The self-help book industry is massive (as you might expect). In 2008, Americans spent $11 billion on self-help books, CDs, seminars, coaching and stress-management programs. Bear in mind that is US dollars – if converted into Australian dollars, the figure would be much higher.

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Many people who I speak to say that they start reading a self-help book with the best of intentions. They plan to do what the book recommends, but somehow the reading of the book becomes the action in itself, and they don’t actually put the recommendations within the book into action. It’s as if simply reading the book is sufficient self-improvement. (I have also been guilty of this myself).

I have listed a few suggestions below for those who wish to actually get the most out of their self-help books.

  • Read the book a chapter / section at a time, and think about how you can apply what is discussed in the chapter / section to your life
    There is a temptation to skim through the book, and not apply what you read. Please resist this temptation, and take time to consider what you are reading. It is also useful to have a pen and paper (or electronic equivalent) close by, so that you can jot down anything that seems interesting or applicable to you.
  • Complete the exercises within the book
    Most self-help books have exercises. These may be practical exercises (e.g. for a book on socialising, the exercise may be to speak to someone new each day), or may be introspective (e.g. list five social situations in which you feel uncomfortable). It is worth completing the exercises as the author recommends, and working through them in order. This means that it may take much longer to finish the book, but you will very likely get much more benefit from the book than if you had simply read through it, as you will be applying it to your own life and interpreting it in a practical sense.
  • Make time each day to do points (1) and (2)
    I am sure your life is busy. I found that when I was working through my book that I needed to prioritise reading it so that this task didn’t get forgotten or pushed out in favour of other daily tasks.
  • Be willing to re-examine what you think
    Related to considering what you read, and completing the exercises, it is tempting to ‘gloss over’ difficult topics, questions or tasks if they confront your beliefs and way of thinking. It is much better to use these pointers to challenge you, and consider if there is another way of looking at aspects of your life. As an example, I was reading a book about fitness. A comment “You can always find time for something if you want to do it sufficiently” challenged me to in fact admit that I wasn’t prioritising exercise enough.
  • Set SMART goals
    These are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely. With a SMART goal, you know when you have achieved it, and can reward yourself once this happens.
  • Stick at change, and realise that it may take a while
    Your change in habits may take a while to feel natural to you. When I started exercising more, I found that I had to force myself to keep to a schedule of taking a walk each day, but eventually it became easier, less of a struggle, and actually enjoyable (perhaps because I was also becoming fitter).
  • Do not be discouraged by setbacks
    Improvements are not always linear. You may ‘slip up’ sometimes, or see no improvement, but do not give up, just get back to what you were changing.
  • Start small if required. Small is better than no change.
    Be proud of the change you are making, even if it is small to start with. It is a bridge to a bigger change. An example would be someone who was recovering from an illness, and could only walk for 10 minutes per day. This is short of the 30 minutes per day which may have been recommended for them, but they could motivate themselves by saying that the 10 minutes exercise was a stage along the way to eventually exercising for 30 minutes.

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