As a teenager I tore through the library’s self-help section. The staff must’ve wondered why a 16-year-old wanted books aimed at business leaders or those on the verge of a midlife crisis, but I was drawn to their promises to ‘be the best you!’. I wanted to be an awesome adult, to have a life that enriched and inspired me. My favourite at the time was Stephen R. Covey’s 1989 classic The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People. On the school bus, I learned about paradigm shifts while my mates read Just Seventeen. In my 20s, I quit life-coaching for actually living, and didn’t look back. Until now. I’m moving into that next phase of my life: where you have babies and get married. I’m wondering if I want those things, or if I just think I do because everyone else does. The decisions I’m making – about jobs, marriage and kids – are big. How do I really know what I want, and how the heck do
I achieve it? A few months ago, I began delving back into the world of self-help books, looking for answers.
Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin (Two Roads)
The promise: Master the habits of everyday life.
My intention: I figured if I could bring more order and routine in to my everyday life, I might have more headspace to think about the bigger picture.
The reality: Rubin thinks you could be happier if you got a handle on your habits: nurture positive ones and quit bad ones. Habits, she thinks, are ruled by expectations – internal and external – and you fall into one of four ‘tendencies’ depending on your attitude. You might be a Questioner – meaning you resist outer expectations (demands made by others), but meet internal ones; an Obliger, who only meets external expectations; or a Rebel, meaning you don’t respond to any expectations at all. Rubin seems like a woman I’d like to go for a gin and tonic with, but she doesn’t drink because she’s an Upholder, so she’s extremely disciplined and healthy. But she does allow herself almonds as a treat, so it’s not like she has no fun. She doesn’t tell you what to do; instead, she makes you think: ‘Jeeeez, I could be so much more productive if I was a bit more like Gretchen Rubin.’
The results: I am a Questioner. I make promises like ‘I will wake up and do exercise’, and stick to them unless there’s a compelling reason not to. My partner is a Rebel, meaning they never want to leave a party or commit to an exercise regime. Rubin says we won’t work because I’m ‘too distressed by the Rebel’s expectation-rejecting behaviour’. Thanks, Gretchen (homewrecker!). I identified my worst habits as a messy desk and getting too many taxis, and I quit these by discovering how much more focused I felt with a clean desk, and how much more money I had if I took the bus. I also realised I work best in the morning. So, I’ve been setting my alarm for 7.45am at weekends in order to have a productive early routine; I can write, read, cook and exercise before my partner even wakes up.
Now what? I ‘lived’ this book for about three weeks, but all of these new habits were overwhelming. I was so focused on the micro, I forgot to ask myself any of the big life questions. At least my desk is tidy.
Top tip: Clean your teeth earlier in the evenings to stop that need for a little something sweet or another glass of wine before bed.
Two Awesome Hours by Josh Davis (Harper Collins)
The promise: Science-based strategies to harness your best time and get your most important work done.
My intention: Do I want to be a high-achieving, Claire Underwood-style #FemaleBoss, or do I want to move to an eco commune in Goa? Being 'awesome' at work should help me find out.
The reality: I found myself shaking this book as though it were the author’s shoulders and saying: ‘You’re not as clever as you think you are!’ Davis has some decent ideas about doing the right things at the right times but the premise is a gimmick, and the ‘science’ is wafer thin. His big idea is about recognising ‘decision points’ to optimise productivity. So, when one task comes to an end, assess your body and mind before deciding what’s best to do next.
The results: ‘Uh oh, decision point approaching,’ I’d think as I finished a task. Then I’d get in a flap wondering what the most ‘awesome’ next job would be, and end up having to have a little sit down. The book did make me think more about how I structured my day – I wrote lists in order of importance; but I wonder, in the modern workplace, if two highly productive hours are enough.
Now what? I lasted five days, then realised I like working and the way I do it. Goa? What was I thinking?
Top tip: Dim your lights a bit when you want to work on something creative.
The Better Life by Claire Diaz-Ortiz (Moody Publishers)
The promise: Small things you can do right where you are.
My intention: Could this book help me work out if I want to change anything or just enjoy the here and now?
The reality: This series of vignettes from the writer’s life (she’s worked in an African orphanage and been a boss at Twitter) is interwoven with tips for achieving more in a manageable way. I was on board until about halfway through when she writes: ‘And it was in that moment that God spoke to me.’ Wah! Despite the God bombshell, some of her tips are good. She says to set your intention for the year by attributing a word to it, then using it as a filter for the coming months. I decided my word should be ‘build’: I want to be creative and develop, but also lay strong foundations.
The results: Díaz-Ortiz suggests managing leisure time as you would a work day, so I write lists of enjoyable stuff I want to do at the weekend. It makes those two days feel much more fulfilling.
Now what? A few months on and I’m still thinking about my ‘word’ and feeling good about it. This can be a year for contemplating the big stuff, and talking to my partner about it. We don’t need to make any decisions about our future, but we need to start laying the groundwork. I feel a sense of purpose (and relief). Phew!
Top tip: 'Read more… Your life will thank you.'
Sane by Emma Young (Hodder & Stoughton)
The promise: Shape your mind, improve your mental strength and find calm.
My intention: I'd like to be able to deal with the potential life changes of my 30s, or at least <think> about dealing with them without feeling massively anxious and stressed.
The reality: Young won’t settle for any shoddy theories in her quest to develop ‘a comprehensive programme that could build basic mental strength’. She covers a lot of ground: meditation, exercise, diet, sleep, controlling negative thoughts, mental toughness and getting in touch with your senses.
The results: I tried out meditation because Young actually proves that it diminishes stress. I used my commute on a packed train to focus my attention on my feet, take deep breaths and clear my mind. Young says: ‘Getting upset about something outside your control is destructive. You can only control your emotions and your actions.’ This is just what I needed to hear.
Now what? I'm still meditating, it's really helped me get to grips with some irrational anxieties.
Top tip: Write down three things that went well in the day and why.
Color Therapy: An Anti-Stress Coloring Book by Cindy Wilde, Laura-Kate Chapman, Richard Merritt (Michael O'Mara Books Ltd)
The promise: Benefit from the stress-relieving effect that increased focus and creativity can provide.
My intention: After all this hard work and serious life assessment, I wanted a fun and easy way to zone out.
The reality: The idea is that you become so engrossed in colouring a pattern that all other thoughts slip away and you fall into a creative trance akin to meditation. Despite being on the verge of a full-on tantrum when I couldn’t find my pink pen, this really worked.
The results: It was during a frustrating work phone call that I began colouring. I was trying to remain professional when all I wanted to do was shout ‘LEAVE ME ALONE’ and slam down the phone. As the voice ranted, I began to colour a picture of a Russian doll. Blue for her eyes. Very good. Red cheeks. A yellow face… No going back now. As I floated into a happy place, I exhaled and asked that my caller put all his concerns in an email. Result!
Now what? I keep this book in my desk drawer and actually look forward to moments of stress so I can get back to the lion's mane I'm currently working on.
Top tip: Colour inside the lines.
The verdict: Self-help books today are more about working things out for yourself than the ones I read as a teen. None of these writers explicitly told me what to do, but somehow I’ve felt a shift. I’ll keep up the meditation, early starts and exercise, and I’ll stick to setting intentions and planning my time at work and home, because these things have helped me feel a lot cooler about the scary grown-up stuff that the next few years will bring. But, for my long-suffering partner’s sake, I’m going to give my incessant desire to sculpt the perfect self a rest for a while. I’ve been energised and inspired by the process but, right now, I just want to chill on the sofa. The best me will have to wait.