Are Self-Improvement Books Worth Reading?

I’ve read and summarised over 20 books this year, quite a few of which were self-improvement or productivity books.

Sometimes I wonder how useful such books are. It’s rare that a book will reveal a major epiphany, immediately causing me to change how I do things. Occasionally, I’ll adopt one or two bits of advice with varying degrees of success. But what’s far more likely is that I’ll think:

  • “Yeah. That sounds sensible but also kind of obvious.”; or
  • “That doesn’t really apply to me.”; or
  • “Maybe that works but it doesn’t seem worth the effort.”; or
  • “Sounds good in theory but how do I actually do this in practice?”

In other words, like most people, I’m actually kinda resistant to change. So it makes me question — are self-improvement books worth reading? (And summarising?)

After some reflection, my answer is “yes”. Despite all my mental excuses above, I believe my life has improved after reading these books.

Four lessons I’ve learned from self-improvement books this year

Looking back this year, I’ve identified 4 important lessons I have internalised from reading self-improvement books:

  1. Behaviour change is a skill;
  2. Don’t take on too much at a time;
  3. Planning and reflection can really pay off; and
  4. Things that ain’t broke may still be worth fixing.

None of these lessons sound particularly ground-breaking. Like I said, it’s not like I’ll read a book and have an epiphany. But I believe these 4 lessons have actually led to changes in my regular behaviours — and therefore changed my life.

#1: Behaviour change is a skill

For me, the book that really drove home the idea that behaviour change is a skill was Tiny Habits. In that book, BJ Fogg talked about how, like all skills, it will take time to get good at changing your behaviour and your first attempts will likely fail. Fogg explains that Behaviour is a function of Motivation, Ability and Prompt (B = MAP for short), and that motivation is the least reliable lever. Instead of writing off our failures, we should try to troubleshoot what went wrong (focusing more on Ability and Prompt).

The idea that behaviour change is a skill may sound kind of obvious. But I found it incredibly valuable because it made me kinder to myself. If behaviour change is a “skill”, that implies you can get better at it. The B=MAP idea felt so clinical, it helped me disconnect from my own ego. I could then troubleshoot my own behaviour as you might a computer program.

This in turn increased my willingness to try things — including things that had previously failed, or suggestions I felt sceptical of. There’s much talk about being open to failure in entrepreneurship — “fail fast, fail often” and so on. Subconsciously, I’d always associated all that discourse about failure to big, lofty goals, like starting a business or getting a good job. In contrast, I’d always assumed that “little” suggestions like using Pomodoro timers, doing weekly plans, or counting calories would either work or not. And if it didn’t work for me, there’d be no point trying the same method again.

Now I’ve come to realise that if something didn’t work for me once, it could’ve been because the timing wasn’t quite right, or because I didn’t implement it in the right way. While I won’t keep banging my head against the wall, trying to force things, I am a bit more patient now. I’m less likely to write off a suggestion after trying it once. I’m also more willing to try things even when I’m sceptical, as long as the costs of trying it are low.

How this lesson changed my behaviour

Okay, so that’s all well and good, but how did this lesson actually change my behaviour in daily life?

I have many examples:

  • Focus time. For a while, I’ve wanted to get myself to focus for fixed periods with scheduled breaks. I’ve previously set timers on my phone or used Windows’ “Focus Sessions”, but they were too fiddly. There was just enough friction to stop it becoming a habit. My solution? I got a physical, visual timer. It takes literally half a second to turn the dial. Then it sits on my desk and I can see at a glance how much time is left. This is a real example of B = MAP from my own life. By increasing my Ability, the timer made the desired Behaviour much more frequent.
  • Reading classics. I had a go at reading some classics after seeing Mortimer Adler’s reading list. While I didn’t find The Prince to be all that enriching, and quickly gave up on Sophocles’ Antigone (a play someone had told me was “very easy” to read), I’m still planning to try more classics in the future.
  • Homework for Life. I took up Matthew Dicks’ suggestion to do “Homework for Life”, despite some scepticism. Admittedly, I don’t do it particularly well. Most of my days are pretty boring and I rarely identify a five-second moment. But I don’t do it to get good stories — I just find it a useful reflection exercise.
  • Eating less meat. I’ve tried several times, unsuccessfully, to eat less meat by substituting beans, chickpeas and lentils into my diet. Rather than giving up and just resigning myself to “hating” these foods, I’ve decided I just need to experiment more to find recipes I like.

#2: Don’t take on too much at a time

Books like Atomic Habits give you the impression that you could achieve all sorts of amazing, impressive things if you just did a little bit every day. A problem with the “little every day” idea is it becomes incredibly easy to overcommit. After all, if I have 6 goals, and if 10 minutes a day on each goal will “compound”, why shouldn’t I pursue all of them at the same time? The earlier I start, the longer my efforts have to compound, right?

But while I believe that Atomic Habits and Tiny Habits are right that small changes can lead to big payoffs, there are two reasons why the “little every day” idea is not as straightforward as it may seem:

  • Context Switching costs. Both Algorithms to Live By and Deep Work explain that, whenever you switch tasks, it takes time for your mind to make the shift. If context switching costs get too high, it can lead to thrashing — a lot of activity with nothing to show for it.
  • Starting a habit requires far more effort than maintaining it. Things that are new are just harder. It may take a significant effort to get even a “small” habit going, so don’t bite off more than you can chew. For example, eating healthy, home-cooked meals during the week is pretty easy once you’ve got a workable meal-prep routine in place. But setting up that routine may require a considerable effort — you have to decide what meals to include, learn the recipes, stock up your pantry, and work out which adjustments will make it sustainable for you.

On that note, Oliver Burkeman and Tim Ferriss have both advocated pursuing goals sequentially instead of simultaneously. Ferriss explains that most people overestimate how much they can do in one day, but underestimate how much they can do in one year.

Be careful not to take on too much

How this lesson changed my behaviour

I implemented several of Oliver Burkeman’s 10 practical tools to help embrace your finitude (with modifications):

  • I serialise and try to focus on no more than 4 open goals or “projects” at a time. Burkeman recommends limiting it to just one, but some of my “projects” (e.g. pull-up progressions) are not suited for such single-minded pursuit.
  • I now keep two to-do lists: an “Active” one and a “Backburner” list. While I raised the bar for putting things on my “Active” list”, I’ve drastically lowered it for my “Backburner” list. (There are categories within the list to keep things somewhat tidy.) So instead of using unread emails or open browser tabs to keep track of things, almost everything is now on one of my two lists. This reduces my email, browser and mental clutter. Moreover, I no longer feel guilty that some goals have languished on my “Backburner” list for ages with zero progress, because the lack of progress is now a deliberate choice rather than garden-variety laziness.
  • My “To read” list is now called a “Could read” list, because I know I’ll never get through the whole list. Though it’s a very minor tweak, it makes me feel better.

#3: Planning and reflection can really pay off

I’d always been more of a tracker than a planner. Measuring what I’d done and reflecting came naturally to me. Looking ahead to the future? Not so much. Loose plans were okay, but I liked keeping options open in case a better offer came along.

I guess I also saw detailed planning as setting myself up for failure, as I found it difficult to stick to my plans. So I suppose it makes sense that, being more open to failure also made me more open to planning. The Power of Full Engagement also helped by pointing out the importance of energy levels. My inability to stick to the plan wasn’t because I was lazy — I just couldn’t summon the energy to do a particular task at the planned time.

How this lesson changed my behaviour

This year, I started planning on three time scales:

  • Daily
  • Weekly
  • Monthly

Earlier this year I shared My experience with time-blocking, a method Cal Newport wrote about in Deep Work. At that time, I was about 2 months in; I’m currently 7 months in. It has definitely gotten easier as I now have more of a routine and a better grasp of how long things really take.

The benefits of time-blocking I mentioned in my earlier post still apply: it makes it easier to do things that are time-consuming and important; it brings my finitude into focus; and reduces negative feelings such as anxiety, guilt and decision fatigue.

Two additional benefits I’ve since discovered are:

  • Batching small tasks so that they pose less of a distraction has been a gamechanger. I can’t imagine not doing this anymore.
  • It helps manage the friction of doing tasks I really don’t want to do. For example, if I have to call up a customer service rep in the morning, I’ll reduce friction by making sure I have everything lined up: the phone number, order number, any documents I need, etc. Time-blocking also increases the friction of deviating from my plan. If I don’t end up making the call, I have to put all that stuff away and adjust my plan for the rest of my day.

The biggest benefit I’ve gotten from weekly planning is improved meal management. If I know which day I’ll be cooking, I can make sure I buy or defrost the necessary ingredients at the right time. I’ve also gotten better at using up foods before they spoil. Weekly planning has made it much easier to eat healthier, minimise food waste and save money.

A secondary benefit of weekly planning is improved energy management. If I see a particularly demanding few days coming up, I make sure to build in time for recovery.

The time you plan to waste is not wasted time.
— Dorothy Parker, American poet and writer.

I’ve been monthly planning since June, so I have the least experience with it — only 7 instances so far. To be honest, I have yet to see many concrete benefits from monthly planning. I guess that’s because it requires me to prioritise/sequence my goals, which is still quite challenging. There’s certainly room for improvement here.

#4. Things that ain’t broke may still be worth fixing

Okay, this last lesson was something I learned from experience, rather than from a book. Earlier this year, I asked whether the quest for productivity was “misguided”. I decided it wasn’t, and I believe that much more firmly now.

It’s tempting to think, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. I’d never felt much of an urge to “optimise” my life before. Systems that were, in retrospect, pretty crappy got me through most of my life reasonably well. So I didn’t feel a strong need to change them.

Frankly, my attitude was rather arrogant and defensive. I dismissed a lot of self-improvement advice out of hand, thinking: “well, I don’t do what they’re suggesting and I’m doing fine”.

How this lesson changed my behaviour

This year, my pretty crappy systems broke. Thanks to an international move, the number of things I had to do grew significantly. My stress levels were elevated for over half the year. Several times I got overwhelmed — like, breaking down into tears kind of overwhelmed. It was rather humbling to be honest.

And, yeah, I only fixed my systems when they broke but, knowing what I know now, I wish I’d strengthened them earlier. When you’re drowning in a sea of “to-dos”, you don’t want to add “set up a good system” to your list. Besides, many things that give you the energy and nourishment to get through difficult times (e.g. eating well, exercise, meditation, strong support networks) are investment-like. They take time and effort to establish and yield longer-term gains. You don’t want to start setting these up when you’re already under tons of stress. If you live by “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, you’ll always be playing catchup.

It may take a while for lessons to sink in

You might be reading this and thinking I’m kinda stupid because everything above sounds rather banal. Like, of course taking on “too much” is bad — it’s a tautology! Did I really need to read a dozen self-improvement books to learn that?

It could just be that I’m particularly slow or stubborn, or make more mental excuses than most. However, there are different levels of knowledge. You may think you “know” something when you’re passively reading it and it looks familiar, yet you don’t actually know it if you can’t actively recall it or appropriately apply it in practice. (See A Mind for Numbers.)

I suspect that learning from books often is slow. Sometimes you can gain insight from reading something you already “know”, restated in a more salient or organised way. If the first time you hear a piece of advice and it’s not explained very well or compellingly, it’s easy to dismiss — even if the advice is well-founded.

For example, the first time I heard the advice “to focus on the process instead of the outcome” was in The Practice. Since I generally found that book to be disappointing, I largely ignored it. But this advice kept cropping up again and again — in Atomic Habits, Show Your Work, even Algorithms to Live By. It’s much harder to dismiss things you’ve read multiple times, by different authors, put in slightly different ways.

All of the lessons above took some time to sink in. They’re still sinking in — there’s definitely further room for improvement. I guess that means you can expect to see more self-improvement books next year 🙂

I hope you enjoyed this experimental consolidation post. It’s somewhat different from my regular posts, so let me know what you think in the comments below. And if you found it helpful, please consider sharing it:

Here are links to all the self-improvement books mentioned above:

The above post contains affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you buy through a link. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂

6 thoughts on “Are Self-Improvement Books Worth Reading?

  1. This was really interesting. I like the way you broke down the lessons into 4 sensible categories.

    A lot of the themes in this post reminded me of this, by Nat Eliason:

    For me, maybe the biggest changes like those mentioned are:
    – practising guitar for ~1 hour per day. It was definitely an “aha” moment where I realised if I did that, I would be very good at guitar after ~5 years. That seems really obvious when I say it, but in some senses I don’t think I really internalised the thought until I did…
    – To do lists. I use these at work and it makes me so much more effective. Again, this is just so obvious, but I used to use my email inbox as a to do list but it doesn’t work very well.

    I also started using onenote at work to jot down my thoughts immediately and connect them to the to do item as soon as I jot it down. Saves some of the context switching time.

    1. Nat’s post somewhat contradicts my #4 above about fixing things before they break – though arguably it depends on what ‘minimum viable scaffolding’ is.

      I agree with his broader point that increased productivity should be in service of something else, not an end in itself. That said, I think the idea of people trying to increase to their productivity just so they can put out more content about productivity may be bit of a strawman. Like, it might be true for productivity bloggers but I would’ve thought most people have other things in their life they’re working towards.

  2. Yeah for sure, but there’s definitely a type of person (like… me) who will waste a lot of time looking at new to do list apps etc. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I’m sure it depends on the person. I do think there’s a difference between tweaking with tools and examining the underlying structure of your systems, though. So I might spend a bit too much time playing around with tools (because it’s easy and fun to explore new tools) yet still not spend enough time on the overall system/structure. I think I’ve gotten closer to a reasonable balance now though.

  3. Hooray, another year in the books!

    I enjoyed this style of post, and it’s making me reflect on what I get out of self-improvement books. I especially resonate with your section about lessons sinking in. I often think to myself “Well, this is obvious!” while reading, but uncovering some profound truth is not the value-add. The main benefit, I think, comes from reminding yourself about these concepts that already exist in the back of your head (or molding them into a more refined framework), which makes it more likely that you’ll actively recall them, which makes it more likely that you’ll apply them to truly make a positive difference in your life. I’m currently re-reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” for this reason – Yes, I “know” that I should smile more and practice active listening, but the content refresh makes it more likely that I actually enact these things

    1. Hey Zak, welcome back! Good to see you again 🙂

      Glad to hear you enjoyed the post and had a similar experience with learning from books. It’s tempting to discount cliches you’ve heard a million times, but the *reason* something becomes a cliché is precisely because there’s often some truth and wisdom behind it! I haven’t read Carnegie’s book myself but I have heard that advice about smiling – you’re right that it can be hard to put into practice even when you “know” it.

      Btw, about a month ago I found a big list of “unconfirmed subscribers” to my newsletter – these are people who signed up but never clicked the email asking to confirm their subscription, probably because it went into their Spam or something. You were on that list, so just FYI in case you were wondering why you never got email updates from me!

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