Time was, if you wanted advice on how to improve or address some problem concerning things like health, finance, relationships, and work, your options for where to get that advice were limited. You could pick up one of the few books on the subject, ask a friend, colleague, or pastor, or send a letter to a newspaper’s advice columnist.
Boy, how times have changed.
These days, you walk smack dab into a deluge of advice every time you turn around. There is an abundance of sources that offer to tell you the best way to eat/exercise/dress/speak/date/think. Thousands of books, blog articles, and podcasts forward suggestions for better, happier living. Social media feeds are filled with influencers whose right-in-the-camera gaze and slowly unspooling captions arrest your scrolling, as you await what potentially life-changing tips they might dispense.
How do you sort through the flood of advice out there and decide which recommendations to try implementing in your life?
You can, of course, start by examining the credentials for the source of the advice, and you can see if their advice is backed by scientific research. But equally expert-level individuals sometimes offer contrary recommendations, studies can be marshaled to support two very different conclusions, and some areas of life haven’t been examined in the lab, and probably never will be.
You need to employ further filtering mechanisms. To that end, we suggest asking the following four questions.
Prerequisite: Decide If This Is an Issue That Even Needs Addressing
Before you decide what advice to take, you need to decide what advice to seek out and listen to or read.
It’s tempting to want to optimize every aspect of your life. Maybe your exercise routine feels like it’s working for you, but you can’t help but wonder if there’s a way to make it even better. So when you see an article or podcast about how to improve it, you feel a sense of FOMO in not tuning in.
But there are only so many hours in a day. You can’t consume everything about everything, and you don’t need to waste your time consuming content about aspects of your life you’re already satisfied with. If something’s currently working for you, whatever additional tips you might glean aren’t likely to move the needle in a significant way. Use your limited time to learn about areas of your life that you actively feel are lacking; implementing new ideas on this score can result in significant improvement and will have the highest ROI.
At the same time, know yourself; recognize how you like to live and the things you’re willing and unwilling to change. For example, maybe you’re a late riser, but every time you see content about the benefits of waking up early, you find something compelling about the idea; it feels like something you should do. But stop and think, “Wait, I’ve tried waking up early before. I hate it. It’s not for me. I don’t need to go down that road again.”
Know yourself enough that when you see a headline about why you should do things X way, you can shrug and keep scrolling, saying to yourself, “No, I like to do things my way; I’m not interested in changing that.”
Give yourself permission to ignore stuff about what’s already working in your life.
4 Questions to Ask in Deciding What Advice to Take
So you’ve identified what areas of your life could use improvement, and you’ve dove into the firehose of advice on the subject.
Now, use these questions to home in on which suggestions to try implementing:
Does the source of the advice have the same personality/disposition as you?
People think and approach life in ways that are fundamentally different from your own.
While a lot of people give lip service to this idea, and understand it cognitively, deep down, they still assume that others experience the world in about the same way they do.
It can take an embarrassingly long time to truly grasp the fact that people operate on different wavelengths. It took us until around midlife to really understand it, and a big help in finally doing so was reading up on the Color Code — a personality assessment. (Listen to our podcast with its creator, Taylor Hartman).
The Color Code categorizes people into four colors: Reds, who are motivated by power; Blues, who are motivated by intimacy; Yellows who are motivated by fun; and Whites who are motivated by peace.
When individuals offer advice, they’re telling you what’s worked for them. And what’s worked for them is based on what drives them and what they find most rewarding. And what they find most rewarding is based on their particular personality. Even when it comes to research in the social sciences, study results are based on averages, and the averages may not apply to you.
So, while you might have heard that planning a vacation brings people more happiness than actually taking the vacation, that’s probably not true for Yellows, who enjoy more spontaneous experiences. And you might have heard how essential vacations are in general, but Reds probably have less need for them and find them less satisfying than other personality types.
We ourselves, a pair of Blues, have often touted the benefits of doing connective things, like hosting dinner parties. But the truth of the matter is that other color types probably won’t get off on initiating these kinds of activities the way we do.
So when assessing if you should adopt a piece of advice, consider whether the person giving it has a similar personality to yours or not. If not, then it’s unlikely to be as effective for you as it is for them.
Keep in mind too, that Yellows, who are confident and extroverted, likely make up a disproportionate number of the folks who become popular on social media. So if you’re not a fellow Yellow, you should take the advice of these influencers with an additional grain of salt.
Is the source of the advice in the same life stage as you?
Related to considering whether a dispenser of advice has the same personality as you is the need to consider whether the source is in the same life stage as you. What works for someone at one age and in one set of circumstances may not work for someone in another.
The best example of this is morning routines. In the personal development space, you’ll often see single, childless, self-employed dudes tout the benefits of morning routines in general, and the benefits of their specific morning routine in particular. They’ll tell you how they wake up at five a.m. and first meditate for 20 minutes before going on a 30-minute walk, making a greens smoothie, and doing some dynamic stretching. This might sound awesome, and it’s great if it’s working for them. But is it going to work for a dad of three kids, who needs to help them get out the door while getting ready for work himself? Probably not.
Advice given by someone who’s in a similar life stage as you is going to be more valuable and applicable than advice from someone with whom you share less in common.
How long has the source of the advice been following their advice?
Everyone feels real jazzed early in the adoption of a new habit. Dopamine-driven excitement surges. Big results often come quickly and easily. A person feels fit to exclaim: “This is the thing I’ve been waiting for! This is the thing that works!”
But farther down the road, this exuberance fades. The benefits of a new habit may slow or even reverse themselves. And the individual gives up the practice they were once so bullish about.
So be wary of advice offered during the honeymoon period, when the person giving the advice hasn’t been following it themselves for very long. Sure, maybe it’s effective in getting short-term results, but is it sustainable?
For example, maybe you’ve got a friend who’s been doing the keto diet for two months and is riding high on the 20-pound weight loss they’ve achieved. But what will their story be a year from now? Will they have stuck with eating low-carb? Will they have kept the weight off?
Almost a decade ago, I wrote an article with the oh-so-compelling title of “How I Quit Caffeine and Became a Better Man.” I had recently abstained from caffeine for 30 days and possessed all the zeal of a born-again convert: Quitting caffeine had cleared my skin, cured my dandruff, soothed my irritability! I had decided caffeine wasn’t for me and was never going back to it!
Well, just a few months after I wrote that, I fell off the anti-caffeine wagon and have been off it ever since. I just ultimately liked life with caffeine more than life without it. My confidence in swearing it off had been premature. (I’ve since tried not to write articles like that before sufficient time has passed, and I feel confident that the habit I’m endorsing is one that I’ll keep.)
Bottom line: The longer someone has been successfully doing something they recommend, the more credence you can lend their advice.
Does the source’s advice seem to be working for them?
There are some self-help gurus out there who seem, well, a little messed up. They seem awfully morose for someone preaching the tenets of the good life. Or they seem like they’re hiding something, that there’s a skeleton in their closet — a hidden vice that’s eating up their insides.
When you feel like there’s something off about someone, you shouldn’t ignore your gut on that.
Now, it’s definitely the case that most philosophers in history were weirdos, stricken with all kinds of mental and physical maladies. But oddball thinkers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were never prescriptive with their advice; rather, they raised general ideas and questions designed to get people thinking and figuring out how they needed to change. If a guru moves beyond this stance, however, and sets out some concrete rules for living, then it’s reasonable to consider how these rules seem to be working for them. Are they happy? Flourishing? Do they have a vibe you’d also like to possess?
No one, of course, ever entirely lives up to their own principles, and in assessing the validity and value of a particular principle, one shouldn’t ask, “Who said it?” but “Is it true?” But adopting and striving — however imperfectly — after an overall philosophy or stance towards life, will inevitably produce certain fruits, and it’s wise to examine what they are, as manifested both by the system’s or movement’s progenitor and those who follow its tenets.
Once you filter through advice using the above questions, the only thing left to do with the recommendations that remain is to experiment with them to find what works for you. Remember, your mileage with all pieces of advice — including these! — will vary.