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?

The Case Against Goals — and an Alternative

Goal setting is touted in many self-help books as a sure path to success and happiness. Ironically, such widespread agreement makes me want to question the whole strategy even more.

Turns out that there are plenty of people willing to join me.

Goals can fail to satisfy 

Start with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert and his well-researched, entertaining book Stumbling On Happiness.

We often set goals based on what we think will make us happy in the future. The problem, says Dan, is that we are lousy at predicting how we will feel in a decade, a year, or even a month from today. This means that we can achieve our goals without getting the emotional payoff that we originally wanted.

Several psychologists are researching this phenomenon, which is called affective forecasting. Dan’s site lists some relevant studies.

Goals depend on sustained effort

Jeff Goins argues that “goals are a waste of time” because they seduce us into relying on planning.

How well do you act on your plans to achieve your goals? If you struggle with procrastination and follow-through, then the odds are against you.

Many achievements are unplanned

In addition, many wonderful things happen to us — such as making friends, falling in love, or finding a dream job — without planning. Focusing exclusively on our goals can blind us to surprise opportunities.

Goals highlight the gap between what we have and what we want

Shane Parrish notes that setting our sights on a long-term goal highlights the discrepancy between our current state and our ideal state:

Goal-oriented people mostly fail. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, you will constantly think that you are not at your goal until you reach it. If you fall short you’re still a failure. The only way to reach your goal is to lose the 20 pounds. It’s a state of near perpetual failure.

Replacing goals with daily practices

Fortunately there is a way to overcome these obstacles: Let go of your goals and focus instead on small, daily behavior changes.

I’m actually skeptical about long-term goals that don’t lead to daily behavior change.

This idea is developed in a quirky and delightful book by cartoonist Scott Adams — How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. According to Scott, “goals are for losers” and “systems are for winners”:

If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system. In the exercise realm, running a marathon in under four hours is a goal, but exercising daily is a system. In business, making a million dollars is a goal, but being a serial entrepreneur is a system.

The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.

Why delay gratification? 

That last paragraph is crucial. Every time that you do your small daily behavior, you experience immediate success. And if that behavior is something you enjoy, then you can savor the process of behavior change as much as the results.

My friend Judy put it this way: “Each day is whole and good all by itself. I can still accomplish things and NOT locate myself on an arduous path of incompleteness and frankly, pain.”


Where to learn more

If you want to further explore the pitfalls of goal setting and play with some alternatives, check out the following:

Also listen to this podcast, in which James Altucher urges us to forget about goals and base our daily activities on themes instead.

I wish you daily success and fulfillment.