The term self-help has very nearly become a parody of itself.
In casual conversation, it gets used ironically more often than in earnest. And while much of the criticism of self-help is deserved—there are a lot of bad self-help books out there!—I must admit, I still love it.
Not only do I read a lot of self-help myself, but it’s literally what I do for a living: As both a psychologist and writer, helping other people to help themselves is exactly what I try to do.
So, without an ounce of irony, here’s a list of 10 self-help books that I’ve found genuinely helpful. I’ve read most of them more than once and each time I learn something new and helpful.
1. Deep Work
The term masterpiece probably gets thrown around far too often, but I really think Cal Newport’s manifesto on the true meaning of work and productivity in the 21st century will go down in history as one. People often ask me how I write and produce so many articles, podcasts, courses, etc. while working a full-time job and raising a young family… This book is a big part of the answer. If you can really commit to the ideas and practices in this book, you will be astonished at what you’re capable of creating.
If habit change is something you want to work on, make this book your Bible. Full of straightforward ideas and tactics for building new habits or breaking bad ones, James Clear’s book is really more of a field guide than a traditional non-fiction book—meaning it’s packed with useful, straightforward information and very little fluff or filler. If you want to learn a little more about the book, I did a quick summary and quote review here.
I’ve said it many times, but assertiveness is probably the most underrated skill for better emotional health. If you struggle with communicating your own wants clearly and confidently, have a hard time setting (or enforcing) healthy boundaries, or just want to get better at communicating and being yourself around difficult people, this book is for you. Written by Randy Paterson, a psychologist and assertiveness expert, this really is a workbook in the sense that it’s loaded up with practical exercises and techniques you can start using in your life right away. If you’re interested in assertiveness and want a good introduction to the topic, I interviewed Randy about it in this episode of my podcast.
While it’s about overcoming depression specifically, the core idea of this book is universally helpful for any form of emotional suffering. In short, feeling bad isn’t the problem; it’s feeling bad about feeling bad and that leads to long-term suffering. This is one of the few books about psychology that has transformed the way I practice and how I think about emotional suffering and personal growth. You can get a peek inside the book and some of my favorite ideas from it in this brief quote review I did.
Addiction is an especially difficult topic because people have so many strong beliefs about what it is and how it ought to be addressed. Tom Horvath’s workbook truly is a breath of fresh air when it comes to thinking about addiction in a straightforward way and how to go about actually dealing with any form of addiction (or that of someone you love). If you want to get a sense for how Tom thinks about addiction, you can listen to an interview I did with him for an episode of my podcast here.
I’ve read A LOT of books about effective communication and relationships, and to this day, the best one I’ve ever found is disguised as a parenting book. Even though it’s written from the perspective of parents talking to kids, the principles Faber and Mazlish lay out in this book are just as useful for adults communicating with other adults. And I suspect because the primary audience is children, the ideas are even more clearly explained and illustrated. Whether you have kids or not, this book will drastically improve your communication skills, and as a result, your relationships.
Don’t let the eccentric title put you off… World-renown animal trainer Karen Pryor’s book is a crash course in the core principles of behavioral psychology and how to use them to improve your life. I found many of the principles in here to be especially useful at encouraging other people in your life to make changes that they’re initially resistant to.
The author of the book, Piers Steel, is probably the world’s foremost researcher and expert on the psychology of procrastination. The key idea in the book is that there are four primary reasons why we procrastinate. And the secret to effectively managing your own procrastination is to figure out which one(s) are at play in the specifics of your situation and address those in a targeted way. If you want to learn more, I interviewed Piers for my podcast in this episode.
Written by father-daughter duo Michael and Sarah Bennett—the former is a psychiatrist, the latter a comedian—this book’s central message is arguably the most important idea about mental health most people never hear: Feeling better emotionally should never guide your decision-making—and in fact, it’s a recipe for suffering in the long run. I wrote up a brief quote review here if you want to learn a little more.
I read this book every year in early January because it reminds me that life is short and motivates me to make the most of it. I know that sounds a little corny, but it’s true. Written 2,000+ years ago by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, this very short book forces you to confront your own mortality as a way to revitalize your goals and aspirations for what Mary Oliver called “your one wild and precious life.” You can learn more about the book and see some of my favorite quotes from it in this short review I did.
Like I said, I’m a bit of a self-help junky, so I’m always on the look-out for new recommendations.
I’d love to hear what some of your favorite self-help books are. Just reply in the comments below ↓