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For years I’ve been obsessed with two questions:

  • How can we write books that help readers change their behavior and create new outcomes in life?
  • How can we avoid the pitfalls of conventional self-help books?

Following are the posts with my core answers. I invite you to sample these before you explore my archives or read about me.

I am taking a break from blogging to focus on book projects. However, you can find me on Twitter and contact me by email: doug.toft@gmail.com

Thanks for being here.

Thinking Critically About Self-Help

What Does “Self-Help” Mean?

Finding Credible Self-Help — Where To Start

Evaluating Self-Help — Ask These Questions

Evaluating Self-Help — Is It Based on Current Research?

Evaluating Self-Help — Is It Based on Theory?

Evaluating Self-Help — Can You Test the Ideas?

Evaluating Self-Help — How Much Are You Asked to Invest?

Writing Books for Behavior Change

Writing For Behavior Change — Helping Readers To Learn A Process

Writing For Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Stories

Writing For Behavior Change — Helping Readers Gain Insight Through Structured Experiences

Writing For Behavior Change — Keep It Simple, Sweetheart

Writing Instructions That Lead To Action

Creating Effective Exercises With Sentence Completion — Part One

Creating Effective Exercises With Sentence Completion (Part Two)

Evaluating Self-Help — How Much Are You Asked to Invest?

COINING 20Before the Internet, the state-of-art technology for communicating ideas was the printed book.

Today, however, it’s often easier and cheaper for authors to connect with audiences through websites that offer ebooks, audio, video, webinars, online communities, and online courses.

All this is a boon for people who like to learn from non-print media. But there’s also a potential cost to us, and it’s measured directly in time and money.

Online content can eat up your time

Do you ever get frustrated with bloggers who post audios or videos instead of writing?

You can’t scan video or audio posts to decide if they’re worthy of your attention.

You can’t skim subheadings to get the main points.

It’s hard for you to slow down or speed up an online presentation, skip the irrelevant parts, or filter out the fluff.

With online media, you’re typically forced to consume a presentation as a whole. And that can take hours.

In contrast, you can get the gist of a book chapter or blog post (even a long one) in a few minutes.

Online content can cost more — a lot more

A nice, new hardcover book can set you back $25. That’s not cheap.

But compare that amount to the cost of many online courses, which add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars — and require far more time to consume than a book.

Online content requires rigorous crap-detecting

As Paul Graham eloquently explains, speakers can often dish out nonsense and get away with it.

Likewise, online presenters can utter non-sequiturs and convince people to buy their products.

What’s more, websites can look credible when they’re professionally designed — even if they convey crappy content.

Long-form text is still the medium par excellence for developing, refining, and testing ideas. Bullshit is much more likely to be exposed when it sits frozen on a page, subject to scrutiny by readers who slow down to ask: What’s really being said here? And is it true?

I look for multiple points of access to an author’s ideas with the core content in a book. If there’s no book at the center of the storm, that’s a red flag.

Evaluating Self-Help — Can You Test the Ideas?

woeurieThe best self-help books are grounded in psychological theory and research. Yet both of these have their limits. Even a self-help technique that works like magic for most people in a respected study might fizzle for you.

Your best option is to translate an author’s ideas into new behaviors and monitor the results in your own life. Cognitive behavioral therapists refer to this as behavioral activation, or running a behavioral experiment. There’s a robust literature on these topics. Following are some core themes.

Check your mindset

Josh Kaufman, author of books about rapid skill acquisition and running a business, suggests that you be willing to see your life as a series of experiments. In effect, you adopt the mindset of a scientist who’s studying the effects of a specific behavior change on a sample of one — yourself.

This mental change is subtle and significant. It starts from the assumptions that you can change your behavior and that it’s worthwhile to make the effort. If you have a fixed mindset based on a belief that you ultimately cannot change, then you’ll doom your behavior experiment from the start.

Choose a new behavior

See if you can translate an author’s ideas into physical, visible behaviors. For examples, see BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits course. Tiny Habits are “baby steps” — daily behaviors that require little time or effort. Examples are flossing just 1 tooth after brushing your teeth and doing just 1 push up after you use the bathroom.

BJ’s theory is that small behaviors expand over time into bigger habits, such as flossing all your teeth and doing dozens of push ups every day. This is exactly what I’ve found, and I encourage you to test Tiny Habits for yourself.

Ironically, lots of material in the self-help space is filled with vaguely inspirational abstractions that have no real implications for your daily behavior. (As much as I enjoyed the Landmark Forum, for example, it’s filled with that stuff.)

Collect data as you do the new behavior

Keep track of how often you do your new behaviors and the results you’re getting. You have many options here. Keep it simple.

For example, you could use an activity tracker such as a Fitbit to monitor how many steps you take every day.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used a wall calendar to track how many days in a row he wrote new jokes.

There are also plenty of pre-formatted worksheets for collecting data on your behaviors and their consequences. Start here.

Confirm or disconfirm the author’s predictions.

In essence, a self-help book is a set of predictions: If you use these suggestions, then your life will change for the better in specific ways. When you make concrete behavior changes and measure the effects, you can speak with authority about whether those predictions came true for you.

For more on testing ideas, see:

Evaluating Self-Help — Is It Based On Theory?

graph-backgroundTheory is one of the least understood words in the English language. We often hear the term used derisively — as in that idea sounds good in theory, but will it work in practice?

Actually, a theory states precise relationships between things we observe. A genuine theory allows you to accurately predict the consequences of your behavior. If a theory doesn’t work in practice, then it’s not a good theory.

In How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, and Karen Dillon explain the practical benefits of theory:

Indeed, while experiences and information can be good teachers, there are many times in life where we simply cannot afford to learn on the job. You don’t want to have to go through multiple marriages to learn how to be a good spouse. Or wait until your last child has grown to master parenthood. This is why theory can be so valuable: it can explain what will happen, even before you experience it.

A related benefit is that theory gives you a way to create your own strategies for behavior change. Take psychologist BJ Fogg’s model, for example. It states that for a behavior to occur, three elements must converge in the same moment:

  • Motivation, including the desire for pleasure over pain, hope over fear, and social acceptance over social rejection
  • Ability, meaning that simple behaviors are more likely to occur when motivation is low (which is often)
  • Trigger — a cue or call to action, such as a ringing alarm clock

I used this model to develop a daily yoga practice after decades of trying and failing. After turning on my coffee maker in the morning (a reliable daily trigger), my intention is to simply step on my yoga mat — a behavior that requires no special ability.

BJ Fogg’s model predicts that such tiny habits evolve naturally into more complex and sustained behaviors. This is exactly what happened for me: Over time, stepping on the mat led to doing several rounds of sun salutes — even on days when my motivation to do yoga is zilch.

All this is why I’m excited by BJ’s model and books such as Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life and Mind and Emotions. Because they are grounded in research-based theory (Relational Frame Theory, to be exact), these books exemplify the gold standard for self-help.

At a lower level are inspirational books based on anecdotes, such as Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and the whole Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I don’t find theories in such books. They’re not research-based, and their predictive power is questionable.

Which is why I often ask: That’s fine in practice, but does it work in theory?

Evaluating Self-Help — Is It Based On Current Research?

ttronslien-9913This morning I’m scanning published samples of the work that I’ve done with clients — many of them self-help books. I’m also asking myself Which of these hold up? Which of these I can still recommend after all these years?

The answer, sadly, is not all of them.

The passage of time allows me to see this body of work with a withering objectivity. Alas, several of these books are simply ego-driven puff pieces — super-sized business cards designed to build an author’s brand rather than impart any useful content.

What went wrong with these projects? Many things. But the biggest problem by far is that these books — like most self-help books — are not scientific. Rather than relying on published research or other rigorous testing, they’re instead based on personal anecdotes and testimonials. And there are many reasons for us to doubt that material, including the following:

Results matter only when they’re repeated

I want to know that someone besides the author has succeeded as a direct result of applying the book’s content. If a self-help author relies on personal examples rather than objective observations of many people, then the book is probably based on chance rather than cause-effect relationships.

Anecdotes often ignore confirmation bias

As human beings we desperately want to believe that our beliefs are correct. This leads us to notice events that confirm those beliefs and ignore those that disconfirm them. (Josh Kaufman has a nice post on this cognitive bias.)

This is one place where the scientific method shines: Good researchers deliberately seek out the data that disconfirms  their hypotheses, which leads to more trustworthy conclusions in the long run.

Stories morph with repetition

I’ve sat through presentation after presentation by clients and heard their anecdotes change over time. Details shift. New characters appear. Outcomes are progressively recast to sound more impressive.

My clients are not evil; they are simply human. Like all of us, they want to be liked — an endearing impulse that can easily trump the truth.

For more on how anecdotes and testimonials can sabotage self-help books, see this brilliant series of posts by April Hamilton:

Also see these from my archives:

Evaluating Self-Help — Ask These Questions

3534516458_48e4e8595f_zWhenever you dip in to the multi-billion-dollar industry that we casually refer to as self-help, arm yourself with an ancient dictum: caveat emptor. This is often translated as let the buyer beware, and it reminds us of two inherent risks.

First, thousands of people have published books about how to “improve” yourself and “transform” your life.

Second, the ideas in these books run the gamut from clear, tested, and safe to unclear, untested, and possibly dangerous.

Following are acid-test questions that I ask to “crap-detect” any book in this genre:

  • Is it grounded in current research? Most self-help is not. Instead, it relies heavily on anecdotes and authors’ personal experiences. Both can easily lead us astray.
  • Is it grounded in theory? I like to read books by people who’ve taken the time to create a useful and accurate model of human behavior.
  • Can you test the ideas? If a self-help book does not suggest a meaningful change in behavior that you sustain for the long-term, then beware.
  • How much time and money are you asked to invest? Some authors offer useful content for free, or for the price of a paperback book. Others want you to invest weeks of your life and thousands of dollars in online courses. Don’t assume that the latter is better.

In future posts, I’ll explore each question in more detail. Please stay tuned!

Image credit: Marco Bellucci / photo on flickr

Taking Refuge in “Big Sky Mind” — Feelings Are Facts, Not Problems

main_ACTMadeSimple_3dbooksRuss Harris, author of ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, notes that “virtually every addiction known to mankind begins as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression and so on.”

When it comes to feelings, ACT therapists take a radical approach: they refuse to label any feeling as a problem. They also have little interest in reducing symptoms.

Instead, ACT is based on mindfulness — moment-to-moment, non-judging awareness. With mindfulness, we fully accept and permit any feeling.

In ACT, Mindfulness is described with analogies, including the following.

Big sky mind

In this analogy, conscious awareness is compared to the sky and thoughts and feelings to soft, wispy clouds that arise and pass away. Even violent storm clouds (distressing feelings) eventually disappear.

Space

Consider the space in a room. It allows people to enter and leave the room. Those people laugh, cry, or scream at each other. No matter what happens in the room, the space remains unaffected. In the same way, awareness remains unstained by any thought or feeling.

Game board

Intense battles unfold on the squares of a chess, checkers, or Monopoly board. Yet all the battles eventually come to an end. The pieces are picked up, and the players disperse. The game board acts as a container for conflict but remains essentially unaffected by it.

“What if you are the board on which this game was being played?” asks Steven Hayes in his book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life. “What if you aren’t defined by your pain, but rather you are the conscious container for it?”

For more on this topic, see Harris’s wonderful article Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (PDF).

Taking Refuge in “Big Sky Mind” — the Observing Self

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There is an aspect of you that is free of suffering — immune to change and untouched by circumstances. And, it is available to you in any moment, in any place, if you only know how to access it. 

In many meditation teachings, this aspect of ourselves is called the witness, the observer, or big sky mind. Practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) call it the observing self and suggest a variety of ways to discover it.

According to Steven Hayes, psychotherapist and developer of ACT, the observing self transcends our ordinary identity. That identity is created by language — specifically, by the ways that we complete the sentence I am…. For example:

  • I am sad.
  • I am angry.
  • I am happy.
  • I am afraid.

Language is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it creates a coherent sense of self — a definite someone who experiences the events of everyday life and creates a story to make sense of them.

On the other hand, we can hypnotize ourselves into thinking that our sentences tell the whole truth about ourselves.

The problem is that language is static while reality is dynamic. Thoughts and feelings — even the most ecstatic or distressing — come and go. Nothing about our internal experience is fixed or permanent. Sentences such as I am sad and I am angry just don’t do justice to this fact. As result, they lock us into a sense of suffering.

Our refuge is big sky mind — the observing self. The challenge is to discover this aspect of ourselves, since it cannot be fully captured in language.

In their book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, Hayes and Spencer Smith offer questions that can lead us to a direct experience of the observing self:

  • Where is “here? This word does not always refer a specific place, such as the address of your home or office. In essence, “here” is a place from which observations are made.
  • When is “now? This word does not always refer to a specific time such as Tuesday or 8 am. In essence, it is the time from which observations are made.
  • Where is “I? You can’t use your finger to point to “I.” Again, this is simply a space from which observations are made.

This sense of a observer is fascinating. We have direct experience of it. Yet it is not a physical thing, and it has no boundaries in time.

Hayes and Smith suggest that we continue with three more questions:

  • Recall a memory from your childhood. Who was it who watched those events unfold?
  • Who is it that ate your breakfast this morning?
  • Who is reading this right now?

“Notice that you are here in this moment reading, and notice too that the person behind these reading eyes was there when you ate breakfast this morning and was there when you were a child,” Hayes writes. “You’ve been you your whole life, though there have been many changes in your thoughts, your feelings, your roles, and your body.”

In my next post, I’ll explore how ACT uses metaphors based on the observing self to reduce suffering.

Mindfulness for Behavior Change — Insights from Shinzen Young

profile picNo one has explored the connection between mindfulness and behavior change more thoroughly than Shinzen Young. His interest in meditation led him from graduate studies in Buddhism at the University of Wisconsin to ordination as a monk in the Shingon tradition of Japanese Vajrayana. Shinzen thus blends academic rigor with direct experience.

One pillar of Shinzen’s teaching is that genuine spirituality involves objective behavior change as well as insight and tranquillity. He openly discusses how mindfulness helped to free him from marijuana addiction and “pathological” procrastination. What matters most, he says, are the following principles.

Deconstruct urges for harmful behaviors

Think about people who struggle with compulsive behaviors: The alcoholic who craves another drink. The binge eater who craves another bag of potato chips. The gambler who’s deeply into debt and still goes to the casino every day. What they all share is a powerful urge to act in self-defeating ways.

Mindfulness offers a way to deal directly with those urges. The trick, says Shinzen, is to “divide and conquer.” We can learn to see even the most powerful urge as a combination of smaller forces. When we observe each of those forces separately, we often find that the urge decreases. We can feel compelled to do something without acting on that compulsion.

There are two primary forces to watch for:

  • Thoughts, including mental images of past pleasures from compulsive behaviors and self-talk (rationalization) about why it’s okay to act on the urge right now.
  • Physical sensations, such as the unpleasant feelings of drug withdrawal and the pleasant feelings that accompany mental fantasies.

Shinzen teaches many methods for deconstructing our experience in this way as path to freedom from compulsions. This, he says, is how his decade-long marijuana addiction disappeared after a 10-day meditation retreat.

Make yourself accountable

Mindfulness can be powerful in dealing with urges, but sometimes it’s not enough for long-term behavior change. In order to overcome his habit of procrastination, for example, Shizen combined meditation with psychotherapy.

They key principle here is to ally with something outside ourselves — perhaps a friend, therapist, sponsor, or Twelve Step group. Here we find people to give us manageable assignments for behavior change and hold us accountable for getting them done.

To learn more, see Shinzen’s post on Positive Behavior Change. It will lead you to many more resources.

Alan Watts on Death, Rebirth, and Compassion

Alan Watts wrote 25 books that introduced many people of my generation to Buddhism and Hinduism. Though his personal life was marred by alcoholism, Watts was a graceful writer and transcendent lecturer. (Genuine insight and questionable behavior can co-exist in the same person.)

During 1959, KQED in San Francisco broadcast a series of lectures by Watts — Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life. One of them focused on death. Following are excerpts from that program (which you can watch in full here).

Suppose that I make two statements. Statement 1: After I die, I shall be reborn again as a baby, but I shall forget my former life. Statement 2: After I die, a baby will be born.

Now I believe that those two statements are saying exactly the same thing.

The vacuum created by the disappearance of a being‚ by the disappearance of his memory system‚ is simply filled by another being who is “I” just as you feel that you are “I.”

The funny thing, though, about being “I,” about feeling that one is sort of a center of the universe‚ is that you can only experience this “I” sensation in the singular. You can’t experience being two or three “I’s” all at the same time.

It seems to me that this idea has three very important consequences.

One is that the disappearance of our memory in death is not really something to be regretted. Of course, everybody wishes to hold forever to the memories and to the people and to the situations that he particularly loves. But, surely, if we think this through, is that what we actually want? Do we really want to have those we love‚ however greatly we love them‚ for always and always and always? Isn’t it inconceivable that even in a very distant future we wouldn’t get tired of it?

This, indeed, is the secret of the thing. This is why the demon of impermanence is beneficent. Because it is forgetting about things that renews their wonder.

So there will always be “I”‘s in the world. Every “I” is, in a way, the same “I.” We all might be anyone else. And there is no escape. It goes on and on and on. So long as there is consciousness anywhere, there is “I.”

You, then, look out through all “I”‘s. And that, perhaps, is the secret of the great virtue of compassion.