When ignoring advice makes sense

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Ignoring advice may seem like a misguided idea, but sometimes it makes sense to do that. Here’s a description of when to go against what you’ve been told…

After my blog post about an easy productivity hack last week, I received an email from a reader. “I’ve been doing five tasks a day for a year,” she wrote, “and the idea is super. I do it after meditation in the morning and hadn’t recognized how useful it has been.”

I know this writer a little — she’s a member of my Get It Done group — and I felt obliged to respond in a bit of detail. For me, I told her, the secret wasn’t so much identifying the five tasks, as it was scheduling them. “My husband rolls his eyes when he sees my schedule,” I admitted. “He calls me a “lawyer” because it’s in 15-minute increments.”

She immediately wrote me back saying she agreed with my husband.

Was I offended? Not in the least! I recognize that we’re all different and we all need slightly different systems and processes and ideas. I understand that not everything I suggest is going to work for everybody. That would be too easy!

But I do think that many people would benefit from understanding how and when to reject ideas from me and others. I reflected on this concept recently after reading on the Atlantic website an interview with writer and education researcher Ulrich Boser. Boser is the author of the new book Learn Better in which he outlines ideas for how we can all learn faster and more effectively.

Here, to me, was the most interesting observation Boser made during the interview: “I think we really underestimate the role that deliberation and reflection play in learning,” he said. “To a degree we know it, this is why you think of things in the shower or right before you go to bed. You have these moments where your brain is thinking through the day, making connections, and what’s important, I think, for people who are trying to learn more effectively, is to make organized time for that.”

Deliberation and reflection are core components of learning anything new. Most of us learn how to do something and then we stop thinking about it. We desire that automaticity — similar to what we achieved when we finally learned to ride a bicycle. No longer do we need to think about how to move our legs, where to position our arms and, most crucially, how to maintain balance. Magically, it all just happens and we can race down the street with the wind in our hair.

And, unless you aspire to the Tour de France,  this is probably enough for bicycle riding. But the same thing happens to the vast majority of people in their jobs. Most clerks, plumbers, accountants and electricians strive to learn their work and then they stop learning. More worryingly — because of the influence they can have on our lives — so do many doctors, dentists and lawyers. They learn. They become qualified. They work competently. The only profession I know that is built on a demand for continual self-improvement is sales. I think this is because the money salespeople earn is so clearly tied to their performance that they — and their employers — are highly motivated to see them improve.

And what of writers? If writers have a significant point of pain — writer’s block, say, or a book they’re desperate to write but just can’t find the time for — then they will seek help. But as soon as the problem is solved, they are likely to return to their old way of doing things.

If, as a writer, you are resisting new ideas because you feel they just won’t work for you, here are my recommendations about when to know it’s time to ignore the new advice or go looking for something else:

  • Consider whether you’ve given the new idea a fair trial. Most of us become stuck in our ways and don’t like doing things the least bit differently. Warning: this feeling increases as we age. Instead of falling back on your old routines, declare upfront how long an effort you’re going to devote to the new way of doing things. If it doesn’t work after that period of committed time, then feel welcome to abandon the idea.
  • Make sure you follow the instructions. Over the years, I’ve had a number of people say that “mindmapping just doesn’t work for me.” In response, I usually ask them to scan a mindmap they’ve created and send it to me. Then, in less than five minutes, I can identify where they have gone off track. Most typically, they are not following the instructions for mindmapping. Or, the idea they’ve written in the centre of the page (their “topic”) isn’t specific enough. If you’ve checked that you’re following instructions correctly, however, and it still doesn’t work for you, then move on to something else.
  • Devote enough time to reflecting on your learning about writing. If you don’t think about what you are doing, how will you know what works best for you? Thinking about thinking, also known as metacognition, is an important task for anyone who wants to improve what they are doing. Here’s a practical example of what metacognition can lead to: the ability to persist, despite difficulties. But if you have persisted for a reasonable amount of time and you still aren’t getting results, it’s time to move on.

The writer who emailed me at the top of this post had tried scheduling in the past and found it didn’t work for her. So be it. Not every idea is a winner for every person. We are all different. Vive la différence!

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My video podcast last week gave a primer on the costs involved with self-publishing. See it here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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How do you decide when to ignore advice someone has given you? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below.  And congratulations to Julie Davis, the winner of this month’s book prize, Ifferisms by Mardy Grothe for a March 21 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by April 30/17 will be put in a draw for a copy of Your Writing Coach, by Jurgen Wolff. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

Posted April 4th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • If you haven’t read Better – https://www.amazon.com/Better-Surgeons-Performance-Atul-Gawande/dp/0312427654, it is worth considering.

    As you said, we get “good enough” at something and we go on autopilot.

    The idea of being engaged with everything you do is powerful.

    Not magic.

    But it is sometimes interesting to look at things as mundane as washing dishes and thinking how to do them better.

    Nothing has to be boring .

    Perhaps this is the Examined Life that Aristotle was taking about?

    • Thanks for the book recommendation, Steven. I’ll check it out for sure! I’m a big believer in the Examined Life.

  • Dell Raphens

    I really enjoyed your perspective on discernment in following advice and tools (or litmus test questions) we can use before jettisoning advice.

  • Tom Morrisey

    Daphne, the late Elmore Leonard and I taught together at a writers conference many years ago, and we exchanged books the first evening of the conference. Not knowing anyone in town, Elmore passed the evening in his hotel room reading my novel, and the next morning, at breakfast, he told me how much he enjoyed it. I chuckled and said, “It’s interesting that you say that, because I’m pretty sure it broke every one of your ’10 Rules of Writing.'” To which Elmore instantly replied, “Yeah, but you knew what you were doing when you broke them, so for you, they don’t apply!”

    • A very sage comment from Leonard! Too bad so many people believe they can break the rules when they don’t even know them!

  • Christine

    For me, I can take constructive criticism. I know what it is, and I’ve gotten it from many people who can tell me what they like/dislike without it coming off as a personal hit. I have to give the advice a chance to help me. If after I have thought about it, and I cannot apply it, then I let that advice go in one ear and out the other.

    • Ah, but my advice above has nothing to do with how the OTHER person feels. It’s meant to let you know WHEN it’s a good idea for you to ignore advice.

  • Mark Winn

    Daphne; This is actor and sometimes creative writer, Mark Winn. Enjoyed yr piece on ” When to not take either your advice or anyone elses for that matter.” I have to return to my college English 2 course, latter part of my Sophomore year of college, circa 1973 to comment on this one. English 2 in the Junior college system at that time and in the SouthernCa area continued from English 1 Freshman level.And the prerequisite for English 1 was a placement exam. Otherwise one was only qualified for a remedial sort of English class first.
    Well; I made the grade for English 1. I finished the course andmy next step was English 2 if I wanted to do more curriculum as a pre-requisite to transfer to a University! So..about a year later I enrolled in English 2. And my teacher at that time was; as I recall; The epitome of an Easy Coast Bostonian college professor re-located to LA. But he came here with both his Bostonian as well as his classic Tweed sports coat, silver hair, glasses and his perrenial bow tie! for us students to see,admire, or whatever our secret thoughts about him might have been.
    So..I remember clearly during a spirited literature discussion amongst us; mostly 20′ something age students; a comment was made re; a piece of literature
    we had been discussing; The professor remarked: ” You believe everything you read? You’re an IDIOT! ”
    And Daphne and readers he was spot on with his statement.So in conclusion Reflection for me is and has been an important element in my reading but more so when I am not overly pressured or stressed! And especially with time stress!
    And as is or has become with my personal handwriting. And yes I still prefer to write in long hand and on yellow legal pads. When I have slowed down, and renrmber to breathe I fare much better.Andi if you have read this far…
    Thanks for reading.Mark Winn

    • Thanks for your story, Mark. I’m trying to picture that prof in his tweed jacket in LA heat! I might have called HIM an idiot for dressing that way!

  • Judi

    Daphne, I can’t seem to get the hang of mind mapping. I do have your book 8 1/2 steps, but I think I keep trying to set up the linear thinking method. I have trouble figuring out what to put in the center, then where to put everything else so I can connect. I don’t think it’s something I have to throw out, but probably have to turn off left-brain, maybe? And, of course, I don’t seem to know how to do that either. Can you recommend any exercises, etc.?

  • Julie

    Daphne, thank you for the book! I can’t wait to read it. As for advice, I write a lot of speeches. Some I use in competitions. I always receive advice about the speech (either the writing or my delivery), especially when I win. Best piece of advice I ever received was from an international speaking champion. He said listen to the advice and try it out. If it doesn’t feel natural, don’t do it. As you said, everyone is different and one shoe will not fit all of us.

    • Congrats on winning the book, Julie! I think processing advice with respect to public speaking is a little bit different than with respect to writing. This difference is because of the “performance” aspect.I totally agree with the person who suggested that the tips need to feel natural to you.

  • J Lynne Lombardi

    May I recommend a book? The One Thing is written about and on this subject. I have read the book several times and gone thru their seminar. I am working with my staff on this subject right now. I have several people on staff insist it won’t work for them. Maybe not but as the National Sales Manager, I know it works for sales rep. And has helped me. Read the book and try again is my best advice.

    • Thanks for the book suggestion, Lynne. Sounds like a really interesting one! I’ll check it out.