When ignoring advice makes sense

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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!


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.


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.

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