Why Self-Help Doesn’t Work

So many of us love self-help. We ravenously consume the latest and greatest, hoping that with every page we read, we will become a better and better person. But if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably experienced the moment when you realize, “Wait, nothing has changed despite having read all these articles and books”. Now sure, some of you out there will have taken these books and become a better person, which is great. But I can bet that there are many of you out there that have wondered this same thing. 

So what’s happening? Well a few things. Have you ever noticed the content feeling you get after deciding to chase after a goal or how good it feels to make a to-do list for the next day, the decision that tomorrow is the day that everything changes? It feels great! It feels so good to say to yourself this is it, this is the moment that I’m going to be different.

But then you wake up the next day, look at that to-do list and wonder, “What the hell was I thinking?”. Sometimes we can get started and keep the momentum going through the next day, or maybe even a few days, but for many, the momentum doesn’t carry us very far.

When we read self-help books, they elicit a similar response, we resolve to do better and are inspired to be successful. Many times though, that’s as far as it takes us. What’s happening is a brain response that creates a feeling similar to the one we get when we accomplish something. Essentially, we feel as though we’ve done something and therefore do not need to continue.

What I liken these responses to is a study done by Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues where they examined what happens when we announce our goals and the effect that has on our goal completion ability. 

This study looked at individuals pursuing higher education. The students were given a questionnaire regarding how they felt about their chosen field and their intentions in pursuing this field. There were two groups that answered this questionnaire, one whose intentions were recognized and those whose intentions were ignored. 

The study found that those who had their intentions recognized regarding their field worked less than their ignored counterparts. Those that had been recognized were more likely to end their studying early and feel a sense of completion sooner than the group that had their intentions ignored. Having our goals affirmed by others makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside, leading to an internal sense of accomplishment.

I know for myself, I can create this feeling all on my own. Sitting down and reading an inspiring and interesting pop psychology or self-help book honestly makes me feel accomplished. Watching motivational Youtube videos? Yep, same thing. I feel as though I’ve done something, my brain rewards me with a rush of dopamine. All the while, I’ve accomplished nothing. 

This is why it’s easy to get in this self-help, motivational loop. We’re seeking that next hit to make us feel good, make us feel accomplished. We read another book, watch another video, make another list. All the while we’re accomplishing nothing.

What needs to be cultivated is self discipline. Self-help books can provide a framework, but they will not put the work in for you. Sometimes the books we read provide us with really great advice or anecdotal evidence we can take and apply to our own lives. More often than not, we don’t do this. Being able to put into practice all the information we’ve gleaned on how to stop procrastinating or how to save money, would lead to more success than just reading it and hoping it somehow changes your life.

Self-help books won’t help you unless you act on them. We all want a quick fix, a quick change, instant gratification. We are hardwired to find the easiest way to do something. We’re also hardwired to seek out things that make us feel good. Videos, books and articles won’t do the work for you, but they’ll make it feel like you’ve done the work. If you find yourself reading all these motivational, inspirational, how to improve your life books, but you don’t see any change, it’s time to rethink your strategy. Maybe these books actually do nothing for you and that’s fine. Maybe these books could do something for you, if only you put the work in.

Take a step back next time you put on an inspiring video or read an article on how to study better and ask yourself, “What can I take away from this?”. Then work to apply it. See how different things in your life will be once you are able to self-reflect in this way.

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