Since March 2020, I have read 9 books that could fall into the category of self-help. In one way or another, these books have promised to make me a master of my own existence. I should be in control of my life, with a well-prioritised routine, a clean house and even cleaner sleep hygiene.
So, about a year later, am I now a smiling, well-oiled machine living my best life? Hahahaha! No! Absolutely not! But I did learn at least one useful thing from each of them, so I will present these things here and save you the time of reading everything else surrounding them.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
Is this even a self-help book, or is it a pop-sci book? Arguably the latter, but after reading it, you’ll be convinced that if you don’t sort out your sleep health, everything in your life will go wrong and you will die horribly. Luckily this book can also help you avoid that. Consider yourself helped.
Anyway, my biggest takeaway from this was that you should try to make your sleep schedule as consistent as possible, which is why I now set an alarm on weekends even when I could sleep in.
Make Time by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
I liked this book because it let you make your own decisions about what it was important to make time for. A lot of popular self-help books at the moment seem to be written by the sort of people whose day job is being a “productivity consultant” for tech CEOS who wake up at 4am to drink an ionised espresso and ✨disrupt✨ employment rights. Make Time was written by two former Google employees (and it regularly shows) but at least they don’t assume that your deepest desire is to spend more time on your side hustle or some shit.
The main thing I took from this book was to pick a “highlight” for your day in advance, which is the one thing you want to make time to do. I still do this semi-regularly when I feel like I have too much going on and don’t know where to focus. Sometimes it’s finishing something important at work; sometimes it’s taking a walk or watching a movie. The idea is that you make that your goal for the day and if other things don’t fit in, so be it.
It also advised me to delete the internet browser off my phone to reduce distractions, which I didn’t do at the time because it seemed too extreme – however, I ended up doing this later in the year (see forthcoming books) and it has worked well for me, so maybe they were onto something.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
One of two habit books that everyone seems to read (the other being The Power of Habit, which I haven’t).
This book gave me a better understanding of the different elements of a habit – cue, craving, response and reward – which in theory makes it easier to start a new habit or break an old one. This knowledge has not revolutionised my life (being aware of a better way to do things does not mean I will actually do the thing) but I have found it useful to think about when I’m trying to make changes in my behaviour or routine.
How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell
This sounds like a self-help book and was marketed as such. I’m not really convinced it was. It’s more of a meditation on what we pay attention to and art and bioregionalism and all sorts of other things.
I moved to a more rural location a few months ago and found this book made me more aware of my physical surroundings. I realised I didn’t really know the names of the birds or bugs or plants that share my immediate environment. I became more curious about what the nearby stream was called and where it came from.
Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasaki
This is a book about minimalism, and a fairly extreme one at that. The author owns so few possessions that he claims he is able to pack all of them up and move house in 30 minutes flat. Since I read this when I was about to move house, this sounded appealing; less appealing is that one of Sasaki’s major justification for this is that there are so many things to do and enjoy in the outside world that he doesn’t really need things in his house. Things like going to the cinema, or going out to a restaurant, or – oh wait hang on we can’t do those things.
This book made me think about how the needs and justifications for this sort of extreme minimalism are actually very circumstantial, and that I am okay with having junk in my house when I spend all my time in my house.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
This made me think about what I use my phone and laptop for, and which of those things actually provide value. Taking photos and talking directly to friends (not broadcasting to them or consuming their content on social media) makes me happy. Listening to music or watching silly videos is entertaining. Looking up things on Wikipedia or checking a map is useful. But there are lots of other things that I did out of pure habit which provided no value, or even had a negative impact on me.
Since reading this book, I’ve removed the internet browser from my phone, disabled almost all notifications, and deactivated my Instagram account.
Unfuck Your Habitat by Rachel Hoffman
I used to read this blog on Tumblr back in the day and now it’s a book. So I mainly bought it for the nostalgia.
I think this book would be great for someone who is just starting out having to maintain the cleanliness of their space or household – hello, students, I’ve experienced your kitchens – but I don’t think I got anything from it.
How to Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price
This was bit repetitive as I read it not long after Digital Minimalism, but this book provided a bit more of an action plan. There’s actually a 30-day schedule to follow, which I did not – if anything, it made me realise my phone usage isn’t as bad as it could be – but it still made me make some changes.
Recently I had a week off work. I took Price’s idea of the “digital sabbath” and applied it to this week off by blocking a ton of websites from my computer (mainly news, social media and online shopping). At the time, this seemed like a temporary measure, but now several weeks have passed and I really don’t think I’m missing anything by not being able to access Twitter. I did disable the block once to look something up and immediately felt miserable and stressed out.
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Remember my moaning earlier about how too many self-help books are written by productivity gurus whose only reference points appear to be privileged bigwigs in tech startups or finance companies? Yeah, that’s this book. A lot of McKeown’s advice is to just stop doing things that you don’t think are useful and say no to requests to do those things. This might be fine if you are at the top of the pyramid, but I would like to see some anecdotes from how this worked out for the retail staff and admin assistants of the world who decided to Bartleby their way out of a stupid request from corporate.
While I rolled my eyes many times during this book, the phrase that stuck with me the most is probably “don’t rob people of their problems”. I have a tendency to feel like all problems are my responsibility to fix, but just because I can does not mean I should, and so that is probably something to think about.
Looking at this list, you might guess that I gravitated to these books because I felt I was disorganised, unfocused and untidy. After reading them, I now feel slightly less disorganised, unfocused and untidy.
Whether this is down to me learning how to improve myself, or just gaining a bit of perspective that I might actually be doing alright, I could not tell you. Probably a bit of both.