What I’ve learned from self-help books

As it is the start of a New Year, I thought it might be fun to share with you one of my guilty secrets… I must confess that I am addicted to ‘self help books’ (or ‘self development books’ as they are now know). I sheepishly admitted this to a close friend of mine – and to my surprise she told me she shared the same obsession. So we decided to start up a book club, and had no problem recruiting a few others. In fact, we had to turn people away, which makes me think I am not alone with my secret.

We have read SO many books over the years now… and they mostly follow the same trajectory.
1) They promise you all your problems will be solved  with a few simple steps.
2) The author then goes on to outline what these are by giving examples.
3) They then repeat the one nugget of wisdom multiple times thereby spinning out a whole book on the subject.

I am a complete sucker –  convinced that I will be forever more tidy, de-cluttered, rich, stress-free etc after reading the book. The majority go in one ear and out  of the other, but there are a few books which I have really enjoyed and got something out of, so  I thought I would list my top 5 favourite self development books  for you.

1. ‘The Happiness Project’ by Gretchen Ruben


The Happiness Project was our first book club read and I absolutely LOVE it. Gretchen focuses every month on trying to improve one aspect of her life and embarks on it with absolute gusto researching each area thoroughly and putting it into practise with absolute dedication. She writes really well, with great self-awareness and  good humour so it is a pleasure to read. Gretchen is our book club guru and we often jokingingly ask ourselves ‘what would Gretch do in this situa-tion?’

She has a happiness podcast too which tbh I don’t love as it’s just a bit too American for me. But her newsletters are interesting and I think worth signing up to. I think my main takeaway for the book was not to try and tackle everything at once. I have found it a helpful strategy to just pick one thing I want to improve and just focus on that until I feel I have got somewhere with it.

2. ‘Four thousand weeks’ by Oliver Burkeman

Four thousand weeks by Oliver Burkeman is my very latest read. In some ways this is a bit of an anti self-help book… The general gist is that we only have four thousand weeks on this planet, so just stop beating yourself  up as you just won’t get everything done that you want to. Burkeman sees it all as a wild goose chase.

‘The technologies we use to try to get on top of everything always fail us, in the end,’ he writes, ‘because they increase the size of the everything of which we’re trying to get on top.’ Above all, Burkeman argues that we can never hope to conquer our allotted 4,000 weeks of time, so instead, we should ride with it, and learn to enjoy the moment.

3. ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear

I absolutely LOVE James Clear’s weekly mailer which is concise and clever. I almost recommend this more than the book. He talks in depth about how the brain works, how habits are formed, and multiple strategies to adopt new ones. I have managed to start a couple of new habits with techniques suggested in his book, such as habit ‘stacking’ so you link a new habit to one you already have. For example I write a 5 line diary every night. I set my timer to delete photos in my phone for 5 minutes (currently on 28,000 of them!) before I fill in my notebook.

Another good one is to actually write in your diary when you will do something, and also get some sort of accountability for it if at all possible. I have a morning walk with a friend twice a week to force me outside as I live and work in the same building.

4. ‘Drop the ball’ by Tiffany Dufu

Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu is really aimed at frazzled women/mothers (like me). Rather like Gretchen’s book, this is an autobiographical story about how she figured out how to get on top of her hectic life. She is a serial overachiever (getting up at 4am to go jogging anyone?) and realised that she just had to let some things go in life and not micromanage her husband’s dishwasher loading (I know… that’s a tough one). I have learnt to let go of having a messy kitchen after breakfast – the dishes can wait, and also to try really hard if my husband cooks to leave him to it and ignore the mess, and say it is delicious.

5. ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie

This book actually took me by surprise as I really enjoyed it. We only read it as we thought it would be good to read a ‘classic’ early self improvement book.  It was published in 1936 and I found it  enlightening as it shows the first seeds of the American culture that anyone can achieve anything.

It really is just a lot of sound advice about treating people well and with respect. There are chapters about listening to others properly, not criticizing others, condemning or complaining,  thinking about how what you are offering can benefit the other person… etc.
In fact most of this book as been  picked up and repeated multiple times in many other books – this is the original and the best.

I hope you enjoyed skimming through, and let me know if there are any books you love. I’m always looking for new sources of wisdom!