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Readers, knitters: Once upon a time I could not get enough of the literature of self-help. This began in adolescence, with Susan Dey’s For Girls Only, later sold under the more explainy title Susan Dey’s Secrets on Boys, Beauty and Popularity.* (The part that has stuck with me best are the diagrams on contouring. This book was so visionary.)

Then I took a break about five years ago. I lost my taste for tools, tips, tricks and plans. I gave away virtually all my self-help books to the Little Free Library up the street (no one wondered who the donor was) when I became fatigued—not by the reading, but by all the changes these books seemed to expect I’d make. 

Have you noticed the same? A lot of the literature of self-help is very invested in you taking action. Virtually none of them announce: Just read and absorb! Just stretch out on the chaise, soak in my words and feel better! 

Honestly, in this year 2020, that’s what I’m prepared to do: settle in comfortably and sponge up some wisdom and humor. Also, I don’t have much faith in other people’s action plans. 

Action plans result in more actions, fewer results

Maybe if I’d had an early success, say back in the 70s, when I tried Susan’s contouring method. (Results: disappointing!) And ever since, other people’s action plans seem to have resulted in more actions, and fewer results—if by results we mean “looks just like Laurie Partridge” which I see now maybe was the ur-desire behind every scheme to dress cooler / lose weight / see France on $10 a day / marry rich, etc. 

Anyway, I can attribute no early successes to self-help books, and not all that many later successes either, if I’m honest. It’s really just comfort reading at this point, and the best of the literature now gives me three essential things: laughs, solidarity and permission to take fewer, smaller actions, not more and bigger. If a self-help book doesn’t do those three things, I don’t recommend it. (Probably won’t finish it, either.)

Therefore, the following books get my enthusiastic recommendation, especially in a pandemic year, when most of us do not actually need more on the to-do list. 

Self-help books that encourage us to do less, not more

  • How to Keep House While Drowning: 31 Days of Compassionate Help, K.C. Davis. Everything you need to know about taking care of your environment when life is making caretaking very difficult. And by everything I mean: VERY few things. Davis is a wizard at essentials, and if you experience any days when the tasks of keeping house feel overwhelming, you will find truly helpful advice here. (I’ve already bought and given away multiple copies.)
  • Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. More about doing less, and how to figure out for yourself—with science!—exactly what’s worth never doing at all.
  • Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, B.J. Fogg, PhD. Now this here author does indeed advocate doing things, but he’s all about doing the least-effort things, the kinds of things that make a positive difference but that don’t require superhuman feats of motivation. Like Davis, Fogg is full of ideas for marrying maximum effect with minimum effort.
  • How to Not Always Be Working, Marlee Grace. Here is a book for people whose personal lives and work lives are hopelessly entangled, often because of a device we keep close during every waking minute. Not a lot of marching orders here; this book is more about asking yourself questions. And it’s delightfully brief.
  • How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell. I read this book while living in Oakland, where Odell also lives. She writes a lot about the Morcom Rose Garden, a mysteriously quiet space hiding in the middle of a very busy city in a very crowded part of the world. Odell reminded me that I didn’t even have to go out of my way to spend time there. But every city has its Morcom—a profoundly relaxing place where attention is neither bought nor sold. Odell’s work is about both finding and cultivating those places, and is a giant exhale.

So I guess one of the things I’m seeing and revealing here is that my potential for radical change is apparently limited. When I take two steps forward, I take one back. And that last backward step landed me within easy reach of a bunch more self-help books. But at least I’m only recommending five, and not 20.

What I’m keen to know now is, are you also thinking about doing less? Do you also wonder if action plans and actions are coming to the end of their usefulness? 

Or maybe the idea of the big plan of action never seemed that compelling to you in the first place? Have you taken a sort of Taoist non-doing approach all along? 

I’m interested to hear; please give us your thoughts! And if you have them, I’d love your recommendations for doing less, not more.

Promising you a Rose Garden
Image: Palace Garden of Hazar Jarib in Aliabad, anonymous, 1600 – 1649, Rijksmuseum. Used with permission.

MDK receives a commission for books purchased through affiliate links in this article.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew. Her new book is Meals at Mealtimes. What a concept!


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  • Recently I read about a book written by someone who followed a dozen self help books to the letter for a year – I can’t remember where I read it – and the writer alienated her best friend, put on weight and (possibly) got into debt and trouble at work. I too have thought self help books would help me and have read many from Tony Robbins to Dale Carnegie ( he was pretty good actually). The one that has been useful is Ryan Holliday’s the Stoic Journal, 365 days of answering a question. Practical ones are the best – Huffington’s Sleep, Nestor’s Breath and Hartwig’s Whole 30. And Don Aslett on Cleaning.

  • Thank you!

  • Anything written by Karen Karbo. Yeah, no. Not happening

    • Taoist – yes! That is the way….

  • My planned self-care for 2021? I’m going to (finally, says my dear spouse) retire. Now all I need is that huge stack of “what to do now that you’ve retired” books, not.

  • I have always hated self help books with the exception of Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much. I was married an alcoholic and that book was a revelation. But the rest irk me. They give you 12 pages of information padded up into 295 pages of anecdotes or directives. No thanks!

    Hopefully we are all learning to give ourselves permission to just chill out and nit do so much. It’s hard to get used to but it’s pretty great.

    • Agree entirely! Self-help books all ought to be 12 pages long, maximum!

  • When I need to get my priorities straight, I reread Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness.

  • I’ve never ascribed to self-help books, I believe they primarily “help” the person that wrote it (esp monetarily if it’s successful)! That being said, I’m one hot mess @ the moment;)

  • I thought about buying the last one ,not for me, but my daughter. She is constantly on the go and feels bad about herself if she doesn’t get everything on her to do list done. (which is always unrealistic) I was like that once upon a time. Now that I’m older and retired, I don’t feel the need to be constantly productive. I get up and do the things I want to do, which is mostly knitting. My house may not be completely straightened or a picture out of Southern Living but no one is visiting anyway.

  • Max I wasn’t fully awake and misread the title of your article.
    I was a bit disappointed! Lol!

  • I am currently unemployed (sigh), but for years and years (and years) I worked for a big fany publishing house. Self-help was a very profitable category. About 15 years ago, we also published a book called SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. SHAM stands for Self-Help and Actualization Movement. It is now considered an “old” book, but I re-read it last summer and while I don’t completely agree with all of the author’s assertions, a lot of it holds up. Most wincingly (I say while glancing at my groaning bookshelves), he observes that most buyers of self-help books become repeat customers. It raises the question: if the methods laid out in these books “work,” why do we keep coming back for more? What are we really hungry for?

    • Oh, I VERY MUCH want to read this! Thank you 🙂

  • If you find self help books entertaining, check out the by the book podcast. The 2 co-hosts live by each book for 2 weeks, and it’s pretty funny.

    • I listened to a couple seasons of By the Book, and it was great. A lot of times funny, several times unexpectedly moving (the ladies have issues from their past), and then there was Dean, AKA America’s Favorite Husband, sprinkled around occasionally. Most interesting was that Kristen and Jolenta didn’t always agree on the usefulness of the book in question and had some great discussions articulating their reasons. Good stuff. I would say that Jolenta does not have a great voice for radio, but that gave me a chance to practice not being judgy about that and just concentrate on the content (my exercise in being a better person without buying a self-help book).

  • First and last self-help book I ever read was “I’m OK, You’re OK” back in the 70s. I found anything by Erma Bombeck was much more helpful, should be reading her now!

    • Yes Erma! Just yesterday I entertained a 7-year-old who remarked in my dining room “there’s a LOT of stuff on this table.” (Currently it’s my craft area and my teen’s classroom.) Erma Bombeck would have found just the combination of humor, chagrin, forgiveness.

    • Back in the 70s, I attended a large conference and the dinner speaker was the author of “I’m OK, You’re OK.” I was really looking forward to hearing him. Well, he was dead drunk and pretty preposterous. Most of the room, including myself, got up and left. So much for having your life together.

      • Oh the humanity! Great story; thank you for sharing.

    • Imagine what Erma would have to say about 2020! I have never had a desire to read self-help books, but this comment made me go and check out “If Life Is A Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?” from the library.
      Thanks for the Erma reminder,
      From another Jean

  • I’ve read a few of these borrowed from my library. A couple inspired me to actually purchase them. I can’t remember which as they are no longer in my collection. Needless to say, no change resulted. Self care is focused on things I enjoy and bring calm. A walk with friends, taking a problem, building g a plan and getting a group to participate, and sometimes just stretching out on the carpet and watching the wInd in the trees through the window.

  • I, too, have burned out on self help books after going through a chaotic time the past five years. I did read How To Do Nothing pre-pandemic, though, and thought that seemed like a mighty fine way of life to embrace. It was good preparation for pandemic life- guilt free non-productivity!
    Now I’m reading Play by Stuart Brown MD, which is about the importance of play to feed imagination and creativity, and sharpen the brain. It’s not really self help , but it’s definitely self care.

  • I’ve read my share of self help books in the past (and some really did help). Now I’m just trying to accept myself as I am, a flawed human being. One day I realized that I saw the beauty in others – but was critical of myself. It was an aha! moment… So I try to improve but the choices come from inside. Hope that makes sense.

    • Beautifully stated, Laura. Indeed, we are all flawed human beings. The danger is when we begin believing that there is such a thing as a non-flawed human. Love and humility go a long way these days. I don’t know you, but I hope that you can feel my strong hug for you.

      • Thank you, Lisa, I’m sending you a big hug back 🙂

  • Susan Jeffers Feal the Fear and Do it Anyway was helpful. And I still have bits of SARK’s books float up years later. I have to say learning to do the bare minimum has been my trajectory after getting ME / CFS twenty years ago. It helps to never invite people over THANK YOU PANDEMIC! and lower your standards massively. Concentrate on the good stuff ie energy to see friends if you want to, But cut out as much of the dross as possible.

    • SARK! Oh I love her so much. She’s a good example of a writer who improves everything for me without trying to improve anything ABOUT me. Love, love, LOVE her!

  • “Wreck this Journal”, and also “The Positivity Kit” . Plus, any cookbook with pictures of pie.

  • Too many self-help books start with the same premise: “You’re broken but I know exactly how to fix you.” Which I find sententious as well as ludicrous for the most part.
    Patricia Hampl’s “The Art of the Wasted Day” is an antidote to all the blah-blah.It’s a delightful, literate (I daresay literary) treatise on living and enjoying life without the constant, exhausting and ultimately futile drive for accomplishment and perfection.

    • Second that, a great book.

    • Sounds like a necessary text. Thank you for the rec!

  • “Let sleeping dust lie” is one of my mantras. Actually, I pay someone to clean/dust once a month. It has been very liberating. Read the books on “cleaning”–if I can get one good tip from a book-that’s really good. I now roll my jeans/pants rather than folding–also roll my towels.

  • I’ve read a few self help books over the years. I don’t remember them. I do remember thinking ask the ones about hour to organize are written for people who already know how to organize and are looking for tots to make them inhabitants extraordinaire. The present situation of a virus-limited life plus some distressing situations in my personal life, have forced me to consider the big issue problems that I have been trying to avoid dealng with for years which are now becoming urgent. I’ve been reading books about social issues, thinking, praying and considering what things are most important to me. This has resulted in several bursts of activity as I confront my problems. This doesn’t feel like tips or tricks, but having a bit more bedrock under my feet. It has been more beneficial than checking out, chilling, or ‘me’ days, Erich may be necessary for others but are not what I need at this time. I’m feeling more ended in my own life.

    • I apologize for so many errors. I should know better than to respond on my phone without my glasses on, especially when I’m in a hurry. That last sentence was supposed to be “I’m feeling more engaged in my own life.”

  • I feel like the best self-help books meet you where you are and are headed in the same direction you were going anyway, and help you get there faster and in a better mood. It will sound crazy but I still feel like Marie Kondo’s book was that for me. She didn’t try to make me over, she helped me get in the right frame of mind about things (literal things) and go in the direction I wanted to go: less stuff and also less worrying about stuff. Clarifying and lightening. Ahhhhh. That little bit of order, and the ability to create it without hating myself first, has been my 2020 salvation.

    • I found her basic approach to be very helpful, as opposed to all the ‘get rid of it if you haven’t used it within 6 months’ methods. Consider what it means to you, keep it if it gives you joy, make room for the thinking you really want. It’s not minimalist.

      • The thing I love Marie Kondo the most for is her permission—nay, order!—to get rid of all notes from classes, workshops and seminars. I’ve kept knitting class notes, but self-help workshops? Ugh, if I’ve survived as an imperfect being THIS long… 😉

  • What a beautiful image of a garden! What was this post about again? .

  • I, too, lived near the Rose Garden, just up the street (Jean) and across from what had been Jessica Mitford’s home. Her biography starts with mention of it. Once a neighbor received a piece of mail addressed “second house on Happiness Street” – yup. The garden was indeed respite for many. Thank you for mentioning it.

    • Today’s crazy coincidence – you must have been mt MIL’s neighbor. Her name was Adela Rose and she lived right across the street from Jessica Mitford

  • About 30-odd years ago, PBS did one of their annual fund-raising specials featuring John Bradshaw: On the Family. It was a “snow day” for our six kids and I had just started my second semester of law school. It was a revelation. It was the beginning of learning to reframe the way I looked at my life, my faith, my career, my own family. Over time I think I’ve bought and given away/lent out just about all of his books — and those of others— Melodie Beattie, Claudia Black, SARK, M. Scott Peck, Dale Carnegie— even the (sadly) distorted and recently maligned Norman Vincent Peale. Have I gotten life down perfectly yet? Oh hell no! But I am getting better at compassion- for myself and others. And hope- the essential from the bottom of Pandora’s box- that propels us forward.

  • I find reading novels is more enriching than almost any other type of written word. Fictional stories feed me viewpoints that I find easier to absorb than instructions with expectations.

    • Me too! A great novel or even just a great story fills me with joy and helps me understand people, both of which are great self help. That said, I do check out the occasional self-help book and consider it a win if it leads to one or two small life improvements. Relying on the public library and blanket permission not to finish any self help book I don’t enjoy are how I make it work for me.

  • This is such an important topic. Some of the self helps are just not current. I, for one, won’t read anyone who promotes a book without their having deep Psych credentials. Enough of the Ree Drummonds, and Jen Hatmaker advice. My father worked for a man who only believed in Positive Thinkings. It made it hard to grow up with someone who was constantly shouting that you could do better! You are not exceeding your reach! I now work very hard on Depression . HE never believed in depression.

    There are a few books I think are old, but still worthy: The Dance Of Anger and I Thought it wasJust Me. There is one on Quiet People that I read and found so interesting. But the old IM OK your OK, and Napoleon Hill Positive Thinking are outdated and may have spoken to people and changed lives then, but not now.

    Thanks for bringing up this great topic

  • What a timely, great post! As a retired community college instructor part of my teaching philosophy was to create ways for each of my students to build on one small success after another. I, too, (embarrassingly) have quite a few unfinished self-help books and journals that ask often for overwhelming outcomes. So, just in the past few days, in an effort to lose a bit of weight to relieve a sore back, I came up with just 2 very simple steps I can take to help myself do this…rather than set the proverbial unrealistic goals that deter persistent effort. Small successes… Self help and care are different for each of us but I’m all for affirmations that nurture self peace and joy!

  • There are only two self help books I’ve read that really changed anything about me, and maybe that’s enough, now that I think about it. The first was David Whyte’s book, “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.” I learned that you get to bring your whole self to work, and that message really helped me in a difficult part of my career. It was also an introduction to the poetry of Mary Oliver (this was the 90’s, and she was not nearly as ubiquitous a presence as she would later become). The other was less profound but also brought real change: “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, and it actually did teach me how to do less. His central thesis that your brain is not for remembering things, but for having ideas with, caused real changes in the way I organized my working life, and that increased efficiency created actual real time to myself, something I desperately needed when I was a practicing lawyer. It continues to help me as a retired person who can’t find enough hours in the day to do all the things I wanted to do when I was stuck behind that damned desk.

  • I’ve read lots and lots of self-help books about decluttering, but the only one that really helped me was Dana King’s book Decluttering at the Speed of Life. She has also written one on housework. Her main premise is we get to do housework, or declutter, in the time we actually have, not in big chunks which I’ve never been able to do.
    Some other books were entertaining or even inspiring, but those two are the only ones that got me making the changes I wants to make, and I’m still going with her ideas, several months later.

    • Plus she’s pretty funny!

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