Self-help and the case of ‘Unstuck’

Self-help and Unstuck


As part of my job, and personally, I tend to read a lot of internet articles on health and well-being. Yeah yeah, I know that is not the most exciting update about my life, but i’m old now and gave up fun a while back 🙂

Whilst on a article binge, I stumbled on this site – Unstuck. Thought it worthy of a post.

Unstuck is a website and mobile app that provides tools for unlocking creativity and productivity. It is built by SY Partners a design/business strategy/innovation/consulting/printing/everything firm that helps businesses and individuals play around with glossy materials transform their practice.

If you visit the SY Partners site you will find lots of buzzwords, very slick animations and the word ‘design’ written a lot. They’ve worked with some seriously big companies, so my guess is their consulting business is what pays the bills, and despite my cynicism, they probably offer an excellent service to businesses who are looking to break out of ruts, embrace new ideas, get more creative etc etc.

The Unstuck website however, is focused on the individual.

There are four main things you can do on the website:

  • Access the Unstuck App – an interactive “digital coach” that you can use whenever you are feeling stuck in life.
  • Read articles (they call it ‘advice‘) on a range of topics (e.g. relationships, work, procrastinating, motivation, negative thinking, feeling lost)
  • Sign up to one of their ‘life courses
  • buy some inspirational merchandise (‘tools‘) – like workbooks and tip cards.

I spent a little bit of time with the app, and found it to be an engaging interactive process. You essentially answer some questions, engage in a card sort task, and then on the basis of your choices, the app identifies one of 11 ways that people get stuck that best describes your situation. From this “diagnosis”, you can then look at some strategies to tackle that particular stuck type.

But it is probably the articles/ ‘advice’ that I like the most. The site has a lot of articles, organised by “11 ways we get stuck”, “i’m feeling stuck because…” and “tried and true ways to get unstuck”.

The articles aren’t intended to be deeply researched or evidenced forays into well-being, but little nuggets of wisdom, wrapped up in quotes, examples, and brief essays on everyday topics. Designed more to make you go “hmm….. interesting” as opposed to “OMG, life changing event happening right now everyone”.

I didn’t explore the “Life Courses” because there was a cost, and I am a cheapskate. Also, their presence is what actually triggered this blog post.

The world of self-help

Self-help refers to the activities individuals engage in, to address perceived or actual personal flaws, that are separate from receiving formal help from a health or related professional.

Typically self-help is delivered through books, websites, web programs/courses (e.g. like those offered by Unstuck), and support groups.

The self-help industry is huge – people spend billions of dollars a year on trying to improve themselves. A lot of that is spent on people trying to change their psychological life (e.g. be happier, less anxious, more popular, more productive etc).

The problem is, like vitamins, the industry is pretty much unregulated. Anyone can write a book or program and sell it to the public, and they are not required to provide a skerrick of scientific evidence that what they are promoting will actually help anyone. This has created a situation where at least 95% of all self-help programs don’t have scientific evidence to support them.

So there is a very good chance that if you find a course like that offered by Unstuck, there is no evidence that the course will actually help you improve yourself in any meaningful way. It might have a positive short-term impact, but the effects quickly fade. It may even make you worse.

My attitude on self-help

You’d think, given what I’ve said above and also because I am a psychologist, and psychologists are all for evidence-based practice, that I would have an extremely cautious attitude towards self-help.

For the most part, yes, and I will endeavour, in this blog to only recommend self-help resources that a) have some evidence to support their effectiveness or b) are based on models of therapy that have an established evidence base. For example, I previously recommended “The Happiness Trap” as a self-help book available from the library. Whilst that book itself has not been evaluated, the model of therapy on which it is based (ACT), has a growing evidence-base and hence the ideas presented are likely to be helpful (at best) and neutral (at worst).

However I am also loathe to interfere too much in people’s “personal journeys of discovery”. I’ve found personal growth from a range of sources, some of them evidence-based, but some of them more philosophical, rather than scientific in nature. My favourite example is the School of Life, particularly their YouTube Channel. There is no evidence that consuming their videos makes people more content, but I find them personally useful.

Therefore, I don’t want to be too prescriptive about what you should read or do, in the course of learning more about yourself and the world.

What I can do though is give you a few simple things to consider when you find information, courses, and books and are wondering if they might be beneficial to you.

Who wrote/created them?

If it’s a company or individual, who stands to benefit financially from the sale of the self-help product, you need to acknowledge that they have a vested interest in perhaps overstating the likely impacts of the product.

This is not to say that all “for-profit” enterprises produce crap content – many health practitioners make a living through publishing books.

If possible though, look for self-help courses and content that have been created by governments and/or academic institutions. There is usually more scientific rigour that goes into the development of these resources than those produced for profit. An example is the online self-help programs from Mindspot, which grew out of academic research.


It’s ok to ask for evidence that the product helps people.

The company or individual might not have that evidence, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask as part of your decision making process.

Read reviews of the resource. If it is a book, you’ll find plenty of reviews on amazon and google. Not that all these reviews are legitimate, but they might give you a better sense of whether others find the resource useful, and in what ways.

Also look for whether the self-help resource references research that might suggest it would be useful. Whilst few books have been evaluated as interventions, many self-help books are based on therapy models that have been shown to be effective (e.g. CBT).


Don’t expect your life to change dramatically as a result of a self-help book.

Even the best tested self-help programs typically produce modest effects at best.

I’m not saying that its impossible for self-help resources to change lives, but I don’t recommend placing unreasonable pressure on the self-help resource to change your life.

Curiosity, open-mindedness with a healthy dose of skepticism is the safest approach I reckon.


There is a lot of stuff available for free.

One of the arguments against the self-help industry is that people are sinking large amounts of money into self-help courses, but potentially not getting any benefit.

However, the explosion of YouTube and blogging means so much content is now available for free. Whilst the quality hasn’t likely improved, it does mean you can sample a lot of ideas and concepts, without significant financial cost. You can see the authors speak on YouTube, or read interviews with them on news sites. You could even go old-school and head to the library.

It is no longer the case that self-development needs to be financial hit. There is of course your time that you need to consider.


Ask for professional advice.

Now I realise you are probably selecting self-help resources because you want to help yourself but if you’ve been spending months or years chasing a change in your life through self-help materials, and have not got very far, perhaps it is time to ask for professional advice.

As a Flinders student, start with us. We’ll try to get you started in the right direction.

So back to Unstuck

Sorry, that was a bit of lengthy diversion.

My advice?

Load up the site, read a few of the free articles. If you like the vibe, perhaps consider one of their courses. Keep in mind though, there is no evidence (from what I can see) that the programs have been prepared by behaviour change experts or have been scientifically tested.

Enjoy, in moderation.

As usual, i’d love to hear your experiences, positive or negative.

Want to comment on this article, or ask me a question about the health and well-being services available to you as a student? Feel free to comment below, abuse me on Twitter (@Dr_Furber), contact me on Skype (search for ‘eMental Health Project Officer Gareth’), or email me (


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