by Jonathan Pishner

The self-help industry has been booming for years, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Every year, largely thanks to the internet, more and more self-help material is being produced. Books, blogs, video channels, covering every topic from fighting depression to losing weight to stopping smoking.

And some of them are really good.

As a counselor, I’ve read a lot of these books. I often recommend the really good ones to clients. But after doing this for a while I started to notice something troubling.

A lot of people have trouble getting any permanent benefit from reading excellent self-help material.

It’s usually not a problem with the material itself. After thinking about it, I noticed that there are a few hard-to-notice traps in these books. And it’s those traps that will keep you from getting the full benefit of reading them.

I’d like to teach you how to avoid the traps and gain some real benefit from self-help material.

Reading the material often feels better than practicing it.

Most self-help texts have a motivational component that helps people feel good, at least for a short while. Seeing that someone else has solved the same problem you’re having helps create hope, and that feels amazing. Usually people will read through the entire book cover to cover because of this feeling. If it’s a blog, this is where people read 4 or 5 or 12 articles all in a row, and they will temporarily feel good.

The feeling doesn’t last though. It’s a temporary high, and most people never notice that part. They often get stuck in a cycle of reading self-help books, feeling better for a while, then having to go to the next one.

You have to actually make a change at some point to gain the real benefit. And change is very uncomfortable. It’s very easy to read a book, but changing behaviors is hard. Even a small change usually requires you to alter other things about your life.

So it’s no wonder it might be easy for you to fail reading self-help material. Reading it feels good, and implementing it does not.

What this leads to is that you might arrive at the end of a book (or several books), and you’ve never practiced any of the ideas. And if you don’t practice the material, how can you ever make your life better?

Reading the material often FEELS like practicing it.

Our brains are capable of many great things, but they’re also very susceptible to being tricked. One of the easiest traps for us to fall into is this: within the brain, thinking about a thing often feels just like doing a thing.

That is so important that I’m going to repeat it. Thinking about something feels like doing it.

That means that reading about making positive changes FEELS like you are actually making changes. You’re not, but you think you are.

Remember, when you’re reading a book, you’re preparing to make a change, but you haven’t actually done anything yet. When you consciously practice it, that’s when you are really making a change.

So now you know the problem, but how do you fix it?

I believe in having a good system. Your best bet for getting any benefit from books or blogs is to have some kind of system for how you apply it.

You’re welcome to create your own system, but if you’d like some help, I’ve provided a simple system for you to use. Just keep repeating it until you’ve worked all the way though your book.

Here is your simple system to get benefit from a self-help book.

  1. Read until you find your first change.
  2. Apply the change.
  3. Once you’ve been successful at that change for two weeks, move on to the next change.
  4. Repeat until done.

That sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s the mark of a good system. When a system is simple, it’s very unlikely to fail.

So let’s break down your new system so that you can use it.

Read until you find your first change.

You can start at the beginning and read until you find the first change you want to try (usually recommended for books), or jump around until you find the item you think will give you the most impact (a better approach for blogs).

Read just enough so that you can try something new. Re-read the selection a few times to make sure that you understand the idea, and spend some time thinking about how to apply it to your life. Feel free to take notes or write down ideas.

Apply the change.

This is the uncomfortable part. You actually have to make a change. And you’ll have to solve the problems that come with it.

This is where you troubleshoot all the little problems with this change. Do you have to alter your schedule to allow for it? Do you have to apply it differently at work than at home? Does it cause your wife, children, boss, or friends some kind of discomfort, and how do you deal with that?

Almost any problem with a positive change is solveable, so stay on this step until you solve it.

Practice until you’re successful for at least two weeks.

I usually recommend that people shoot for between 80% and 90% success in their change before moving on. Obviously, set whatever goal you feel is reasonable, but I doubt I would recommend less than 70% in very many cases. The goal is to be able to keep the new behavior easily, and if you’re doing it less than 80%, you’re probably not doing it easily.

Once you’ve been successful for two weeks, it’s much easier to maintain the change, and you may be ready to go on to your next chapter.

Repeat until done.

Now that you understand how to reap the benefits of a self-help book, just keep applying this process until you’ve made the changes you want.

It’s that simple.

So in review, to actually make a change by reading self-help books or blogs:

  • Read until you find the change you need to make.
  • Then stop reading and practice.
  • Practice until you can maintain the change.
  • Then repeat this process until you’re where you want to be.

Now get out there and start making your life awesome!



As a bonus, here are some of my favorite books that I recommend to clients:

The Five Love Languages – one of the simplest and most useful books on love relationships ever written (if you aren’t religious, just ignore all of the references to God, the information is still incredibly helpful)

Get Up: A 12-Step Guide to Recovery for Misfits, Freaks, and Weirdos – a very good book on addiction recovery, and specifically written for “anyone who would be ashamed to read a recovery book with a field of flowers on the cover”

Becoming Bulletproof – a great how-to guide for using exercise to increase your mental health


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