decide to shift weight a little in one direction, do a slightly different thing with the arms and so on. The original plan stays pretty much the same after all it did resulting in standing an a first step. After that it’s a cause of  using a continual improvement approach. Sometimes progress is slow but nevertheless it keeps going forward: try-think-tweak-try-think-tweak-try!

Now let’s consider the fly.

The Fly
Imagine there’s a fly in you house. (If that offends you then imagine it’s in my house). Not being blessed with such a sophisticated processing system, the fly thinks that if it can see through a window, then it must be able to fly through a window. Of course, it collides with the window, over and over again. Unlike the baby, the fly doesn’t reflect but continues to head-butt the glass, even though there may be an open window close by. The fly doesn’t see the opportunities or look for solutions other than ‘persistence pays’. And yes, full marks to both the fly and the baby for persistence, but bonus marks to the baby for using the feedback and knowing to adjust the plan and trying something different. What we need is persistence in formed by feedback with an eye on opportunities viewed through ‘solution-focused’ lenses.

Now, human being are much smarter than flies. Just compare diets for a start. However, sometimes in moments of blinkered persistence we behave like the fly or else give up altogether. Babies are like little scientists performing experiments and that’s how they manage to learn so much in short a short space of time.

Babies learn; flies use your food as their lavatory. What do you want as your role model?

[Adapted from Don’t Wait For Your Ship To Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It]