Don't Sweat the Small Stuff

by Richard Carlson, Ph.D.

Cover image

Publisher: Hyperion
Copyright: 1997
ISBN: 0-7868-8185-2
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 246

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Don't Sweat the Small Stuff... and It's All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life is the full title of this small best-selling collection of self-help bon mots. This is a genre that I used to avoid, but David Allen's writings on productivity and Don Miguel Ruiz's The Four Agreements were both surprisingly good and made me reconsider previous scorn. When I saw this at a library book sale, I picked it up on a whim, figuring at worst it would be a quick read.

One annoyance about this genre, though, is that so many of these self-help collections are composed of many very brief thoughts. I suppose the idea is to spark a bit of reflection more than thoroughly explore an idea, but for that I'd rather read a quotation collection. Carlson takes at most three pages, usually two, for each of a hundred separate thoughts about reducing stress and relaxing with life. Few of these thoughts are developed, many of them are feel-good generalities, and even those with concrete advise or approaches to try are presented as a bare-bones sketch. The format keeps people from sitting on the toilet for too long and might help someone who normally doesn't read, but is otherwise devoid of merit as far as I'm concerned. There aren't many ideas expressable in two pages (in a small format with a large font) that I've both not heard before and that are specific enough to be useful.

That was one strike against this book from the start. A second is that its topic is very broad. The general theme is reducing stress by improving one's sense of perspective, and Carlson ranges widely through various takes on humility, meditation and alone time, focusing on other people, compassion and empathy, and perspective. With that range of topics, it's hard to say much about one topic that isn't cliches or stock advice. Carlson tries, and there are practical suggestions and exercises mixed into fairly generic advice, but too much of this book reduces to "be a calm, relaxed person who pays attention to others."

The chapters here do serve as a prioritization reminder. They're not unlike the things I tell myself when I'm trying to calm down, only better phrased and more succinct. But I think, for most of us, knowing the desired end state isn't the hard part. I know most things don't matter when viewed with the proper perspective, that minor annoyances aren't worth getting upset about, and that negative thinking can snowball if not caught early. I can even remind myself of those things when I'm feeling calm and balanced. The hard part is remembering and acting on that knowledge when I'm upset. All those calming concepts lose considerable appeal when I'm angry or frustrated, and if I try to focus on them, I get more annoyed.

A good self-help book provides tools that still work when I'm not at the top of my form, ways of setting up structure and patterns that help reinforce my good moods, and something a bit more methodical and interlinked than a hundred separate ideas for being a better person. Such books exist, but they're much harder to write, and my guess is that ones that work for one person may fail completely for another. It may be that Carlson is perfect for someone other than me, but Don't Sweat the Small Stuff feels too scattershot to provide that. My most common reaction while reading it was "easy enough to say — now how do you do that?"

This book is not without its moments. Remembering that your inbox won't be empty when you die is good advice (although elaborated more thoroughly in a good time management book). Carlson provides a good summary of politeness (listening to others and not finishing their sentences), empathy, and space to regain perspective. A few of the chapters clicked for me or reminded me of techniques that do work but that I underuse. It's lightweight stuff, but if you're looking for something to read in five-minute bursts, you could do worse. But most of the concrete ideas could be better developed and when I wanted to give it more than five minutes of attention, it felt thin and disappointing.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-09-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21