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Books: New Year, old you? Self-help yourself


Habit is destiny: Self-help writers Alexandra Jamieson, above, and Gretchen Rubin agree that knowing yourself is the key to changing bad habits

Habit is destiny: Self-help writers Alexandra Jamieson, above, and Gretchen Rubin agree that knowing yourself is the key to changing bad habits

Habit is destiny: Self-help writers Alexandra Jamieson, above, and Gretchen Rubin agree that knowing yourself is the key to changing bad habits

The New Year is here and we've all woken up after a long month of partying like it's the end of days, rather than just the year. Oh the damage - the straining waistbands, the strained bank accounts, the even more strained family relationships - nobody ever accused January of being a fun month.

Probably the only people who love January are the authors of self-help books and the people who publish them as this is the time of year when we resolve to put things right - to become better people, to have better relationships, to get out of relationships (divorce lawyers tend to be busy this time of year), to find love, to get a better job or work harder at the one we have, to learn to manage our money, or to earn more.

And then there are those vows that are so ubiquitous they're practically mandatory - to eat less, drink less, lose weight, take more (or some) exercise and to stop smoking. We're all familiar with these pledges - God knows some of us return to them faithfully every year. January is miserable enough but the fact that our good intentions generally become more bricks in Satan's driveway as we, yet again, fail to keep to our promises to ourselves makes it even more intolerable.

I could probably paper every room in the house, twice over, with all of the self-help and diet books I've read over the years and yet, here I am, overweight, under-exercised and still smoking. According to Alexandra Jamieson in Women, Food and Desire: Embrace Your Cravings, Make Peace With Food, Reclaim Your Body - diets don't work, at least not in the long term. Anyone who has spent their adult life perpetually trying to shift that last 10 lb will know all about the cycle of losing the lard, regaining all the weight (and a little bit more besides) and then starting the whole awful cycle over again. "We grab on to whatever diet plan is currently all the rage. Like a drowning person, we hold on for dear life, convinced that this diet, the one we've grabbed like a life preserver, is the one that will save us," Jamieson, who was married to Supersize Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, tells us.

Jamieson's book is ostensibly an examination of the nature of cravings and what we can learn from them. While she does indeed deliver on this premise, this is more than an ordinary self-help tome being part memoir ("I had a much easier time accepting that I wanted and needed kinky sex than I did breaking my veganism and eating meat.") and part feminist polemic ("body shame keeps an invisible glass wall between us (women) and life. It hampers our ability to thrive in all areas; in the boardroom, the bedroom, the backyard."

Denial, says Jamieson is the main reason why diets fail and she is critical about the way the diet industry portrays women in general. "I'm just not comfortable encouraging any woman to compare herself to a piece of fruit (I don't know any women who look like an apple or pear)." Jamieson divides women into three different categories and I didn't recognise myself in any of them.

Luckily I'm not stuck with being a piece of fruit as Gretchen Rubin in Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives (these self-help lassies love a good long title) has also categorised people into various types. It turns out that I'm an 'Obliger' so while I am driven and hard-working to external motivation (bosses, authority and having to pay the bills) I have no internal motivation. I am almost incapable of doing anything to help myself! This isn't quite the awful news it sounds as Rubin has plenty of other categories and sub-categories of people and their motivations. It turns out I'm also a fan of 'Tomorrow Logic' - putting off things till a future date, with the unquestioning knowledge that the future me will not experience the same setbacks and problems that the present me and past me have encountered. When you see that written down you realise just how mad Tomorrow Logic is.

For many of us, that 'Tomorrow' was the New Year and now that it's here we find ourselves automatically looking for reasons to put off all those epic changes we promised ourselves for a wee while longer. This is, after all, our usual habit.

Both Rubin and Jamieson agree that habit is destiny. Change your habits and you change yourself and your life. In order to change 'bad' habits or adapt to new ones knowing yourself, and your 'type' is key. Rubin and Jamieson cover a lot of the same ground and at times even use the same phrases ("Sitting is the New Smoking" - which does not bode well for those of us who still smoke. And sit). However they are both worth a read because there are plenty of areas where they don't overlap and they both have very useful insights to impart.

Both Amy Morin in 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do: Take Back Your Power, Embrace Change, Face Your Fears, and Train Your Brain for Happiness and Success and William Ury in Getting to Yes with Yourself: (and Other Worthy Opponents) also agree about habits and the fact that you need decent self-knowledge before attempting to change them. They also point out that most people find change difficult and uncomfortable - even if the changes make their lives better. Both of these titles are pretty straight forward, practical manuals with examples, questions and exercises for the reader.

According to Morin "Mental strength is about improving your ability to regulate your emotions, manage your thoughts and behave in a positive manner, despite your circumstances," and she is quick to remind readers that "mental strength" is not synonymous with mental health.

With that in mind I can't help but thinking that these two books would be of more use to the 'steadier' type of reader - who would put the information to good use. Unfortunately I recognised myself in Morin's book when she told the story of a woman who had read hundreds of self-help books yet never took any of the actions recommended in them!

5:2 Your Life: How the revolutionary 5:2 approach can transform your health, your wealth and your happiness by journalist Emma Cook may just be the book that changes all of that. Cook takes the principal of last year's runaway success the 5:2 Diet - eating what you like on five days of the week and doing a 'fast' on the remaining two, and applies it to other areas of life - finances, exercise, productivity and even worry. As she says in the introduction 5:2 can change habits but not addictions so you can't 5:2 smoking. Any book that tells me I can effectively exercise in short bursts only two days a week is a book I will treasure forever. Or until the next life-changing title catches my eye.

Sunday Indo Living