Addicted to Self-Help Books?
It’s Not All Your Fault
I have a confession to make. I am not addicted to self-help books. I do not voraciously read them, eager for the next break-through solution, or rush of endorphins over how amazing my life can be in the next 90 days. I don’t feel like I need to be perfect. I don’t fear missing out on the latest trend. However, I suffer from one of the worst symptoms of the addiction — lack of follow-through.
I belong to Benjamin Hardy’s 52 Weeks of Momentum class. If you haven’t heard of this guy, you probably haven’t been reading Medium for long. He is one of the top productivity and self-improvement writer’s on Medium.com and he creates truly useful, inspirational content. I was so impressed that I shelled out $1000 to take his year-long course — new lessons each week to keep people motivated, learning and on-track to meet their goals in all areas of life. Included in the course is a wonderfully supportive, engaged Facebook group. Members come from all over the world and from all phases of life and business, so if you post a question or comment, you can almost be guaranteed to get relevant, thought-provoking feedback.
Recently, one of my classmates confessed that she was addicted to self-help books. This immediately triggered memories of other groups I have been a part of where people also talked about this. The problem, put very simply, is that people keep reading book after book about self-improvement, but never take action, or if they do, it is very short-term and ineffective. They go from book to book, seeking out the excitement of new ideas and the vision of how great their life will become. Sadly, the excitement rarely translates into actual self-improvement, and hence the need for the next book.
The self-help book addiction is a big thing. A quick internet search will reveal many articles, blog posts, and books on the topic. I just looked at today’s paperback bestsellers on Amazon and 7 of the top 10 were in the self-help genre. People want to look better, feel better, accomplish more, and be more. (I recently wrote an article addressing that trend, which you can read here.) Of course, not everyone buying these books is a self-help book addict, but I would be willing to bet a huge percentage of them has my problem — lack of follow-through.
Logically, I know that when I read a book, in order for the new ideas to impact my life, I will have to actually make changes based on the information. I think we all get that. I have been wondering why it usually doesn’t work that way.
First — obviously — “Behavior change is hard,” says Donald Edmondson, PhD, director of the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. In an article on the science behind behavioral change, he explains even when people want to take seemingly simple actions to become more healthy those actions are, “effortful behaviors that can be easily derailed, especially during busy or stressful times.” He speaks of how easy it is to forget to take a new medication or find time to go to the gym when responsibilities of daily life start piling up.
This next idea is something I came up with on my own, so see what you think.
I believe that part of why I read books, enjoy the ideas, and then don’t do much more is because this is a learned behavior that started in elementary school and was reinforced all the way through high school.
I can see myself now, sitting on my bed after school, reading the 15-page reading assignment from science or history, and then possibly answering some questions at the end of the chapter. Later in the week, there would be a test and then….nothing. I would never have to even think about that section again. Granted, there were a few exceptions where one section built upon another, and I’d need to understand all of the material to ace the final exam. After that — I was done!
In a way, this was my first exposure to self-help books. No, they were not strictly self-help books, but they were designed to improve my knowledge of a given topic so that I would be a better student. In fact, I was an excellent student. I graduated high school 4th in my class. I learned to read the assignments and parrot back exactly what the teachers wanted to hear. I held the knowledge in my head for as long as I needed to, and then rarely ever thought about it again.
It was not my knowledge, it was information I could paraphrase in a way that satisfied my teachers.
I think I do the same with most self-help books — actually maybe all books. I read them, can later tell someone generally what they were about, but then rarely get to the part where I make the knowledge my own and useful for me. In order to do that, I’d need to process books differently than I have for most of my life. This then goes back to the first reason self-help books don’t often lead to change — it is hard.
So, I guess I am saying that in some ways, it is not my fault that my follow-through with self-help books sucks. It’s not your fault either! I was trained that way, and so were you. I only had to know content — not how to truly apply it to a real life situation. This, like so many of the behaviors we seek to improve with these books, is a bad habit.
Much like a cat’s hairball on the carpet, now that I see the problem, I have to take responsibility. I can’t just walk away and think it will magically take care of itself.
This year, with all of my non-fiction reading, I am trying something new in an attempt to make the knowledge mine. For each book I read, I write down 3–5 insights that I found significant and 2–3 actions that I want to take as a result of my reading. By writing these things down, it helps me not only process the information I have read but to apply it to my own life in a way that is meaningful to me. So far, this activity has helped me retain some of the most important information I read and has lead to some actual behavioral changes, as well. It’s not always easy, but I think I am on the right track.
Be here now. You hear this advice all the time. It’s a way to improve your life, relationships and sense of well-being, but what does it mean and how do you do it? I’ve put together a short guide that will help — “Seven Tips for Living in the Moment.”