Why Self Help Sucks
Look around the blogosphere today and you’ll see a ton of advice out there. Here are just a few examples of recent titles:
- How To Develop Mastery, Make Millions, and Be Happy
- 7 Crucial Lessons People Often Learn Too Late in Life
- You Make Or Break Your Life Between 5-7 AM
- Surround Yourself with People Who Hold You to a Higher Standard than Yourself
- 19 Tiny Habits That Lead to Huge Results
Most of this is really good advice. We read it and we say, ‘someday I’ll pick up some of those habits.’ OR, we get a strike of inspiration and try one of the bits of advice for a day or two until we forget about it. We forget about it because it doesn’t provide immediate results or some other piece of advice butterflied it’s way in front of our brains and we then focused on that. Even more likely, we thought about trying it and realized it was just too hard. So, I have to get up at 5 AM? Really? Who’s going to know if I get up at 5:15 or hit the snooze button until 6:45 anyway? We then convince ourselves that we probably didn’t need that advice anyway. Yeah, our lives aren’t great, but they’re not sooo bad, right?
Change IS hard. Most of us fear it. It is far easier to stick to the comfortable. If you put yourself out there you could look like a fool or even worse, you could FAIL. Oh, the horror.
I was talking to a life coach acquaintance of mine and she shared a really disturbing figure with me. In her experience, life coaching only works for about 5% of all the people she coaches. Five Percent! That’s with people that have actually made a commitment and shelled out $250 an hour! She stays sane because the 5% that stick with it make it worth it. I don’t think this is an anomaly.
My wife is a family physician who has a fair number of patients with behavioral health issues and many more that deal with issues with diabetes or have serious trouble with medication adherence. This is another group that sees a professional, works out a plan and universally struggles to stick with it. Thankfully, her numbers aren’t as bad as 5% but they’re not a whole hell of a lot better either.
So what’s happening here? When reading articles online, minimal attention is given to these good ideas. They pass through the brain like a pleasant thought and last just as long. There is zero accountability when it comes to reading self-help. The exception is whatever accountability you impose upon yourself.
Nobody cares if you hit your goals or not. That’s why many self-help experts ask you to make these goals public and surround yourself with a support group. Doing so raises the stakes and attempts to make people care. These are great ideas – in theory. These ideas are super hard to put into practice. You know how busy other people are and you don’t want to impose. It doesn’t matter to your lizard brain that your friends would probably be happy and honored to help. It just sounds so cheesy and requires a level of vulnerability you’re probably not comfortable with.
Accountability is only part of the puzzle. According to my life coach friend it’s only about 5% of the puzzle. That’s primarily what her clients are paying her for, accountability. I would personally put the pie slice quite a bit higher when accountability is applied, more along the lines of 20%. This can soar far higher when a group dynamic is applied. If you put group pressure in place by making things public or by adding an element of competition, we’ve seen the numbers get as high as 83% with our own experiments. That percentage comes with a serious caveat, you only get those high numbers from competition when the majority of the group engages. If only a minority engages, you end up back in the 20% range. My wife sees higher accountability due to the authority of her role as well as the potential mortality of the consequences. Things crystallize a bit when death is on the line.
Awareness and mindfulness
So what other factors are in play? After speaking with a bevy of life coaches, they all agreed that awareness and mindfulness were another big factor. When we review our goals or talk about them with a coach or therapist, we leave those conversations or reviews feeling very inspired and pretty clear on what we should be doing. However, when we smack into the stresses of real life, these great intentions vanish quicker than a hamburger at a Vegans Anonymous meeting. Having the mindfulness to stick with your goals out in the real world is hard as hell. If only we could program a little angel to be sitting on our shoulder to remind of us of our goals when the shit hits the fan… That’s part of what the folks at the Track your happiness project are doing. They have you check in on a regular basis throughout the day just to see how you are feeling and why. Just participating in the project is having a positive effect on people’s overall happiness because they are made aware of it. That’s the power of mindfulness.
Play / Fun
I think the biggest reason by far is that self-help or personal development is typically not very fun. Coming up with your goals is fun. Building the vision boards is fun. Imagining how successful you’ll be when you hit those goals is fun. But doing the work…not so much. Remember when you were kid and you had to get your chores done? I know I would either put it off for as long as possible and then slog through it dragging my feet. Or, I would make a game out of it somehow and have fun getting it done. Kids have been able to turn chores into fun since time immemorial. Yeah, they typically don’t do as good of a job as an adult because the focus becomes the game, but they still get work done.
A good story on that front: my youngest daughter picked, quite literally, the shittiest chore out of the chore hat for last year – the weekly cleanup of the dog poop out of the dog run. Every Sunday when it was time to get it done, the waterworks would turn on. Keep in mind, she was only eight. “I hate that job <deep breath, huge wail>; how come I got the worst job <sob>.” So I started to help her out with it. In this case it was me that turned it into a game. We would always start by looking for the grossest poop of the bunch. Then we would both point at it, take a deep breath, and yell ‘ewwwwww’ at the top of our lungs until we were out of breath. But then, she picked it up. Next we would look for all of the hidden poops, those that were under leaves or dog toys – a poop scavenger hunt. And she picked those up. By that time, all that was left were the easy ones and she got through those pretty quickly. Before we knew it, the job was done. I’m not going to say that left her looking forward to doing the chore the next week, but she always got it done.
One of my eldest daughters chores last year was to cook one dinner a week. She likes to cook so this was not a huge deal for her. Regardless, whenever I could, I volunteered to be her sous chef. So she was the boss. And that was definitely a good time for her. It was also a great time for me. I gained a ton of insight into her thinking patterns. It was also a great chance to deepen my relationship with her.
The fun approach should be a guideline for life anyway. Who are the teachers you remember most growing up? They were always the ones that made learning fun. The whacky science teacher or we even had a math teacher who was one of the coaches who just didn’t get most of the subject he was teaching. The fun and funny part was that he was very open about it, happy to share his vulnerability and even getting the kids to help him figure out problems on the board. In retrospect, I truly wonder if he didn’t really get it in the first place and that was just his style of finding engagement.
It’s easy to be the downer. It’s a lot harder to pick people up. To be the fun one.
So, how do we make self-help fun? This is what Jane McGonigal has been spending her time doing for the last six years, trying to gamify life. Her story is a truly spectacular and is really worth the 20 minute TED talk if you haven’t seen it already. She has proven that some of this stuff can be made fun with her game SuperBetter. I wasn’t a huge fan of the game but I love the idea.
I can’t remember who said it but I read it somewhere – “Flow is playtime for adults.” Once you can really get into a task and your brain fully engages, it becomes fun. We just need to figure out how to make it fun to get your brain to that point in the first place. That’s one of the challenges we’re taking on in our software.
As you start thinking about your next attempts at personal development, think about those three factors – accountability, awareness and fun. Any of the three will give you a better shot at success but if you can figure out a way to hit all three marks, you’re on your way to a better you.