Advice has many desirable qualities. In Recognizing vs Generating, I talked about how advice should be focused on, not just telling people what to do, but also on the justification. Specifically, justification that would allow them to come up with object-level insights themselves. Similarly, in Good Self-Help is Self-Defeating, I talked about how advice should aim to move people to become self-reliant. Specifically, you want to avoid situations where people become dependent on you for advice, or you trade-off clarity for readership.

There's one more thing I want to focus on, when it comes to advice, and that's the topic of meta-advice—advice about how to follow other advice. In a way, the two above essays fall into this category; I gave some abstract recommendations about what ideal advice should look like. However, I didn't lean too hard into specifics. In this essay, though, I want to dive into three pieces of concrete meta-advice, mental models about advice that focus on applicability, rather than desiderata.

In Defense of the Obvious

When someone tells us advice, an immediate response is to check it against advice we've heard it before. And if we have, it can be easy to dismiss such advice as being obvious, boring, redundant, self-evident, tautological, etc. etc.. But, as I've mentioned elsewhere, this sort of dismissal is implicitly subsituting the question of "Is this advice useful for me?" with the question of "Does this advice seem obvious?"

I want to convince you that advice which is obvious or boring can still be useful.

First off, our brains don’t always see all the connections at once. Just because you have all of the premises doesn't mean you know all of the implications. (See open problems in mathematics for proof.) Thus, even if some given advice is apparently obvious, you still might be learning new things.

For example, say I told you, “If you want to exercise more, then you should probably exercise more. Once you do that, you’ll become the type of person who exercises more, and then you’ll likely exercise more.”

The above advice might sound pretty obvious, but keep in mind that our mental categories for “exercise” and “personal identity” might be in different places. Sure, it’s tautologically true that someone who exercises becomes a person who exercises more. But if you’re not explicitly thinking in terms of how your actions change who you are, then there’s likely still something new to be learned here.

Humans are often weirdly inconsistent with our mental buckets—things that logically seem like they “should” be lumped together often aren’t. By paying attention to even tautological advice like this, you’re able to form new connections in your brain and link new mental categories together, perhaps discovering new insights that you “already knew”.

Secondly, obvious advice tends to be stuff that works, or is at least low-hanging fruit. If your brain is pattern-matching something as “boring advice” or “obvious”, you’ve likely heard it before many times before.

For example, you can probably guess the top five things on any “How to be Productive” list—make a schedule, remove distractions, take breaks, etc. etc. You can almost feel your brain roll its metaphorical eyes at such dreary, well-worn advice.

But if you’ve heard these things repeated many times before, this is also good reason to suspect that, at least for a lot of people, it actually works. Meaning that if you aren’t taking such advice already, you can probably get a boost by doing so. If you just did those top five things, you’d probably already be quite the productive person.

The trick, of course, is actually doing them. This in itself may not be an easy task, but, by itself, this doesn't invalidate the benefit you could get, if you followed such boring advice.

Lastly, it can be easy to discount obvious advice when you’ve seen too much of it. When you’re bombarded with boring-seeming advice from all angles, it’s easy to become desensitized.

What I mean is that it’s possible to dismiss obvious advice outright because it sounds way too simple, and/or you've seen it before. “This can’t possibly work,” your brain might say, “the secret to getting things done must be more complex!” This kind of belief can arise from the issues mentioned in Fading Novelty, where the motivation after starting a new self-help regimen fails, leading to the assumption that nothing simple works because you've already tried everything.

There’s something akin to the hedonic treadmill happening here where, after having been exposed to all the “normal” advice, you start to seek out deeper and deeper ideas in search of some sort of mental high. Chase this too long, and you become a kind of self-help junkie. You end up craving the bleeding edge of crazy ideas because literally nothing else seems worthwhile. You might end up dismissing normal helpful ideas simply because they’re not paradigm-crushing, mind-blowing, or mentally stimulating enough.

At which point, you’ve adopted quite the contrarian stance—you reject the typical idea of advice on grounds of its obviousness alone. There’s a certain aesthetic to being the cool kid who knows that simple advice isn’t enough to solve their complex, multi-faceted problems.

If this describes your current mindset, might I tempt you with the meta-contrarian point of view?

Here’s this for a crazy idea: One of the secrets to winning at life is looking at obvious advice, acknowledging that it’s obvious, and then doing it anyway.

(That’s right, you can join the even cooler group of people who scoff at those who scoff at the obvious!)

You can both say, “Hey, this is pretty simple stuff I’ve heard a thousand times before,” as well as say, “Hey, this is pretty useful stuff I should shut up and do anyway even if it sounds simple because I’m smart and I recognize the value here.”

At some point, being more sophisticated than the sophisticates means being able the grasp the idea that not all things have to be hyper complex. Oftentimes, the trick to getting something done is simply to get started.

Because some things in life really are obvious.

Pushing for Practicality

Imagine someone trying to explain exactly what the mitochondria does in the cell, and contrast that to someone trying to score a point in a game of basketball.

Someone could take classes to learn how to get better at each of those two things. Yet, there’s something clearly different about what each person is trying to do, even if we lumped both under the label of “learning”.

In learning, this divide is often separated into declarative and procedural knowledge.

Declarative knowledge is like the student trying to puzzle out the mitochondria question; it’s about what you know. It’s about how your concepts link to one another, like how you can know that Paris is the capital city of France or that water is also known as hydrogen dioxide.

In contrast, procedural knowledge, like the fledgling basketball player, is about what you do. It’s about how you actually carry out certain actions, like how you learn to throw a frisbee well or riffle shuffle a deck of cards.

I bring up this divide because many self-help techniques are introduced as declarative knowledge, but you really need to look at them from a procedural lens to get the most benefit.

For example, say you’re reading an essay on motivation, and you learn that “Motivation = Energy to do the thing + a Reminder to do the thing + Time to do the thing = E+R+T”.

(Note that I don't actually endorse this equation.)

What might happen is that your brain will form a new set of mental nodes that connects “motivation” to “E+R+T”.

This would be great if I ended up quizzing you “What does motivation equal?” whereupon you’d correctly answer “E+R+T”.

But that’s not the point here!

The point here is to have the equation actually influence your actions. If information isn’t changing you view or act, then you’re either not extracting value out of the information, or it's actually not very useful.

What that often means is figuring out the answer to this question:

“How do I see myself taking different actions in the future, as a result of having learned this information?”

This forces you to think about analogous situations where the insight comes in handy. If you spend the time to synthesize examples for yourself, your list of real-world actions might end up looking like:

  1. Remembering to stay hydrated more often (Energy)
  2. Using more Post-It notes as memos (Reminder)
  3. Start using Google Calendar to block out chunks of time (Time).

Learning about all these things is only useful if you can find ways to apply them. You want to do more than have empty boxes that link concepts together; you want to link them to actual actions.

Knowledge might be power, but you also often need to act on it to be powerful.

The Skill-Based Analogy

There’s this tendency to get frustrated with learning mental techniques after just a few days. I think this is because people miss the declarative vs procedural distinction. But if you buy the idea that mental skills are procedural and not declarative, then you can notice that other things which now fall into the reference class are time-intensive activities like "learn to play an instrument" or "get good at a sport".

And with that, it becomes much easier to see that any expectation of immediately learning a mental habit is rather silly—after all, no one expects to master tennis or the oboe in just a week.

(Although, if you really want a hard number, it looks like it takes somewhere like two months (plus or minus several weeks, with a fat tail) for people to master a habit.)

So, when it comes to trying to configure your expectations, I suggest that you try to renormalize your expectations by treating learning mental habits more like learning a sport, instrument, or any other skill-based activity.

Lastly, consider scaled-down versions of advice that you get, where a smaller sub-skill can get you most of the benefits, in the same way that a drill or sub-skill helps your practice the main skill.

For example:

  1. Doing a quick mental check of something that could go wrong, rather than enumerating all failure modes.
  2. Spending 1 minute to dump something you think of in your to-do list, rather than spending 30 minutes everyday meticulously tagging/arranging your list.
  3. Just doing something immediately for 5 minutes, rather than trying to plan out a whole schedule to do it regularly.

This is because the "core" of day-to-day rationality seems to be less about plotting a grand strategy to optimize the entire day, and more about finding opportunities to make small, high-leverage. It's about reacting well on the 5-second level than always finding the optimal grand strategy. And to that end, having scaled-down skills seem like they could 80/20 the benefit.

Last Updated: 2020-08-26 23:31
First Published: 2020-01-26 16:22