June 2003

Melissa Roy

scarlet woman of self-help

Cheryl Richardson applied

The pattern of this column has been planned around trios of self-help books about a particular subject, and this month wraps up our three-month run of texts about general "life issues." We've gone from Life Strategies to The Mom Factor and will now be concluding with Life Makeovers: 52 Practical and Inspiring Ways to Improve Your Life One Week at a Time by Cheryl Richardson. In a sense, this text brings us full circle from Dr. Phil's Life Strategies, because he and Dr. Richardson both structure their books around the idea of the "authentic self" (and even use that same terminology). I was actually rather shocked that Dr. Phil didn't have it patented by now, but since Richardson's book jacket boasts about her "Lifestyle Makeover" series on the Oprah show, perhaps protégées of the talk show queen are encouraged to share ideas freely amongst themselves.

Richardson's background is as a personal coach, helping her clients to "reevaluate their priorities, redefine success based on a more holistic perspective of life, and take the necessary actions to bring about the positive changes they desired." While all of this may sound eerily reminiscent of Dr. Phil's material, it is the book jacket's (wholly true) claim that Richardson took the lessons she learned from her years as a personal coach and "distilled them into a simple year-long program that shows how making small changes, over time, can have a huge impact on the quality of your life." It is precisely this format that makes this book easily accessible to the reader, palatable to anyone who wants to begin changing their life but needs small short-term goals to work toward rather than an overwhelming overhaul, and simply wonderful for the working individual with many commitments who can only spare the time for a few pages a week. In all, I'm happy to recommend it as the best text I've read for this column so far.

You may recall, in the introduction, that I offered myself up as a sort of self-help guinea pig, ready and willing to try out the recommendations offered by each of the books and relay each of my experiences to you. Obviously I cannot fulfill that promise completely with this text, because I lacked the foresight to start reading it a year before this column was due. However, I will promise you that I did read it in its entirety and lumped as many of the ideas and experiences as possible into about a month or so, and I can see how this series of small changes can add up to a big change at the end of the year.

Each chapter (about three pages - what a delight!) corresponds to a week out of the year. There's a small "essay" at the beginning of the chapter, followed by a "Take Action Challenge" - a small step toward changing your outlook, behavior, or habits - and a list of resources to help you along your journey. For example, the first week's "Take Action Challenge" is start a journal. I'll readily admit that this was (and still is) a hard step for me. Keeping a journal is essentially starting a dialogue with yourself which, just like having a conversation with a friend, is easy when there's something to talk about, whether it be something exciting, something horrific, or something amusing. It becomes difficult, though, when there seems to be nothing happening besides the mundane things that don't seem to be the stuff of which journals are made. Sometimes at the end of the day, exhausted from work, the gym, family, friends, bills, phone calls, and a series of small tasks ad infinitum, it can become a challenge to recall anything special, much less find the willpower to write about it. However, sometimes writing is the key (and all of us readers should know this!). An open dialogue about anything - big "pie in the sky" dreams and everyday thoughts alike - can reveal things about you that you might not know, and which might be useful to making changes in your life so that you can become happier and see the forest instead of the trees.

Richardson also helps a bit, though, not leaving the subject matter wide open for the journal entries. She asks the reader to list twenty-five accomplishments from the last year of which they are most proud. Now, I should backtrack a bit and say that I did not consider this helpful at all upon first read-through. I have been thoroughly trained and certified in the art of self-deprecation, and making a list of twenty-five of my accomplishments in my whole life would have been enough of a task, but in the last year?! That's akin to admitting to the person next to you in high school that you actually did get 110% with your extra credit points on that last test, when they got a "C" - that would be rude and obnoxious, right? (Okay, okay, I will admit that this last sentence alone probably qualifies me as a good candidate for some psychiatric help.) Here's the thing, though - no one is looking but you, and you're presumably reading this book because your life is the one that needs changing. So make the list, already. If I did it, you can too. The experience was a good one - I felt encouraged to go on with the book, and had a few good things to keep in mind when my days got long over the next few weeks.

Since I obviously can't detail each and every chapter for you, let's take a couple of random chapters - weeks 12, 36, and 50. Week 12 is "Give your brain a vacation" and begins with this question: "Have you ever wondered why you get some of your best ideas in the shower?" We've all heard this theory - study for your SATs, but not the morning of the test or even the night before. Your brain needs a rest to function at full capacity and sort or find the needed information properly. Richardson is asking the reader this week to operate in the "insightful" mode rather than the "analytical" mode and suggests that the reader "take action" this week by selecting a challenge and solving it in a relaxed, insightful way, using a "mantra" to keep your brain from falling back into analytical mode. She hopes that we can train ourselves, much the way meditation requires training, to do this on a more regular basis. I found that I couldn't do it by thinking about it at all, or even selecting a particular problem. I started by thinking about a list of things (both work and personal) that were bothering me, and I found that I solved most of them after a good night's sleep, a solution with which my mother would be pleased - as she's always said, everything looks a little better in the morning.

Week 36 is "Bringing in the Reserves." This might have been my favorite chapter. Richardson labels each of the areas in our lives as an "account," comparing it to a bank account from which we may withdrawals, but in which we can also make deposits (hopefully more of the former than the latter). When a person concentrates too much on one area (i.e. work), other accounts suffer because deposits aren't being made. The "take action challenge," then, was to make a list of all of the accounts in your life - friends, family, physical health, community, emotional well-being - and divide them into columns, listing underneath each of the "credits" in your account. Then she suggested that the reader pick one area with a small balance and "make a deposit" during week 36. Keeping this list and "balancing" the checkbook of your life could really improve things if done on a regular basis. I personally found my sense of "community" lacking and, since I had a few business trips this month, I made an effort to meet people and build connections during my time away from home. I feel that I met some interesting people who could become valuable friends and am already in touch with many of them!

Week 50 is "Shake Up Your Life" (which sounded fun and should also, in my opinion, have it's own salsa soundtrack). It also turned out to be simpler than it sounds. I happened to be moving apartments during the weekend I was reading this chapter, and so it was particularly simple for me, but it can be for any reader. The challenge this week is to change something, little or big - Richardson suggests moving a piece of furniture or going out on a night that you usually stay in. These are easy things that can change your outlook on life or your attitude about even the daily "chores" of life.

I really think that this book is a valuable resource in the scheme of the self-help genre because it possesses all of the things that the other books haven't (so far) - accessibility, simplicity, ease of use, and even fun! It allows the reader to be active in the process of life changes, rather than reading a book and expecting, falsely, to be able to understand and employ all of the information at once. Other authors could learn a great deal from the format and you, as readers, could take a great deal away from this text.

As I mentioned, next month will begin a new series of texts, and I'll leave the subject matter a surprise. See you then….

Life Makeovers by Cheryl Richardson
Broadway Books
ISBN 0767908848
209 pages

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