5 Types of Self-Help Advice (and Why It's Important)

What type of advice best helps you turn insights into action?

Posted Dec 12, 2018

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A problem in the self-help industry is that people often read advice and think "Awesome idea, I should do that" and then do absolutely nothing to follow through. This is great for self-help writers as people keep reading new articles and not solving their problems. However, that's not great for you as a reader.  So, let's try to do something about that.

When you understand different types of self-help advice, you can better understand what you need to do to turn your insights into action. Try rank ordering the following types in terms of what you generally find most to least helpful.

Types of Self-Help Advice

1. A specific behavioral suggestion.

Some people like tips that are very specific and prescriptive.  

A specific behavioral suggestion is something like:

  • Whenever you feel anxious, try taking six slow breaths.
  • To lose weight you should do intermittent fasting and only eat between noon and 8pm each day.

This type of advice saves you extra thinking. Given that planning and decision making are incredibly psychologically taxing, it can be a very attractive option. A downside of very specific advice is that it lacks nuance. Also, people can end up feeling like failures if the advice isn't workable for them on a consistent basis.

2.  A specific behavioral suggestion that requires you to decide how you'll implement it.

Some prescriptive tips still require a degree of planning and decision making from you. For example, you read that for optimal health you should do 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, or a combination. In this scenario, to follow the advice, you still need to decide how and when you'll exercise. If you value flexibility and don't like being told what to do, you might prefer this more flexible type of behavioral suggestion, even though it requires a bit more effort from you to plan how you'll implement the general principle.

3.  A succinct statement of a principle that gives you a light bulb moment.

I recently stumbled on a YouTube video about the thinking habits of tidy people. I actually didn't listen past the first point made in the video because it was such a light bulb moment, even though it was very simple.  The point that resonated with me was "The Boy Scout Rule"  of leaving an area better than you found it.  

What made this a light bulb moment was that when I heard this tip, straight away I thought of a way  I could apply it that felt both impactful and achievable: Each time I leave a room, I could do one thing to leave the room tidier, like picking up one item off the floor.  (I have a toddler so there are always things on the floor!) I thought I could apply the same principle to my messy car as well.

(As an aside, I often stop reading or listening to self help articles or videos at the point I've had an insight I want to implement. This helps me stick to only attempting one behavioral change at a time, and saves me needing to prioritize different ideas.)

4.  Repetition of a principle.

Let's say you're prone to perfectionism. You know it holds you back. However, since there are so many external and internal pressures to be perfect, you need regular reminders of the dangers and downsides of perfectionism. Therefore, you like to read new self-help articles that reinforce what you essentially already know, and help you stay committed to curbing your perfectionism.

This is an absolutely fine way to use self help articles if it helps you stay the course with whatever behavioral plan you're already implementing. For example, reading about work/life balance might help you stick with your commitment to leaving your office on time at 5.30pm each evening.  However, if you repeatedly read similar articles without changing your behavior or thinking, that can be a bit of a problem. Reading more can make you feel you're getting somewhere when realistically you're not. The solution is fairly simple: You need to decide on at least one specific behavior (see point #1 and #2) or a rule of thumb (see #3) you want to commit to.

5. A "that's me" example.

A different type of light bulb moment people commonly experience when they read self-help articles is coming across an example in the piece and thinking "that's me, that's me!" This can be a very powerful emotional experience, and helpful for diagnosing what your issue is (I don't mean diagnosing in the medical sense, but in the sense of having a conceptual framework to understand yourself.) However, this type of light bulb moment can be a little trickier to translate into behavioral or thinking change.  The article itself might not provide behavioral solutions that are useful or resonate with you. Why? Articles tend to mostly focus on either explaining a problem or giving tips rather than both. This is a practical issue writers face, since readers can only be expected to take in a certain amount of information in one hit. Therefore, the article you're reading that explains your problem so well may not also give you easy-to-implement, behavioral solutions. Try checking the author's other writing to see if they provide practical tips elsewhere. Or, you can even reach out to them and ask them to write something that helps bridge that gap for you. Of course, you can also do your own thinking.

With practice, you can get really good at identifying useful rules of thumb from general psychological principles and self-knowledge. I help people learn to do this for themselves in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit.  Your rule of thumb needs to have a trigger. This can be based on time, place, context, or it can be a cognitive/emotional trigger. For example, one of my rules of thumb is that if reading an email makes me feel anxious, I re-read it with fresh eyes after 24 hours.  That's an example of context trigger (getting an email) plus a cognitive/emotional trigger. I use this rule because I know I tend to react more anxiously than is warranted by reality.  If you feel a sense of having had a light bulb moment when you read a self-help article, make sure you've got a behavioral plan for how you'll translate your insight into something useful.