Advice That Works for Anyone

Written by Max Harms

Image credit: Various on Wikipedia

When was the last time you got bad advice from someone? How did it feel to be the target of advice that you knew just won’t work for you, even if you might not have been able to say why? Or maybe you didn’t realize the advice was bad until you tried it, and had it backfire! Of course, the person had good intentions, but does it really matter when you suffer from it?

Bad advice is everywhere. Some advice is just plain bad, but I find that most of the time the reason advice goes astray is because it’s a bad fit for the person, time, or situation. We can see this in the often-contradictory pieces of advice that we’re told by society. For instance, if “the pen is mightier than the sword”, why is it that “actions speak louder than words.”

I often advise people to give more time than they feel is necessary when setting deadlines. Studies indicate that this is useful advice for most people, but it surely can’t be right for everyone.

For example, Bruce is a hopeless pessimist. He thinks negative things are the norm, a thinking error called pessimism bias, and regularly predicts other people will fail at things they attempt. His friend Julie tells him that she's writing a book. Bruce immediately thinks “she'll fail and give up within the month.” This thought is automatic. He doesn't lay everything out and evaluate it intentionally--the prediction of failure comes naturally. Bruce thinks people are naturally lazy, evil, and incompetent. If things turn out well he's surprised! Do you know a Bruce in your life? Do you notice these sorts of thoughts in yourself?

If Bruce hears my advice he'll nod and say “I've been saying that people are too optimistic for ages. It figures that I was doing it wrong. I'll try to be even more pessimistic in the future…”

But this might be the wrong lesson for Bruce! Perhaps most people are too optimistic, but pessimistic Bruce is actually very accurate when it comes to predicting how much time he needs for projects. Or maybe Bruce is too pessimistic, and ought to be more charitable towards himself and others.

How would we know? How would we know whether we're too optimistic or too pessimistic? What advice is likely to work regardless of who you are?

Be a Scientist!

Now, before you get the wrong idea, hear me out. I don't mean that everyone should try and become a professional scientist, and I certainly don’t think everyone should dress in a lab coat and goggles! What I mean is that everyone should try to think like a scientist. It’s scientific thinking that makes someone a scientist, not their clothes, their job, or their education. Scientists have cured diseases, built spaceships, and connected the entire planet through the internet! Their three key methods aren't just useful for big technological projects. You can also apply them in your own life!

The key methods are:
1. Take Note of Your Ideas
2. Collect Data
3. Carefully Test and Update Your Beliefs

Let's say that Bruce hears the advice to be less optimistic when making plans, but he has learned to think like a scientist. What do you think this would this look like? First, I think, he'd consider the opposite. This is part of what it means to test one's ideas. It would be a good idea to do other tests as well, but to do them he'll probably need to collect some data first.

If you're trying to figure out whether to make a change in your life, one of the best tools is a big pile of data. To get one, all it takes is the habit of writing things down. If you're trying to figure out whether you're too optimistic when you set deadlines, write down all the deadlines you set and note which of them you make and which you break. Perhaps if Bruce collected this data he’d find that he’s a bit too pessimistic.

I use data all the time in my personal life. I'm a data junkie. Every day I keep track of everything I'm trying to do and whether I accomplish it. All my daily to-do lists and life-logs get saved so that I can regularly go back and review. By looking at this personal data I can see that 71% of tasks that I set out for myself get accomplished according to plan, 19% get set aside because of a good reason like a last-minute change of plans, and 10% slip by because I was procrastinating, distracted, or not working hard enough. I've experienced each of these days firsthand, but it's only by keeping and sorting these notes that I'm able to look at them all together.

There's a pattern in my data, too. On a day where I miss one major task, I often miss others. These are my "bad days" where I'm low-energy or I just don't want to follow the plan that I made for myself in the past. About a fifth (20.5%) of my days are like this. I still usually get some things accomplished, but a big project will usually slip by.


(Pictured above is a visualization of the most recent ten weeks of my life.)

This data allows me to know myself and be a good scientist. I don't have to rely on the vague advice that I ought to be less optimistic when making plans because I have the number. When I set deadlines for myself I take however much time I expect to need for the project and then add about 30% on top. So if I expect a project to take 10 days of work, I give myself 13, knowing that I will probably lose about a fifth of that time.

I can only do this because I think like a scientist and collect data about my life. You can do the same thing! Regular note-taking in an area of your life will lead to increased awareness and will let you predict that area in the future. For example, you can record how happy you are when you do an activity, or how stressed it makes you feel. This data will let you identify what brings you the most joy. Collecting and using data and thinking like a scientist are the foundation of many things which have been proven to make life more enjoyable.

A life that is recorded is a life that can be reflected on. Too many people let their connections with their friends slip on accident because they’re not reflective enough. Too many people feel a vague confusion about what they’re doing with their life. Don’t let yourself fall into these common traps. Take note of who you want to spend time with, the sorts of activities you enjoy doing, and what you want to do with your life. Build a habit of studying yourself!

With the right sort of scientific thinking, you can also develop a skill at listening to advice. With enough data and knowledge about yourself, you’ll be better able to tell whether a suggestion is a good fit for you, or if it’s likely to backfire. Moreover, if you keep track of where good advice comes from, whether from a particularly wise friend or a good blog (hint hint), then you can come back to that source in the future to make your life even better.

What do you think?

  • Where in your life do you make predictions about yourself? Have you been mistaken in your predictions before? What happened because of it?
  • What sort of data could you collect to help you better understand yourself and predict your future?
  • Besides meeting deadlines, what areas of your life do you think could benefit from data collection?

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