Small changes yield big results
With the excess of the holiday season behind us, many of us are now resolving to get our lives back on track and more in line with who we want to be. No matter your goal this year, the variety of approaches in the following books will help you become the best version of yourself.
New Year's resolutions made easy
Happy New Year! Time to shake off that hangover and hit the treadmill for an hour a day! Woo-hoo!
OK, maybe not. How about: Instead of the annual festival of overdoing your resolutions, then stopping cold and backsliding, why not make a series of small tweaks here and there? Author Brett Blumenthal has 52 Small Changes all picked out with your future health and happiness in mind. From easy health fixes (up your water intake, become more label-savvy, start stretching) to attitude adjustments (build your optimism, find time for yourself), this book has got you covered.
There’s a lot to like about 52 Small Changes. Each week’s project is broken down into easy steps, and the reasons why it’s a worthy undertaking are spelled out in detail. Rather than a simple “Eat more vegetables,” you get a chart breaking down the specific health benefits of several veggies along with ideas to help you incorporate more of them into your daily diet. If you’re already a master at that week’s change, there are “extra credit” ways to go beyond, such as logging your exercise regimen if you already keep a food journal. Of course, you can also take a bye week and concentrate on what you’ve learned so far.
The book has great templates to help you start a food journal, make a budget or track medical appointments; there are also websites listed throughout where you can do the same. Fifty-two small changes may seem like a lot, but taken one week at a time, there’s nothing here you can’t tackle . . . and the potential results are limitless.
Inspiration to make a difference
Regina Brett, author of the New York Times bestseller God Never Blinks, now has a wonderful new collection of short essays, Be the Miracle. There’s a wealth of inspirational stories here with titles like “Dream Big,” “What You Think About You Dream About,” “Believe in Abundance” and “Carry as You Climb.” There’s a sprinkling of the spiritual, a bit of Dale Carnegie and some very practical advice on how to function more compassionately and be a bit of a miracle yourself.
The real charm of the stories in these pages is that they are alive with regular people who just happen to be amazing. They could be our parents, our neighbors or our co-workers. They include Terrence, the student who wouldn’t give up on his dream of being a neurosurgeon, even though he couldn’t attend high school; Edvarda, who fought insurmountable odds and dire poverty to send her children to college; and 17-year-old Chance Riley, who gave every penny of the prize money he got for his Grand Champion Pig to the victims of a steam engine accident because “it was the obvious thing to do. We’re all family.”
“Everyone is either your student or your teacher. Most people are both,” Brett concludes. Be the Miracle is a book that will give you a boost, teach you how to breathe and open your mind to the miracles happening all around you.
Become the master of your impulses
Ever wondered why you just can’t seem to make yourself get to the gym? What is the science behind your inability to pass by a plate of cookies or finally clean out your closet? The Willpower Instinct will help you figure out the answers to these questions of will.
Using both science and real-life stories, Kelly McGonigal tells us exactly what willpower is and how we can use it more effectively. Based on her popular psychology course at Stanford University, this book uncovers some common misconceptions about willpower that plague most people. For instance, did you know that too much self-control can sabotage your goals? That willpower is more like a muscle than a virtue that some are born with? McGonigal explains the science behind these facts with easy-to-understand language and examples.
This is not a book to rush through in a weekend. McGonigal asks readers to treat the book as an experiment. There are assignments in every chapter aimed at identifying how readers currently operate, and new strategies will help them practice better willpower. These assignments are accessible and easily adapted for whatever habits a reader would like to break or cultivate.
Refreshingly easy to read and peppered with stories of people who have successfully used its methods, The Willpower Instinct is a new kind of self-help book. Using science to help explain the “why” and strategies for the “how,” McGonigal has created a book that will appeal to those who want to lose a few pounds as well as those who are eager to understand why they just cannot seem to get through their to-do list. A must-read for anyone who wants to change how they live in both small and big ways.
At peace with your pocketbook
Despite writing more than 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, author Julia Cameron is best known for one: The Artist’s Way, the iconic bestseller that guided millions of readers to improved creativity. With The Prosperous Heart, Cameron brings some of the same techniques to bear on an area many people would rather leave unexamined: money. The book outlines a 12-week program that calls for honesty and strict accountability to develop a healthy relationship not just with your bank balance but with your life as a whole.
Some of the methods proposed here will be familiar to readers of Your Money or Your Life and the literature of Debtors Anonymous; tracking every cent in or out, refusing to take on more debt and keeping a personal inventory are hallmarks of the genre. But The Prosperous Heart distinguishes itself through the stories Cameron tells about her own life and times. Offered up with humor and humility, these examples support her central thesis: that “every person is creative, and can use their creativity to create a life of ‘enough.’ ” She adds, “I myself have worried about money—and found that having money does not end this worry.”
The exercises here, including the “morning pages” made famous in The Artist’s Way, can offer meaningful help. Pick up a pen and blank notebook and start working through the exercises, and it might just change your outlook. The program takes 12 weeks, but recognizing that you’re better off than you think is a result that pays long-term dividends in every area of your life. Cameron measures prosperity in terms of faith, not finances; this book should improve the way you think and feel about both.
Brain training for busy bees
You can be forgiven for being distracted these days. It is a sign of the times, according to the authors of Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life, a how-to book that manages to be both entertaining and rooted in current brain science. They write, “There was a time when you weren’t always so reachable . . . when you weren’t always being bombarded by so much stimuli, whether in the form of e-mails or texts, Twitter posts or whatever new technology may emerge . . . well, any minute now.”
Paul Hammerness, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, and Margaret Moore, a wellness coach and cofounder of the Harvard Institute of Coaching, call this “the distraction epidemic”—and it’s more than just occasionally misplacing your keys. Disorganization and distraction can snowball into information overload, poor work habits, clutter and strained relationships. But Hammerness and Moore offer simple ways to harness organizational abilities that already exist in our brains.
I suspect that anyone who is in dire enough straits to need an organizational book may just skip to the appendix, where the authors lay out the six “brain skills” one needs to master in order to organize their mind—but don’t do it. Hammerness and Moore make neuroscience fun (really) and use case studies from their own work to illustrate their points. In the chapter on “applying the brakes,” for example, we meet Deborah, a soccer mom in her mid-30s who, despite all her energy and good intentions, can’t quite seem to finish what she starts. She heads out to the garage for a quick tidying up, and four hours later is still knee-deep in old sports equipment. She just can’t apply the brakes. In brain-science talk, this is called “exercising inhibitory control.” The authors offer easy, common-sense ways to build this skill—for example, applying the STOP tool (step back, think, organize your thoughts, proceed).
This is a must-read if you could use less stress and more order in your life. Log off Twitter, put down your cell phone and pick up this book.
A lifeboat for marriages
David Finch knew his marriage needed saving. He just didn’t know why—or how. In The Journal of Best Practices, his thoughtful, well-written account of his battle with Asperger syndrome and his struggle to rescue his marriage, he deals with his fight to overcome his personal demons and rekindle his wife’s love, and he also offers instructive lessons for anyone in a meaningful relationship.
Asperger syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder typified by repetitive behaviors, obsession with objects or subjects and the inability to interact socially. Finch displayed all the characteristics, from needing to eat eggs and cereal for breakfast every morning, to circling the floor in a counter-clockwise pattern while repeatedly checking to make sure the doors were locked. Then there was the increasing lack of communication with his wife, Kristen. Frustrated and concerned about her dying marriage, Kristen leads her husband through a 200-question online quiz, which results in a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, later confirmed by a doctor.
Finch isn’t really stunned by the discovery, as much as he is relieved. The revelation inspires him to manage his affliction while taking steps to mend his marriage. His simple chapter titles, such as “Be her friend, first and always” and “Just listen,” detail how Finch reconnects with his wife, and offer tips that any earnest reader can use to do a better job in his or her relationships. So while The Journal of Best Practices is about one quirky character, it really offers instructions on how we all can overcome our own quirks and habits to improve our relations with others.
'Carpe diem' from a terminal voice
Lee Lipsenthal’s life changed in one bite. The medical director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, his life’s work had been helping others work through their fears about death and live more joyfully. In July 2009, when a bite of BLT caused him abnormal discomfort, he already suspected the worst. Diagnosed with esophageal cancer, Lipsenthal found that everything he had taught others paid dividends when he needed them most: He was not afraid to die. Enjoy Every Sandwich shares what he learned along the way and commemorates his life, which ended in September 2011.
Making peace with death didn’t make life a picnic. His wife Kathy was angry at his apparent willingness to “give up,” and his children—and parents—were devastated. There were certainly hard days. But Lipsenthal kept his focus on what he could do, and used the same techniques he promoted in his job—meditation, gratitude, humor—to guide his path. His family and friends, including one pal who made hilariously convoluted plans to score him an introduction to Sir Paul McCartney, prompted him to observe, “I no longer have a bucket list. I have love in my life.”
The book’s title comes from an exchange between the late musician Warren Zevon and David Letterman, during a final interview when it was clear Zevon would not survive his own cancer diagnosis. It’s a lovely message, and it’s hard to read Enjoy Every Sandwich without coming to like Lipsenthal a lot, and grieving the loss of someone who helped so many. How sweet, then, that the book exists to make his legacy available to us all.