Don't Take (My) Advice Too Seriously

This website is about things that have worked for me. The “for me” part is key. This website isn’t about giving you advice, as much as I want other people to share in my lifestyle choices. Why? Well, first, I’m not nearly experienced enough to offer you advice. But second, the advice probably won’t work.

I have a theory, which Eliezer Yudkowsky also discovered, that many people will hunt through the web looking for tips on something: how to run, how to make a to-do list, etc., that optimize some part of their life. They’ll consider, say, five or six different approaches, and then they’ll finally find the one that works. And this is a magical moment that must be shared with everyone, because your dedication has unveiled the one method that works, and you can save everyone the time of trying the five other approaches that don’t work.

…Except you missed a step. You forgot to take into account that while people are rather similar, there’s enough individual differences in what people prefer, what makes people comfortable, how people think about things, etc., that what works for you might not work for other people. Indeed, all six of the approaches you consider probably have each worked for someone at one point or another, or they wouldn’t have been written about in the first place. No one, I hope, writes about failed self-improvement methods, unless… well… it’s about how those methods have failed.

I really sympathize with the idea of finding the best self-improvement methods. But I’m pretty skeptical that they exist. Back when Overcoming Bias was a group blog, Katja Grace wrote about how self-experimentation, or trying different things to find the best habits and behaviors, appears to be beneficial even when it shouldn’t be, because all of the best habits should have been discovered a long time ago.

Grace considers five possibilities: (a) she is a strange individual, (b) there’s an unending amount of things to try and optimize, (c) findings are not aggregated or shared well, (d) people are too different for one-size-fits-all advice, and (e) the perceived benefits are illusory. At the end, she decides to place the bulk of the blame on poor data aggregation and sharing, which probably is true. But I’d place more blame on context being different and people being different.

Over at Less Wrong, Luke Meulhauser summarized the state of self-help literature. I can summarize his summary in five words, assuming you count a hyphenated word as two words: Self-help is a mess. Indeed, fitness and diet advice are also messes, and you’d think those would be more scientific. The internet… heck even the peer-reviewed studies themselves… are a minefield of contradictory and mutually exclusive information. Though there is some information that falls through the gaps and seems good… for most people. Good luck if you’re atypical.

And this seems true anecdotally too. Consider the question: when should I exercise? I personally can’t exercise right before I go to bed, or I’m too hyper to fall asleep. A friend of mine considers exercise right before bed to be relaxing, however, and for him, it’s the easiest time to do it. Other people exercise in the middle of the day, or right after getting up, and insist it’s the best time they’ve found. All I’ve learned from this advice is the best time to exercise is whenever you’ll stick with it.

I’m going to keep trucking onward in this blog and, among other things, tell you what has worked for me. This may seem like advice. And in some ways, it is. Perhaps I’m helping to address the problem that findings aren’t aggregated or shared well. But in reality, I’d like you to not take my advice – or any advice – too seriously.

Advice is important. And you shouldn’t ignore those who have experience and who have done the things you seek to do. You should stand on the shoulders of giants. But at the same time, remember that there is no one-size-fits all advice. Maybe some day they’ll find a way to work out your personality and way of thinking about things and can scientifically tailor advice to you. But that day hasn’t come yet.

Until then, you’ll have to try things for yourself and actually see what works for you.