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Do Self-Help Books Really Work?

FITNESS Magazine
Healthy Living
April 23, 2012
Sara Forrest/Fitness Magazine
Sara Forrest/Fitness Magazine

By Leah McLaughlin, Sharon Boone, and Amy Fishbein

Walk into any bookstore and the titles calling out to help you can seem overwhelming: Change Your Life in 30 Days, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Managing Your Time. Many have been on the bestseller list for years. Take The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: It's stayed there for more than five years. But are these books really, well, helpful? Some experts say yes. "Self-help materials can be almost as effective as professional treatment," says John Norcross, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. "That is, if they give specific actionable steps and you have realistic expectations -- lasting changes are made gradually." To test his statement, we conducted our own (slightly unscientific) study: three former staffers each tried a book that addressed a personal challenge. Here's how we fared.

Related: 5 Secrets of Happy People

Achieving Breakthrough Goals
Book 1: Unstoppable Women: Achieve Any Breakthrough Goal in 30 Days
By Cynthia Kersey (Rodale, 2005)
Tested by: Leah McLaughlin
My Goal: Run an hour outside without passing out.
For me, running is the gold standard of physical fitness. If you can run a 5k, 10k or, heck, a marathon, you can do anything. I'm an avid exerciser, but the last time I attempted to "become a runner," I strapped on my sneakers, stepped outside my front door, and bolted around the corner only to give up before rounding the next block. So I turned to Cynthia Kersey's book to tap into my inner athlete.

Kersey breaks down the process of goal setting and achievement into easy-to-follow steps. Step one is to identify your "breakthrough goal." Initially, mine was "Become a runner." But Kersey recommends that your aspiration be specific and easily measurable, so I changed it to "Be able to run for at least an hour and preferably more, outside, without feeling winded."

Next, I had to prioritize "key categories of activities" that would help me reach my goal. Kersey recommends seeking help from others, so I called my friend Katie, who's run two marathons. She suggested checking with my gym about running classes. I did, and found one that happened to be taught by a handsome instructor. (Nice bonus!) Other friends and experienced runners advised me to invest in gear. (An excuse to shop!) My 30-day plan took shape. Key category 1: Buy the necessary gear. 2: Attend a running class. 3: Research an unintimidating outdoor route (the one-fifth mile track two blocks from my house). 4: Schedule a short (20-minute) outdoor run.

Finally, I helped another woman along the way. Kersey says that doing this will make you more dedicated to your own goal. I helped Katie -- she was an avid runner but terrified of biking, a sport I had already mastered. We made a pact: I'd encourage her to bike, she'd encourage me to run.

Bottom Line: That running class is now a weekly staple, and I've become one of the fastest on the sprints. But my crowning achievement came when I set out on a 60-minute run. I returned an hour and a half later, but I definitely could have gone longer. I have never felt more unstoppable.

Favorite Tip:
Celebrate your victories. List all the "wins" -- big or small -- that you achieve each day. Reaching one large goal always involves accomplishing smaller ones (which are just as important) along the way.

Related: You Can Do It! Run a Half-Marathon in 10 Weeks

Overcoming Procrastination
Book 2: Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It
By Jane B. Burka, PhD, and Lenora M. Yuen, PhD (Lifelong Books, 1983)
Tested by: Sharon Boone
My Goal: Finish things on time without becoming a frazzled wreck.

Procrastination is the bane of my existence. Either I can't seem to get started on a project or a few minutes into the job, I get distracted doing something totally unnecessary (like cleaning my stovetop, which I hate doing, when I should be writing). Blown deadlines, missed appointments, and a generally disordered life are the result. With a big personal writing project on the horizon, I turned to Burka and Yuen's book to finally get this penchant for putting things off under control for good.

The first half of the book is devoted to an exploration of what causes people to procrastinate and various procrastination styles, which, admittedly, I found fascinating. But a book aimed at people who put things off should get to the tips way before page 131.

Several weeks (and many stops and starts in reading) later, I got to two of Burka and Yuen's anti-procrastination techniques that seemed doable: 1. Take on small parts of a big project in increments of time; 2. Realistically estimate how long a task will take to finish. My inclination is to view a project in terms of all or nothing, making it seem impossible. But this time, instead of blocking out whole days to do nothing but work, I chipped away at my assignment by writing a paragraph or two while I waited for my clothes to dry or by making phone calls during my commute. Happily, the project got off to a more promising start than usual.

I also learned how to gauge time better. That meant not kidding myself that I could transcribe a half-hour taped interview in 20 minutes. By better estimating how long each stage would take, I didn't have to pull an all-nighter to make my deadline.

Bottom Line:
I completed my project with less moaning and stalling and well before I normally would have. I wish I could say that I built on that first small success and have reformed my time-wasting ways. But this one book was just no match for a deeply ingrained procrastination habit. The advice gave me food for thought but wasn't enough to change my life.

Favorite Tip: Tell a friend exactly what you plan to do and by when. This makes you more accountable and less likely to avoid your goal.

Related: No More Late Work Nights! 7 Time-Savers for the Office

Curbing Constant Worries
Book 3: The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You
By Robert L. Leahy, PhD (Harmony Books, 2005)
Tested by: Amy Fishbein
My Goal: To stop worry from stressing me out.

I blame my penchant for worry partially on my mother (who else?), since she frets obsessively about everything, especially me. I'm a more discriminating worrier, however: My anxieties are mostly health-related. Whenever there's a new virus or disease in the news, I'm convinced that I'm at imminent risk for contracting it.

Leahy helps you to understand why you worry -- putting to use the basic psychological principle that in order to take charge and change something, you must first understand where it's coming from, i.e., why it's happening.

He describes the different "bad" ways to handle worry. One is collecting information on the topic you're concerned about. As an editor who helps educate women about how to protect their health, I always thought that gathering facts would be empowering instead of anxiety-producing. But Leahy says that worriers look only for info that reinforces their negative thoughts. Seeing this habit explained in print helped me pinpoint exactly when I was doing it and, to some extent, stop. On a recent trip, my husband and I got several mosquito bites, and when we developed headaches the next day, my worry/stress cycle started: What if we had contracted Triple E, a virus cropping up in the area? The book helped me nip my anxiety in the bud by reminding me not to focus on trying to confirm that we had the virus. Included in the list of Triple E symptoms was a severe headache that doesn't go away. So I stopped worrying and waited to see if the headaches disappeared. They did.

I found many of Leahy's tips (like "accept reality and commit to change") clichéd and vague. But I liked this method of challenging your worried thinking: "Determine how likely it is that what you are worried about will actually happen." I can almost always find statistics to offset my health anxieties.

Bottom Line:
Figuring out why and how I worry has helped me to curb my tendency toward it. Now I'm sending the book to my mother.

Favorite Tip:
Imagine the advice that you'd give to a friend who had your worries. We are generally more balanced and rational with friends or strangers than we are with ourselves.

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