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.
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