Are You a Self-Helpoholic?

Is reading too much self-help a bad thing?

Posted Oct 10, 2018

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My PT colleague Dr. Seth Gillihan and I were recently discussing the problem of people reading many self-help articles and books, but then not acting on any of the advice. You might think, "that's a great tip," and then do absolutely nothing about it. 

People read self-help for a wide variety of reasons, including entertainment and to gain general insights into themselves and other people. There's nothing wrong with this; however, sometimes people experience an imbalance between how much they read about self-improvement strategies and the extent to which they act.  In this article, I'm going to explain how this happens and what to do about it.

The psychology behind all-reading, no-action

When you read and take no action, the effect is a bit like when you plan to start a diet ... next Monday.  Thinking about acting makes you feel a sense of being productive, even though you didn't do anything yet.  With time, you might realize your pattern of being all intention and no action.  When you've experienced this realization, your confidence about your ability to put tips into practice will drop, and this lower confidence will further perpetuate your no-action pattern.

There's good evidence that when it comes to psychology, people get more out of it when they put more into it.  For example, people who do therapy "homework" experience more gains from therapy.  Therefore, consider these practical tips and strategies for how to take more action based on what you're reading.

3 Strategies For How to Take More Action 

1. Accept that sometimes you're in learning-mode and not in doing-mode, without judging yourself harshly for it. If you're in this reading-only mode, you might want to acknowledge it. Why? Paradoxically, planning to take no action might be the thing that leads you to take a little bit of action!  

While it might sound like I'm judging you negatively if you read advice without implementing it, I'm actually not at all, provided you don't do this all the time.  We can all read a lot more than we could ever have the energy to implement.  Trying new things takes a tremendous amount of oomph because it requires decision making, planning and tolerating anxiety.   No one can do everything all at once, so there's a good possibility that other aspects of your life are currently sucking up all your available mental energy and willpower.  We all have many competing demands for our willpower.  Acknowledge when you're prioritizing other demands.

Another point to consider (which I first wrote about in my book, The Anxiety Toolkit) is that there can be an unintended negative consequence of attempting continuous, active self-improvement.  In my experience, this can result in people having an overblown sense that there's something fundamentally wrong with them and can get in the way of just living life. If you're currently in a mode of wanting to gain general knowledge and be entertained, just acknowledge it.  I think most experts would admit that sometimes we're exactly the same!  This isn't necessarily "lazy."  Sometimes it's good to just enjoy your life, without making everything about personal development.  For example, to explore hobbies for pure enjoyment or to spend time with friends,  rather than seeing hobbies as about challenging yourself or getting out of your comfort zone etc.  Not everything needs to be about self-improvement!

2. Take time once a week (or fortnight) to focus on implementation. If every time you read an interesting tip you think "I should do that" you're going to get overwhelmed very quickly. Try collecting any tips you read and then have a regular time in which you prioritize and decide what you want to implement.

A regular hour once a week can be a good plan for this. Think of it as like having a therapy session with yourself! Develop a structure for your weekly check-in and planning session. For example, spend a few minutes reviewing the interesting suggestions you've read, then pick your top priority. Come up with a plan and then shrink your plan to make it as easy as possible to implement.

3. Shrink your plans. If you're experiencing a clinical problem like depression, then it makes sense to stick as closely as possible to the steps included in a treatment package that's backed by research. If you had cancer, no one would recommend just doing the parts of treatment you felt like. However, if you're not currently having a personal crisis, you may want to cherry-pick little snippets out of what you read. When you read about a 10-point self-improvement plan, there might be one point that you're interested in. You can shrink the tips from anything you read to whatever most appeals to you. 

Likewise, if you read a recommendation to do something for 20 minutes a day, and you want to do it for 5 minutes just when you're feeling stressed out, you're completely free to do that. Truth be told, this is the approach I tend to take to things like yoga and meditation. I do them periodically when I need stress relief. Many techniques likely have a dose-response relationship where the more you do them, the more benefit you get.  However in real life, people need to balance all their competing demands, and it's not realistic to be able to fit in many daily practices. Empower yourself to find the best combination of daily habits and "spot treatments" for you. 

Ask yourself "What strategies do I find beneficial even if I only do them occasionally, or for a few moments?"  Slow breathing is a strategy that fits this bill for me. If I'm getting in my own way, taking just six slow breaths (about one minute) is often enough to break me out of tunnel-vision thinking and reveal a clear path forward.

Also, ask yourself "How might I realistically use this strategy in my life?"  When you do this, you're doing more than just passively reading.  You're starting to think about when and where you could use a particular strategy (and what the major obstacles might be), which we know increases the likelihood of you following through.

Take Home Messages

  • Reading and taking absolutely no action isn't a great idea. However, cut yourself some slack if you don't have the energy to implement every interesting tip you read about.
  • Self-experiment to find the mindset and approach that leads to you taking the most action.  This won't necessarily be obvious. Try planning to do less and see if it results in doing more!
  • If you tend to bite off more than you can chew when it comes to making plans, get into the habit of making an initial plan, then considering a half-size version of that plan, and comparing which is better overall. 

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