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:

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