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?

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