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?

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