For a genre of books dedicated to helping people change their lives, self-help can be surprisingly ineffective. You can read ten or twenty self-help books and only end up more confused about what you should do next.
You might be one of these frustrated people. You might think, “Self-help doesn’t even work. It’s all a hack.” If you feel this way, I understand what you’re feeling. I’m obsessed with self-help, and I still sometimes have to read dozens of books before finding the breakthrough I need.
But you’re not obsessed with self-help, and you don’t want to read dozens of self-help books to find the breakthrough you need.
The good news is, you don’t have to read dozens of books. If you learn how to spot self-help that will work for you before wasting your time, you can find the solution you need quickly so you can stop reading self-help and get back to enjoying your life.
Here are some reasons you haven’t found self-help that works for you yet.
1: You Don’t Do What It Takes
You read self-help all the time. You’ve read all kinds of interesting personal development books. But you can’t say any of them changed your life… because you did nothing to change your life. It doesn’t matter how much self-help you read if you don’t put what you learn into practice.
Maybe you don’t put what you read into action because you think it’s too hard. You don’t want to cut back on drinking or maintain a regular bedtime and wake-up schedule when the weekends you spend partying with your friends are practically the only time you feel happy.
But guess what? You are only happy when you’re partying on the weekend because you’re not taking care of yourself during the week. If you tried 30 days of going to sleep at bedtime without booze, you would see. You can’t say this stuff doesn’t work if you won’t even do it.
Maybe you try self-help hacks for a few days and decide they don’t work. For example, perhaps you turned your phone screen black and white and deleted your social media apps… but after a few days, it was driving you crazy, so you re-downloaded all your social media apps and decided, “That didn’t work for me.”
You can’t say something doesn’t work if you only try it for a few days. That doesn’t give your body or mind time to adjust to your new lifestyle. Everyone who deletes their social media apps is frustrated for the first few weeks. It takes time to build new habits. Everyone who has a B&W phone is frustrated the first few weeks too. That’s why self-help writers always say to try changes for at least 30 days before deciding whether they work.
In fact, the more frustrated you are, the more you need new habits. You wouldn’t be frustrated by healthy changes to your life if you weren’t dependent on unhealthy habits in the first place. Quitting social media and breaking my phone addiction took me two years from start to finish because I was so reliant on these digital drugs.
Many people tell themselves the lie “[a regular bedtime/quitting social media/insert self-help advice here] doesn’t work for me” when the truth is they didn’t want to push through their discomfort.
That doesn’t mean you have to follow all self-help advice. For instance, I’m on a medication that makes me tired, so I don’t exercise consistently anymore. I feel tired and crummy every day without regular exercise. But, I accept this as a side-effect of my medication. I tell myself it’s OK for me to have weaknesses and limits. What I don’t do is tell myself the lie, “regular exercise doesn’t work for me.”
You might have a similar lifestyle impediment. Maybe you can’t delete messaging or email apps off your phone because your abusive boss expects instant responses. Deleting messaging apps might help your mental health, but losing your job would undoubtedly make your mental health worse, so it’s not an option for you right now. That’s OK. You can tell yourself, “I need messaging apps for my lifestyle right now,” without lying to yourself about how your phone use affects your mental health.
Another big reason you may not take action is that you don’t know how. Self-help writers are human, too, and sometimes we don’t explain things very well. Many self-help writers say you should turn off all your screens at night, but many people don’t have the technical know-how to configure timed redshift for their computer screens or install automatically dimming lightbulbs.
If this is you, you can use a simple technique to make this advice easier to follow. Pull out a piece of paper. For each goal, break it into smaller steps. “Google how to make my Macbook screen dim and red.” “Go to Best Buy and look at Smart Bulbs.” When I’m procrastinating because I feel overwhelmed, this technique helps me get un-stuck.
In Review: You can’t conclude that reading self-help is a waste of time when you don’t make any changes based on what you read. Give changes a 30-day trial period before deciding they don’t work.
2: You Read the Wrong Self Help
One reason the self-help you read is not helping you may be that you are reading the wrong self-help books for you.
There are many excellent self-help books, articles, and YouTube videos, but only a fraction of them are right for you. To get the most out of self-help, you need to learn how to pick what will help you most.
Rule #1: Stop reading what you’ve already read. You may think this is obvious, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of reading the same self-help over and over because it’s enjoyable.
I’m guilty of this when it comes to minimalism. I love reading books about minimalism even though they all say the same things. Because they all say the same things, and I’ve already read so many, reading about minimalism doesn’t change my life at all. It’s something I do purely for pleasure.
If you want to make powerful changes to your life, read about something you haven’t read about before. Don’t read something you’ve read a million times before and tell yourself you’re doing something important.
Rule #2: Pick writers whose style works for you. All self-help writers repeat more or less the same advice, but different teachers deliver these lessons in different ways. Some self-help writers have a very academic approach, while others have a more spiritual and emotional approach. Some writers are in-your-face and confrontational, while others are sweet and gentle. You’ll get the most out of self-help if you read a style that reaches you.
The best style for you will change over time. For a while, sweet and emotional self-help books and articles were the most effective for me. Now I prefer in-your-face writing that points out my flaws without any sugarcoating.
Rule #3: Read self-help that’s proven to work. There are a lot of books in the self-help section written by people who resemble cult leaders. They will try to sell you metaphysical voodoo like “The Law of Attraction.”
Don’t fall for voodoo. Read self-help that’s supported by modern science.
That doesn’t mean you can’t read spiritual self-help. There are many science-backed spiritual self-help approaches. Meditation and volunteering come to mind.
You can tell when self-help is voodoo when they ask you to do stuff that feels good without changing anything. Wishing hard for something doesn’t make it any more likely to happen. Legitimate self-help authors can always explain how something works without appealing to a metaphysical explanation.
In Review: Self-help will only help you if you’re reading the right self-help. Don’t read the same stuff over and over. Pick writers whose style works for you, and make sure what they’re recommending is science-backed.
3: You Have a Secret Mental Health Problem
My life has been a flaming hot mess for the last few years. My friendships constantly changed, I couldn’t find career traction, and my romantic relationships have been conflict-ridden and abusive. I read hundreds of self-help books and tried my best to act on the advice they gave, but everything I tried seemed only to dig me farther into my hole.
Finally, after too many traumatic experiences to count, I found a therapist I saw for a year. At the end of 2019, he diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder. My life continued to be a mess while I searched high and low for specialized treatment for my BPD. It wasn’t until September 2021 that I entered an appropriate treatment program. For the first time in 11 agonizing years, I’ve gotten appropriate treatment for my mental health.
Now that I have, I completely understand why self-help never made my life better. I didn’t have the basic mental health I needed to consistently and effectively apply what I’d learned.
That’s not to say self-help didn’t help me. Self-help kept me alive. Tactics like making to-do lists, quitting social media, waking up at 5 AM for work, and regular gym visits kept my head above water. Without these decisions, I’m not sure I would still be here.¹
If self-help never seems to do anything but help you keep your head above water, consult with a therapist. You could be like me and have a secret mental health condition ruining your life without your consent.
Don’t assume it can’t happen to you — I have met dozens of ordinary people who insisted they were fine and their lives were fine, thank you very much, only for them to enter therapy and get diagnosed with an invisible condition like ADHD or Cyclothymia.
In Review: If you’ve ever felt different than other people for some reason, or self-help never seems to work for you, and you can’t figure out why, it might be time to visit your local therapist.
Reading self-help books and articles can teach you what you need to overcome many of the challenges you face in life, but only if you apply what you’ve learned. If you change nothing, nothing will change.
Self-help is written by other flawed humans like you. Don’t make the mistake of treating self-help like a sacred text. If something isn’t helping you make the changes you need to make in life, throw it out and look for something else. Reading self-help on a different subject or by another author may bring the changes for which you’re looking.
If your life is a self-help guru’s wet dream — if you sleep regularly and wake up early and limit alcohol intake and exercise and eat right and you’re still unhappy — what you need might be at the therapist’s office, not in another self-help book.
Most importantly, don’t give up on yourself. You can do it. You can make the changes you want to make in life. You just need the right tools — and as long as you don’t give up searching, I know you’ll find them.