5 books in the personal development genre to feed your mind and soul this summer
Four Thousand Weeks
Oliver Burkeman is my find of the year. I gobbled up his latest offering, Four Thousand Weeks – Time Management for Mortals, then proceeded to read through his entire oeuvre. The title refers to the fact that the average human lives for 4,000 weeks and that no matter what we do to lengthen it, pack more in, and be more efficient, in the end we get the time we get.
This book is the antidote to time management, productivity and organisation advice, seeking rather to realign our relationship with time. Interestingly, Burkeman spent years writing “This Column will Change Your Life” for The Guardian, testing all the concepts he is now rather debunking. He has a chatty and often humorous style that makes it an easy read while imparting great wisdom that – I found – changed my relationship to my to-do list instantly.
Social worker and shame researcher Brené Brown is the personal development expert to read or watch at the moment. She is everywhere, with TED Talks, a one-off show on Netflix, and a recent new book release. While I haven’t read her latest yet, this year I did read her classic Daring Greatly, which explores how the courage to be vulnerable can transform our lives. The title is inspired by a speech made by Theodore Roosevelt in which he said:
“It is not the critic who counts ; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
While the quotation alone is worth reading in full, the book is full of the warmth and wisdom for which Brené is known and loved.
The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less
Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice was first published in 2004, but I only heard of it this year. It’s a brilliant exploration of the ways in which having too many options, possibilities and choices can create anxiety, stress, disappointment and – in some cases – depression.
While it takes the example of shopping as its jumping off point, Schwartz extends his argument to examine the entire gamut of decisions we make every day – from internet provider to romantic partner and career. But luckily, he doesn’t stop there, the book ends with a whole chapter on how to counter the negative effects of having too much choice in life with some practical advice that can be applied straight away. Full of examples that bring his arguments to life plus a healthy dose of humour, this is a thought-provoking page-turner that will definitely get you thinking next time you’re in the supermarket.
Following up on The Little Book of Hygge (also a fun read), Meik Wiking – founder of Copenhagen’s Happiness Research Institute – published Happy Moments: How to Create Experiences You’ll Remember for a Lifetime in 2019. The book delves into research about both what makes us happy and how memory works to offer insights into how to fill our lives with happy moments and also how to commit those moments to our long-term memories. Wiking has an informal, chatty style that makes the book a pleasure to read and belies the thoroughly research-based information he is sharing. I enjoyed the theoretical parts of the book, but got even more out of the very practical tips Wiking offers for making specific moments more memorable and have been able to implement some of his suggestions – to great effect!
My last recommendation is a real heavy-hitter. The Choice is Hungarian Jewish psychologist Dr Edith Eger’s account of her experience of the Holocaust, from the time leading up to her deportation to Auschwitz right through to her return to Germany years later to give a talk at Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s former retreat in Bavaria. The book is part autobiography, part self-analysis, part advice and insight, and it is incredibly powerful. While it obviously contains distressing passages, Eger’s vibrant and unbreakable spirit elevates the writing beyond history or memoir. Its ultimate message is one of hope and healing, with kindness and wisdom in every sentence. Drawing on her work as a psychologist, Eger uses her experience and expertise to offer the reader insights that are applicable to us all about how to endure, develop resilience and choose hope, even at the darkest of times.
A DIY coaching tool for taking stock of your life and getting your house in order
The benefit of regular clear-outs is a fact universally acknowledged. Or at least it is in my house. My husband was stunned by the joy I felt when they installed massive clothing donation bins at the entrance to the metro nearest our flat; and I challenge anyone not to feel freer, lighter and more in control after taking a bag load of I’ll-never-read-these-again books to Oxfam.
But what about moving the stock-take from the back of your closet into your mind and soul? When it comes to having a good sort-out, there are many areas of our lives that would benefit from a little light dusting and polishing, not just the kitchen cupboards. Coaching offers a wealth of great tools to do just that – take stock of your life and see where your figurative house needs to be put in order. While it is always more helpful to do such exercises with a qualified coach, it is also possible to use them on your own and glean some helpful insights.
The Wheel of Life is a simple way to identify the various major “bits” of your life, assess your satisfaction with them, and start coming up with a plan to raise that satisfaction level.
The Wheel of Life aka Not so Trivial Pursuits
Draw a circle on a piece of paper and divide it into wedges like the pies in a game of Trivial Pursuits (number of wedges is your choice – starting with six is pretty manageable). Assign a theme to each wedge. Themes are areas of your life that you wish to take a look at – or indeed, they can just be areas that spring to mind. In this exercise, your subconscious is a good guide. A few examples: one wedge might be “family”, which for some might mean “me, my partner and our kids” but for other people might mean “parents, grandparents, siblings” – and those people might choose to put “partner/love” and “children” into separate wedges on their own. What you mean by each of your themes is your business, as long as you are clear about how you load the word you choose. Other wedges might be “money”, “leisure”, “health”, “career”, “spirit”… it’s a very personal choice.
On your marks…
Once you have your themes, take some time to consider each one and to rate your satisfaction with this part of your life from 1 to 10 – draw lines in each wedge so that 1 is a line near the interior of the circle, and 10 is the further edge. Like so:
You’ll probably end up with a very bumpy wheel!
The next step within a coaching session would be to discuss each area and the mark attributed to it, and to choose one or two on which to work. On your own, you can take your time to look at each one and think about what makes your health an 8 but your love life a 4 – talking to a friend can also help. Then, taking each one in turn, think about what it would take to turn that 4 into 5. Think specifics: spending more time with your partner? eating dinner at the table rather than in front of the TV? a monthly date night? a daily lunchtime phone call? more cuddling? What would it take to bump it up to a 6? And then a 7…
The idea isn’t to go from a 2 to a 10 in two weeks flat, but to identify areas for change and improvement that will eventually harmonise the levels of satisfaction across all your wedges. A wheel with lumps and bumps cannot roll. But the challenge of trying to turn a career “3” into a 10 can simply be paralysing. Concentrate on the areas that naturally attract your attention and list small, actionable changes.
Once you have some action ideas, consider which you can actually put in place, and, crucially, which you want to put in place. It’s no good choosing “go for a weekly run” if you have absolutely no desire to go running. Yes, it might bump your “body image” score up to a 7, but your “time for fun” score might take a hit. I advise kicking off just one action per week and taking a moment at the end of each week to see what’s working for you.
Take your time. Your Wheel of Life is ever-changing. Even if you managed to take all your wedges up to a perfect 10, at some point you’ll decide to buy a house or have a baby, and new wedges will appear for you to work on. The idea isn’t to strive for a perfect circle, but to use the exercise to see where your pain points are, and what you can do about them.
One last thing…
Don’t forget to take a moment to celebrate in the wedges that are looking pretty damn good. If your “friendship” wedge is a healthy 9, why not make a list of all you’re grateful for in your relationships? If your “work” wedge is flying high, why not acknowledge that by taking in some Friday afternoon pastries for your charming colleagues? Work on the low numbers, revel in the high ones.
Originally published on Running in Heels.