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Advice Gets Good When It Gets Specific

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I’ve never had great penmanship, but one day in grade four it went from atrocious to merely eccentric after receiving a single piece of advice from my father.

I had already received frequent advice on the matter from my teachers. Pay attention to what you’re doing. Don’t get frustrated, just make each one a little better. Practice, practice, practice.

My dad’s advice was much more specific: try to make the bottom of each letter touch the blue line.

This made for an immediate improvement, because it made it clear what to do differently—get the loop of the “b” and the trunk of the “t” to meet the cyan lines, rather than float somewhere above them.

The advice of my teachers was still valid, despite being all clichés. You probably can get good at almost anything by doing it repeatedly and paying close attention, while trying to improve on each repetition. That’s probably how Larry Bird got good at basketball.

In fact, some of the best advice comes in the form of clichés. Be yourself. Seize the day. Fake it till you make it. Despite how trite these phrases sound now, they are still deep, paradigm-shifting insights about being human. They’ve undoubtedly changed countless lives, which is how they became trite. Precisely because these principles have been discovered and expressed many times, in many contexts, they’ve become too general and too familiar to revolutionize how someone does something.

In my experience, breakthroughs happen when the advice gets specific. “Seize the day” is good advice, in the sense that it contains a powerful truth about living well. But it’s not nearly as useful as, “Do something that intimidates you before noon,” or “Never put something off a third time, if you plan to ever do it.”

“Live in the present” might be the most profound advice of all time, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how to do it, or even what it really can mean. On this blog I’ve tried to offer forms of this advice that are specific enough to use:

When you start taking these more specific actions, the power of present-focused living starts to reveal itself. When these revelations happen to you, they feel fresh and concrete—the opposite of what you’d expect from an abstract, familiar phrase like “Live in the present.”

Notice that these more specific expressions of classic life advice all refer to concrete objects and things. They identify a real-life moment where the wisdom would make a difference, and they tell you how to create that difference.

Without a specific application point, a piece of classic wisdom is just a platitude. It lives in your world only as a concept, like an unread classic book. You may love the title—East of Eden, say—and what it sounds like it’s about. You display it on your shelf, and you might feel a vague affection for it, but you don’t know who Adam Trask is, or what the word ‘Timshel’ means. The book’s presence may be comforting, but it doesn’t change you.

To use advice, you need instructions specific enough to change how actual moments of your life go. For example, “Just do it” sounds like a potent personal mantra. All of those impressive Olympic athletes probably “just do it” all the time. But when and where do you “just do it” exactly? Well, you might learn to throw your legs over the bed and onto the floor the moment your alarm clock goes off. Or maybe you know to grasp the dumbbell handle as soon as you notice yourself thinking about skipping the next set. The advice has no value until it is parsed into specific know-how that applies in certain kinds of moments. Once it is, it begins to transform the person.

This principle extends to clichéd advice particular to certain activities. In chess, the classic beginner advice is “Develop your pieces,” which means to get all your pieces to better squares than the ones they start on. I had this phrase in my mind for years, but it didn’t really improve my chess games until someone gave me a more specific version:

Put a pawn in the center and protect it. Bring out knights, then bishops, then the queen, to squares where they are active but protected. Castle your king, then get at least one rook to the center of the back rank.

This advice is still pretty general, but it’s much more useful, because it gets down to the level on which the doing actually occurs—pieces on squares—just like my dad’s “touch the blue line” advice got my pencil to go where it needed to go.

Clichés seem like they have nothing left to give us, but they often represent some truly life-altering wisdom, which hasn’t yet become real for you. The problem is that the wisdom is locked up in generality until you make it more specific and concrete.

It might seem like you need some wiser person to tell you what the specific advice is, but not really. Say the idea of carpe diem resonates with you. You can ask yourself, “How would I ‘seize the day’ on this sleepy Tuesday afternoon in my office?” and a more specific principle might occur to you:

  • Attempt difficult tasks at times when you want to do easy ones.
  • Start dialing the phone before you feel fully ready to talk.
  • Imagine going home having done task A, and also having not done it, then decide which version of the future is more appealing.

These are just possible moves to make, possible ways to seize the day before you, derived from combining your abundant life experience with the situation at hand. If you try these moves and they work, you will probably remember them and do them again, and the dusty old phrase “seize the day” will have gained some real meaning and power, for you anyway.


Need help getting stuff done?

I wrote a little book for people like you and me, called How to Do Things: Productivity for the Productivity-Challenged. You can read it in one sitting and be getting more done by the time the sun sets.

[What is How to Do Things?]


Photo by Nicolò Canu

Rocky December 1, 2021 at 7:02 am

Howdy David…. This is great specific advice ! As far as “seizing the day” goes, I use the Santa Clause theory of relativity. I make a list and I check it twice. Once in the morning when I compose it and again in at days end to see what I’ve accomplished. If I get to around 70% or so, I consider it a victory. A man needs victories!
Many thanks for all your valuable advice!

David Cain December 1, 2021 at 10:11 am

Thanks for this tip Rocky — it’s a good example of what I’m talking about. I often make lists, try to accomplish what’s on them, and then just barrel on to the next day. I will try this.

[email protected] December 1, 2021 at 7:19 am

This is a great point and something that has helped me more than I realized. Be smart, make more money, be more patient, try harder. I’ve heard there’s things over and over again in my life. Not until I was given specific advice about how to study better and what to learn did I take a leap and become smarter. The same thing happened for the other general statements.

Thanks for reiterating this. Now we can all pay more attention to advice like this rather than harp on the cliches.

David Cain December 1, 2021 at 10:19 am

It is amazing how long we can live hearing general advice without ever getting the specific, actionable version. I went through 17 years of school without ever hearing anyone explain how to study.

Mary Lynn Smith December 1, 2021 at 10:09 am

I’m going to try the advice to make the letters touch the blue line. Doing it today.
I like this one: Do one thing today that your future self will thank you for. My examples: set up the coffee maker before bed, put yoga clothes on rolled up yoga mat, set appointments with alarms for yoga class, put the laundry away. Etc.

David Cain December 1, 2021 at 10:24 am

Notice that all of those specific instructions identify physical things in your world that you interact with, and how to interact with them. “Get ready for tomorrow” is good advice, but it doesn’t change anything until you know that it means you will be doing something with the coffeemaker, the yoga clothes, etc.

free organizer December 1, 2021 at 11:38 am

Good advice. I plan tasks for the week and try to keep them clear. You also need to write down tasks, then there is a high probability that they will be done. This works very well for me. Thanks, David.

David Cain December 2, 2021 at 10:27 am

Writing down tasks is a subtle way of making the your own self-admonitions more specific. Until you write down the tasks, it just feels like generic “work to be done,” which is really hard to act on. “Take recycling out” has a clear starting point.

BWJ December 2, 2021 at 5:17 am

Thank you for writing this one. It articulated all of my complaints about generalized advice being pretty much useless. With an ADHD brain ready to set off in a million different directions, I’ve had so much trouble in reigning in the energy and forcing myself to think. Thankfully, over the years, I’ve learned a few of the tricks you described. Nowadays, meditation/mindfulness is a terrific support! I follow Shinzen Young’s techniques and his microhits have become my spinach a la Popeye. Cheers!

David Cain December 2, 2021 at 10:30 am

Haha microhits are like mindfulness spinach! I’m going to keep that analogy in mind.

Shinzen’s methods are another good example of making things specific. “Be aware” isn’t very actionable, but he tells you exactly what to be aware of, in terms of concrete sensory events. He is explicit in a way most meditation teachers aren’t. My practice improved drastically when I started working with his methods.

Rama Ramakrishnan December 2, 2021 at 7:02 am

David: I meant to write this a long time ago. One of your unique talents is the specificity not just of your advice but of your “mundane” examples as well.
For e.g., “the threadbare armrest on the basement easy chair, the sun-discolored cassettes that lived on your sister’s windowsill, and your pink-and-turquoise bouncy ball”.

This makes absorbing your writing easier and much more enjoyable. Thank you!

David Cain December 2, 2021 at 10:31 am

Thanks Rama. It’s the same for me as a reader. Make it concrete and sense-based and I’m interested. Keep it general and conceptual and it just drifts through my head.

Terence Wall December 3, 2021 at 11:44 am

Good thinking as always, thanks.

I’ve told my grandkids to use “grandpa’s rule”. There’s only one and it’s just two words: Worst First.

Whether you have a full written list or one purely in your head, or a hybrid, there are things on it that you can do right now, and some you are looking forward to, some you want to put off. Always do the least-favourite right now. Benefits are several and obvious as you find yourself doing more and more pleasurable things all day, you have that great inner glow that you have knocked the nasty one(s) on the head and, of course, there’s nothing nagging at you while you do the things you should be enjoying.

As for lists, they can create their own problems. It’s very dispiriting having a long written list and just crossing out a small number of items, then eventually re-writing the list to clean it up and moving several from one list to the next, time after time. Doesn’t make you confident in your ability to achieve anything. There are a few approaches to solve this:
Make a list of activities that have to be done sometime but think of it as a reminder chart you can pick from not as a “things-to-do” list;
Any items on that list that you are not going to consider to do today put them in your diary instead, with a specific time and duration;
Do without a list! I knew someone when I was working who never wrote down things-to-do. He said “If it’s important enough to remind myself of, I’ll remember it. If it’s not, I’ll do it when I think of it and like the idea. If it’s more important to someone else then THEY will remind me of it when it has to be done!”. That guy was Very productive…

But the most important thing is: don’t let something you are not currently doing interfere with what you are doing – this is what you chose to do now.

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