How To Take Good Advice and Actually Use It To Better Your Life

March 2012

in Self-mastery

Now that's some good advice.

Good advice is a waste of your time.

Yes, you read that right. Good advice is mostly useless. Why? Because no matter how good the advice is you’ll probably forget it and never use it.

One of the big ironies of the many personal development blogs that have sprouted up all over the internet is that people can waste a lot of time reading them. Alas, I’m guilty of doing this. I’ve wasted many hours reading many articles on productivity, and I forget most of it!

But it doesn’t have to be this way, if we’re smart about it.

For something to be good advice it must improve your behavior or thoughts. Good advice must in some way suggest how to change—for the better—your thought patterns, attitudes, reactions, behaviors, emotions, opinions, etc. etc. If it doesn’t, it isn’t useful. Nobody makes the quote books by proclaiming, “Water is wet!”

Good advice clearly exists, so what’s the problem?

The Problem With Advice

When you read a good piece of advice, what generally happens?

You read it, nod your head in approval, and maybe make use of it for a few days or weeks. Then you forget about it and fall back into your regular behavior.

Why does this happen? Quite simply, changing behavior is hard, for many reasons:

  • Much of our behavior is habitual. We tend to repeat what we’ve done in the past. Habitual behavior is entirely automatic and unconscious. More importantly, habits do not change quickly. This is why new behaviors, like going to the gym, may be strong for the first few weeks when we have the focus and willpower needed, then rapidly revert to our old behavior when there’s a slight disruption in the new pattern. Building new habits takes time and repetition.
  • Reading advice doesn’t mean you’ll remember it. Remeber that great tip from last week? Of course not, because you heard it once, thought about it for a well-intentioned minute, and then never thought about it again.
  • Advice isn’t always actionable. “Be more curious” may be excellent advice for improving your learning speed and knowledge of a topic, but it isn’t obvious how to be more curious.
  • It’s easy to be too hard on yourself. “Weakness of will” or “lack of self-discipline” are generally overly simplistic and unfair explanations. Our brains are wired to repeat past behavior. We’re also wired to value short-term gains (eating ice cream) over long-term gains (improved health and longevity from healthy eating).1

That’s why most good advice is a waste of your time. Unless it is a particularly simple or easy-to-implement idea, that will immediately influence your thinking or behavior.

If that’s not the case, the advice will be useless—unless you take steps to internalize it.

Happiness and Excitement

An example will help me illustrate this.

I’ve been reading Tim Ferris’ The Four Hour Work Week and found this awesome insight: happiness = excitement. The opposite of happiness isn’t sadness, it’s boredom. The best way to understand happiness is to see it as synonymous with excitement.

Why is this so useful? For starters, it helps you understand yourself. Instead of asking “What’s my passion?” or “What’s my purpose in life?”, simply ask, “What excites me? What do I get really excited about doing? When am I really excited?” This can be very insightful. Second, this idea suggests useful ways to change your behavior. Focus on doing the things that excite you. When bored, recognize that it’s limiting your happiness and try to find something exciting to do. When unhappy, look for something to do that excites you.

In short, this is a very simple, useful idea that can help you get more out of life.

Now that I shared that with you, what do you think?2 Sounds good, right? So… are you going to remember this for the rest of your life? Are you going to do anything about it?

If you are at all like me, I’d bet good money that one week from now—and definitely one month from now—you will:

  • Almost entirely forget about reading this.
  • Forget to focus on doing things that excite you.
  • Forget or fail to trigger excitement-seeking behavior when you’re bored.
  • Forget or fail to trigger excitement-seeking behavior when you’re unhappy.

You may be slightly more likely to seek out exciting things, your happiness may slightly increase, but nothing significant.

And this is just one example. This has happened to me again and again over the years. More times than I can count, and probably even more than that, because of the number of things I can’t remember forgetting.

What Can We Do About It?

The important question, then, is how to get the most out of good advice.

How can we deeply internalize ideas and advice—make them a permanent part of our thinking and behavior—so that we use them, now and forever? After all, if it really is good advice, why the heck wouldn’t we want to do this?

This is definitely possible, though it takes a bit of initial effort—but think about how useful it will be! To internalize good advice (and ideas in general) you must:

  • Learn. First you have to understand the advice—what it is, what it looks like, what behavior it implies, what benefits to expect.
  • Memorize. You must remember the idea if you’re going to keep implementing or using it. When someone asks, “What was that idea in Tim’s 4HWW book about happiness?” you should be able to effortlessly recall the key ideas. They should be a part of you.
  • Practice. This is probably the trickiest part, and admittedly where I suffer the most. Memorizing ideas isn’t enough, you have to practice using them too. This will be effortful at first, then becomes easier as the behavior is learned. Find ways to practice and use the advice in real life, and repeat until it is completely natural.

For memorization, spaced repetition software (SRS) is our friend. SRS involves presenting flashcards more frequencly at the start, and then less frequently as you learn the material. I’ve been playing around with it for the last few months with much success. I use Anki, a free open-source SRS flash-card software. More details on this to come. Mind mapping may also be an excellent way to memorize important ideas and concepts.

For practice, something I’m currently playing with is using visualization/simulation to ‘fake’ practice, especially when the practice environment is difficult to create in real life. Other than that, it’s simple a matter of finding time and situations to practice using the skill or behavior you’re trying to learn.

Lately, whenever I find good advice I focus on finding ways to internalize it. If it’s not useful enough, I toss it—it’s not worth my time or effort. Otherwise, I put in a bit of effort to make it permanent.

My recent work on procrastination is a good example. I’m well aware of how much irony I was risking by spending a lot of time—and putting off other things—going through The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel. But I stuck with it, knowing I’d extract the information in there and be sure to use it. It worked. I made my procrastination poster, which has proven to be extremely useful. My productivity has at least doubled. Without making and using the poster, I would have forgotten most, if not all, of the advice in the book.

Going Forward

The main message is this: Whenever reading advice (including that in this post!), always ask first and foremost if it’s worth internalizing. If it is, ask how you can use it and what you need to remember. If the advice doesn’t lend itself to memorizing and practicing, then it’s probably useless. Then, find a way to internalize the key ideas.

Most importantly, always remember: If you’re reading advice that you genuinely want to use, but you won’t memorize or practice it, then you’re wasting your time!

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As a treat, some humorous advice to leave you with:

Most parents think they know better than you do, and you can generally make more by humoring that superstition than you can by acting on your own better judgment.
–Mark Twain in Advice to Youth

If a person offends you, and you are in doubt as to whether it was intentional or not, do not resort to extreme measures; simply watch your chance and hit him with a brick. That will be sufficient. If you shall find that he had not intended any offense, come out frankly and confess yourself in the wrong when you struck him; acknowledge it like a man and say you didn’t mean to.
–Mark Twain in Advice to Youth

Image by laurelephant.

  1. This is studied as hyperbolic discounting. []
  2. If I haven’t explained “happiness = excitement” enough, I recommend checking out the Tim’s book, The Four Hour Work Week, Chapter 4. []