Self-help books that actually help

29th November, 2020

Self-help is a much-mocked section of the bookstore, and in truth there is much to mock. However I have a soft spot for certain self-help books that I have found useful over the years. These ones get my vote.

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. A nostalgic pick, perhaps, but I found this wise, witty little book served as a touchstone throughout my years as a student. “You’d be surprised how many people violate this simple principle every day of their lives and try to fit square pegs into round holes, ignoring the clear reality that Things Are As They Are.”

Getting Things Done by David Allen. The book has a cult following for a reason; David Allen understood early why the demands of modern life can be so stressful and bewildering. The full system is too much for most people – it’s certainly too much for me – but the basic principles of capturing tasks in a trusted system, clarifying next actions, and regularly reviewing, will take you a long way.

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. A challenging and immensely practical book which asks us to step back and make much more deliberate decisions about which digital tools are worth the amount of attention and energy they cost. Forget the clever hacks and tricks: instead, use only the tools that are essential.

How To Have A Good Day by Caroline Webb – charming, evidence-based, wide-ranging and full of straightforward good advice.

TED Talks by Chris Anderson. I used to speak competitively on the international circuit; now I give talks for a living. I’ve thought a lot about public speaking and read a lot of books on the subject. (Once upon a time I even pondered writing one.) Forget the others: this is the one.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo. Yes, the stuff about being kind to your socks is insane. So is the stuff about covering up brand names on cleaning products because they are shouty. But there’s a reason this book sells so well; it recognises two truths. First, most of us would appreciate our stuff more if we kept only the best of it; second, stuff has an emotional weight that must be dealt with if you want to throw it away.

Help! by Oliver Burkeman. This is a collection of Burkeman’s Guardian columns, which is not always a successful formula, but I love it. He perfectly walks the line between expressing ironic scepticism at wacky self-help ideas, and falling in love with ideas that might actually work. A deceptive amount of wisdom behind the giggle and the raised eyebrow.

Links above are to Amazon, but I’ve also gathered my recommendations together at Bookshop US and Bookshop UK.

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