Best books for New Year's resolutions and habits in 2020

New year's resolutions: every January you make the same long list, and every year they crumble faster than a dried-out Christmas fruitcake. You’re not alone: 80% of our best intentions falter before the end of the year, and most don’t make it to February.

But don’t worry - we know some books that can help. The following reads are perfect to inspire the New You 2020 needs and deserves, whether it's the memoir of global icons or practical guides to changing your habits. 

ACHIEVE MORE

Becoming: A Guided Journal for Discovering Your Voice by Michelle Obama (2019)

When it comes to becoming a better person, is there anyone on Planet Earth whose advice you’d rather take than Michelle Obama? Based on the former FLOTUS’ juggernaut of a memoir, this journal features an intimate introduction by Obama and more than 150 inspiring questions and quotes to help readers discover – and rediscover – their story.

‘It's not about being perfect,’ she writes. ‘It's not about where you get yourself in the end. There's power in allowing yourself to be known and heard, in owning your unique story, in using your authentic voice.’

MEET NEW PEOPLE

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell (2019)

Talking to strangers is one of the most important things we do, and it can have the most profound effect on our successes and failures in life. The trouble is, according to Malcolm Gladwell, most of us are terrible at it. It’s why we’re so easily deceived. It’s why charm usually trumps honesty. Why lies can sound sexier than truth. And it’s certainly why Neville Chamberlain thought he could trust Hitler, and why we so readily believed Amanda Knox was a cold-blooded killer.

Using these fascinating examples from history - and many more - Gladwell, in his inimitable way, takes us on an adventure through the history and psychology of human misunderstanding.

‘The point,’ he said in September 2019, ‘is to help [readers] reflect on, or think about in new ways, the way they behave and their society behaves. That is the best kind of self-help, it’s not a prescription for how to improve your life, it’s a prompt.’

BE A BETTER PARENT

The Book you Wish Your Parents Had Read by Philippa Perry

So, you’re a working parent of small children who never seem to sleep or slow down. If they’re not banging pans or poking plug sockets they’re screaming for more – more sugar, more telly, more of your weary, downtrodden soul. It can be hard to keep your cool, harder still your sanity. You know you’re a good parent, but you also know you could be better. Philippa Perry’s bestseller is the game-changer you need.

It’s not like the usual parenting ‘handbooks’ that promise lofty ‘hacks’ to behavioural bliss. Instead, Perry reassures you gently, but firmly that parenting is not a ‘hackable’ chore, and children are not problems to be fixed or projects at which to excel. Parenting is a relationship and kids are individuals to be understood and supported. Ultimately, investing in your kids won’t only make them better people in the long run, but you as well. It is, in short, a book about relationships – the ones we have with our kids, ourselves, our pasts and the world around us.

EAT LESS MEAT

We Are The Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer

It turns out that people who eat healthily are also doing the planet a huge favour. Which, in the current climate (quite literally) feels like pretty strong motivation for changing your diet for the better. Safran Foer’s argument, boiled down, is that Mother Earth’s got beef with people who eat a lot of… beef.

Meat production takes twice the land and deforestation to feed people on meat-based diets than to feed vegetarians and vegans. But here’s the thing: Safran Foer is not even saying you need to cut out meat altogether. He says all we need to do is to go vegan until dinner to change not just your health but the entire world. 

CHANGE YOUR HABITS

Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg (2019) – paperback (hardback came out before)

Rather than focus on breaking your bad habits, why not create a bunch of new good ones instead? According to Silicon Valley legend and founding father of habit research BJ Fogg, it will make you happier, healthier and more productive than ever.

His ground-breaking method reveals that the key to changing behaviour is not about willpower; it’s about focusing on the things that are easy to change. You don’t say, ‘floss your teeth’, you say ‘floss one tooth’. You don’t say ‘meditate for five minutes’, you say ‘take a deep breath’. You don’t say ‘eat an apple every morning’, you say (full recipe ahead): ‘After I make my coffee, I take an apple and put it on the counter.’

Tiny Habits proves that, once you start doing the first, tiny action, the rest of the desired behaviour unrolls naturally. You’ll have a gleaming smile, a zen-like mind and a gut cleaner than baby’s conscience by Valentine’s day.

DECLUTTER YOUR LIFE

Goodbye, Things: On Minimalist Living by Fumio Sasaki (2017)

Fumio Sasaki owns a roll-up mattress, three shirts and four pairs of socks. After deciding to reject possessions to walk the minimalist path, he began feeling happier. Follow his plan, he says, and you will, too.

It's not a case of going full Bhikkhu-monk, dispensing of every material possession and sleeping foetal on a bare floor. It's case of starting with, say, your wardrobe. Goodbye, Things explores the philosophy behind minimalism and offers a set of straightforward rules - discard it if you haven't used it in a year; be a borrower; find your uniform; keep photos of the things you love. Doing all that, he says, can help all of us lead simpler, happier, more fulfilled lives.

‘Living with only the bare essentials has not only provided superficial benefits such as the pleasure of a tidy room or the simple ease of cleaning,’ he writes, ‘it has also … given me a chance to think about what it really means to be happy.’ Sounds good to us.

MAKE BETTER DECISIONS

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

When should I quit my job? How should I bring up my kids? Who should I vote out of the celebrity jungle? We’re all forced to grapple with life’s big questions. Decisions are hard because they define who we are and shape our future. The trouble is, the human brain is pre-programmed with prejudicial bugs that too easily trip us up. So if we want to make better decisions, it will help to get to know our biases and find ways to override them.

Nobody is better placed to explain the machinery of the human brain than Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. First published in 2011, Thinking Fast and Slow revolutionised the way we think about how we think.

It tells the story of ‘two systems’ of thought. The first is automatic and impulsive. The second is conscious, aware and considerate. The trouble is, System Two is lazy and often puts its feet up while System One runs riot. This breeds error, bias and prejudice. Stuffed with actionable insights and advice, it is as illuminating a book as you could ever hope to read about the mechanics of the mind.

CUT BACK ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media by Jaron Larnier (2019)

Internet users are now spending an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes per day on social networking and messaging platforms, according to the Global Web Index. In that time you could make 71 cups of tea, read about 33,000 words of a book, or have three full sessions of deep-dive psychotherapy. According to Jaron Larnier, we may need the latter more than we think.

The Silicon Valley maverick is one of the most respected voices in tech, a visionary who was there when the internet was born. To his mind, social media is toxic. It makes us sadder, angrier, less empathetic, more tribal and yet more isolated. Companies like Facebook and Google deploy constant surveillance and subconscious manipulation of their users. They monetise our online activity (in any other context you would call it labour), for which we get little, if anything, in return.

If you’re beginning to feel you might be better without the constant need to know if anyone’s ‘liked’ your stuff, this witty and urgent manifesto for deleting social media could change your life. 

GET A PROMOTION

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)

This, quite simply, is the granddaddy of self-help books. With over 15 million copies sold worldwide, it is one of the biggest-selling books of all time, and certainly one of the most influential.

Carnegie wrote it back when capitalism was just beginning to sharpen its elbows, presumably for young suits hoping to climb the corporate ladder. Its title alone reflects the go-get-em self-interest of the corporate world: you don’t make friends, you win them, then make them do what you want.    

But read the book and you’ll find a far softer, more human approach than the title might suggest. His message is simple, and far less aphoristic than may at first meet the eye: ‘You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you … People are not interested in you. They are not interested in me. They are interested in themselves — morning, noon and after dinner.’

Don’t we all need reminding of that, from time to time?

BE MORE OPTIMISTIC

Candide by Voltaire (1759)

In these mercilessly bleak times, it’s easy to get a bit ‘glass half empty’ about things, isn’t it? If that’s you, be careful: an 11-year study by the University of Illinois discovered in 2015 that pessimists are half as likely to be ‘in ideal cardiovascular shape’ as their more optimistic counterparts. But if you’re becoming the ‘grimdark’ type, you need a heavy dose of Candide – the ultimate in ‘hopepunk’.

A notoriously subversive satire, Voltaire’s 1759 classic was written against a backdrop of aimless persecution and war. It follows Candide as he travels around the globe, encountering horror after horror, taking each in his jaunty stride. But, despite experiencing all manner of unspeakable atrocities, he never allows world-weary cynicism to puncture his optimism.

The message, to put into modern parlance, is along the lines of: don’t worry about what you can’t control, just the things you can (“we must cultivate our own garden”). Candide is timeless because it punctures a paradox at the core of our existence: we are surrounded by chaos, and yet we yearn for something steady, so we create it in our minds as best we can. 

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