The Only Life Advice We Need

A while back, I wrote about a stupidly simple journaling technique I use to calm myself down when I get anxious. If you haven't read the post, here's a summary.

You take a piece of paper and divide it in two. On one side, you write every problem you're facing right now. Whatever's on your mind, write it down. On the other side, you write down how you can solve each of the problems. Then make a concrete plan for implementing those solutions.

That's it. You don't need to do anything right away. You don't even need to carry out the solutions. You just need to get it all on paper. It's a simple idea, nowhere near as cool as fancy bullet journal layouts.

But it works. Seriously. Try it. After writing that post, I received an unexpected number of emails from people describing the sudden sense of calm they felt after using it.

It works because it makes it clear that most of our problems have very simple solutions. The others either don't need solving or can't be solved (in which case there's no point worrying about them.)


I don't like thinking of what I write as advice and I never really view it that way. This post is an exception. I've learned that the single most useful, universal piece of advice is this:

Look at the problem you're trying to solve or the thing you're trying to do. Then think of all the advice on it you’re sick of hearing. The boring mundane fundamentals your parents tried to teach you. The obvious directives you skip over in blog posts. Think of what you would tell a friend in the same situation. The short nuggets that could fit on a single post-it note.

Then follow that.

Because the best life advice is simple. Common knowledge. Almost a cliché. You already know it, I know it, neither of us needs to read any more blog posts about it. We don't need to keep hoarding information.

We can apply the Pareto principle to advice. In so many areas, a few concepts will get you most of the way, let's say 90%. If you want to get to 100% or even 110%, it's a lot more complicated. For the most part, I'd estimate that 3-5 bits of advice and a good dose of common sense carry most of the weight in any specific area. For example:

When it comes to reading more, you basically just need to spend more time reading, get better at focusing and chose books you enjoy. For writing, it's knowing basic grammar, practicing every day, getting feedback and reading a lot. For happiness, it's (probably) spending enough time with people, doing work you like, and having novel experiences. For health, this NPR article sums it up:

"...There really aren't shortcuts to health. Here's what you need to do:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Move your body throughout the day.
  • Eat well — a healthy assortment of foods. Mostly plants, and not too much. (An idea popularized by author Michael Pollan.)
  • Interact socially. Isolation is not good for the body, soul or mind.
  • Take some time to reflect on what you are grateful for."

I think this urge for more and more advice comes from a desire to jump straight from 'meh' to amazing. To go from 50% to 150%. Who wants to be mediocre? Surely if you're going to try you might as well get really impressive results? But the fundamentals are easy to ignore because they're boring and often hard to implement. I've learned that I can a lot further by starting with a basic foundation than by trying to know everything before taking any action. If the fundamentals aren't in place, there's not much point in looking for high-level tips and hacks. 


Adulthood, for me, has been a process of uncovering the things I believe but know aren't true, and the things I know are true but don't believe. 

In the former category are the illogical ideas and beliefs we absorb as kids, then sort of forget to let go of. 

When I was a kid, I read that if you accidentally swallow dental floss it will somehow strangle you from the inside. Flossing terrified me for years. A friend commented that I always winced at the flossing shot in the opening credits for Dexter.  Only recently did I realize that I still believed that on an unconscious level, even if I knew it wasn't true. 

In the latter category are the logical, valid facts and advice and statements we know are true and still don't believe.

I know that exercise, meditation and time with people make me so much happier and I still don't do any of them enough. I know drinking espresso at 8 pm will ruin my sleep and I still do it most days. I know I could just set my alarm half an hour later instead of repeatedly pressing snooze for 30 minutes EVERY day. I know arguing with people always makes me feel terrible. I know setting limits on the time I spend working would doubtless result in me getting the same done in less time. You probably have your own list. 

I like to keep track of good advice people give me and little realizations I have. When a seemingly profound, life-changing thought strikes me, my first instinct is to scribble it in my notebook, on the nearest piece of paper, on my arm. The habit is so ingrained that when I first started getting tattoos, I made a deal with myself not to get any with words for that reason. (I've broken that deal, twice by the way.) When I look back on those lightbulb moments later, I find that 99% of the time I'm not realizing anything new, I'm just finally believing something I already knew. 

Someone told me recently that there are no rules for grieving. While on some level I knew there's no game plan for dealing with loss, hearing those words made it real.

Internalising good advice isn't easy. That's probably why we can moan about the same challenge for years, even when the solution is staring right at us. 

So, I'm currently doing a project where I pick one piece of boring, obvious life advice to follow each month. So far, it's been working like a charm - accepted wisdom is accepted for a reason. Along the way, I'm trying to stop consuming advice as a form of entertainment. 

Dante, rhubarb tea and my Lamy pen.

P.S. I've been a bit scatty with my publishing schedule lately. Going forward, I'm aiming to post one long-ish post on here per week and one shorter one on Medium.