One of my pet peeves is the amount of clichéd advice I hear people spouting. Sometimes, the advice might actually be decent if followed. More often than not, people seem to enjoy repeating sayings depicting the ways they would like to behave. There is an underlying dishonesty in the way people use language. For instance, I’ve found that a lot of people will not say “no” directly. They will stop answering their phones and avoid each other in the grocery store rather than face conflict with any directness. One can also observe dishonesty wherever the word “but” appears as a conjunction in a compound sentence (e.g. “You did a great job, but…”)
In terms of clichéd advice, we can find plenty of material to dissect. Here are just a few common sayings that people spout all day long:
- “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”
- “Refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.”
- “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.”
- “There’s a silver lining in every cloud.”
- “Burn the boats.”
- “Do what you love and the money will follow.”
- “Tomorrow is another day.”
- “The answer’s always no if you don’t ask.”
Cheap quotes are technically true but worse than useless. We tend to exhibit a certain kind of smug self-righteousness when parroting popular catchphrases, even when living day-to-day life in direct contradiction to the words coming out of our mouths. We are generally hypocritical and lazy by nature. If we follow our primitive instincts, we will take the path of least resistance and choose what gives us the most immediate pleasure regardless of the cost. On top of a primitive operating system driven by greed, jealousy, and lust, what difference do we really expect a few nice-sounding words to make? Apparently, our expectations are high, because we print cheap quotes on t-shirts and coffee mugs, and we hear this kind of fluff all day long.
If we truly seek to consciously evolve and become more than the dulled-down, lesser versions of ourselves that we have grown comfortable inhabiting, we need to anchor our new desired reality with action. Language has the power to create reality, but new reality will take hold much more quickly when words line up with action. There are many reasons why people usually fail to take the necessary action to move forward, and most of those reasons boil down to a lack of self-awareness. The alcoholic or addict who doesn’t ask for help, the on-and-off smoker, the chronic binge-eater, the motorist given to frequent bouts of road rage, the helicopter parent, the micromanaging boss… all display symptoms stemming from the same fundamental problem. We feel the tension between the people we want to be, and the reality of who we currently are. It sometimes can feel as if we’re in a tug of war between our potential and our programming.
Characteristics of Clichéd Advice
I believe in precisely defining terms. Here are the elements that make up clichéd advice in my assessment. Not all of the following characteristics are present in every single cliché, but these are the most common patterns I have seen.
Generic: clichéd advice is one-size-fits-all and usually implies that everyone’s situation or need is the same. Example: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” (Or: “It’s okay to put all your eggs in one basket, but just watch the basket.”)
Vague: clichés often sound like advice, without containing any action steps. Example: “Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”
Obvious: clichés rarely point out anything we don’t already know. Example: “We all have the same 24 hours in a day.”
Escape from Cliché Hell
Clichéd advice rubs salt into our wounds when our goal is in sight day after day, year after year, with nothing blocking us except our own choice to do nothing. On the surface, it seems that we know precisely what to do. “What’s wrong with me?” you might ask. “Why do I keep putting off what’s important?” While I can’t offer a one-stroke solution, I’ll point you to the beginning of the problem: recognize that the problem is not what you think. A cliché is worse that useless, because a cliché will mask the problem and keep you stuck in an inaccurate perspective.
Here’s a working example. Let’s suppose you plan a day to really get to work on your book, your bathroom renovation, or your business plan. The day comes, and you spend the full day plopped on the couch binge-watching shows that you don’t even like that much. As the stars come out and midnight approaches, you ask, “What’s wrong with me?” You might recall the cliché: “A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step” – and yet, day after day, choose not to take the first step.
Maybe you’re lazy and maybe you’re not. Either way, you failed to motivate yourself in one specific instance. You lacked effective tools to use in the moment. And should the same situation arise again, you aren’t sure what you will do next time. Here is a simple method to begin wriggling free from the deadlock of blindly applying clichés to your situation.
Notice the Pattern
Resist the base impulse to revert to your default pattern. In the matter of feeling shame after an unplanned day of laziness, notice what you might be most prone to do, if acting from the lower version of yourself. Would you say to yourself, “I guess I’ll try harder next time,” or, “tomorrow I’m really going to get serious”? Would you call a friend who is likely to comiserate with your plight, but not motivate you to take any action? Would you drink alcohol or light up a cigarette? Would you lay in bed for the whole next day? Go on a cleaning or organizing frenzy? What is the action you would most likely take should you succumb to the gravitational pull of your comfort zone? What words would you say? What emotions do you usually feel? What does your most familiar experience look like on days when you did not follow through your plans? The key is to notice the pattern without judgment and to be clear what happens when the autopilot behavior kicks in. What sets the process in motion, and what feels good in the moment about taking the bait? Self-destructive patterns have an addictive quality that we need to acknowledge if we are to have any hope of breaking free.
Identify Catalyst Habits
At what moment did you make the first decision that sabotaged your efforts? Most of the time, we make a series of small decisions that compound on top of each other (read The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy or The Slight Edge by Jeff Olsen).
Here are some bad catalyst habits that I’ve identified for myself:
- Unplanned snacking
- Sitting on the couch during the workday (even for ten seconds)
- Checking email outside of designated times
- Skipping over a task I wrote down on my daily plan
- Opening social media outside of designated times
- Personal texting during work hours
Here are some positive catalyst habits I have identified, which can set things onto a better course:
- Handling a dreadful but important task, and getting it completely done
- Writing a blog post like this one
- Reading a book
- Setting a focus timer and only working on one thing until the timer runs out
Positive catalyst habits tend to take more continuous effort to keep in motion, which is important to factor in during the next step.
Willpower always runs out, which is often why people fail to break addictive patterns. If, for example, you resolve to quit smoking cold turkey and rely solely on willpower to keep you from lighting up again, you are not setting yourself up for success. As humans, our willpower has limits and needs replenishment. The more radical the promises we make, the less likely we will follow through. We might feel an initial burst of emotion (positive or negative) and resolve to stop our behavior, but emotional intensity wears off. Think instead about what happens when you accept a job offer. You show up for work every day, whether you feel like going or not. Some people stay in miserable jobs for years, where they dread going to work every day. Do these people have an iron will? If so, why do they fail to exercise the same strength of will in other areas of life?
An example of an experiment: I implemented the “five-minute rule” in 2022 to curb compulsive snacking. The rule is simple: I would wait five minutes between portions of a meal. If I decided to have a snack, I would delay by five minutes by setting a timer. In addition, I required myself to take the snack out of the container (such as a bag of chips) and re-seal the container before consuming the snack. The rule worked for awhile, and then I started to let the practice fall by the wayside.
One challenge I found: if I was eating with others at a restaurant or in a social setting, I didn’t want to let my self-goverance rules interfere with socializing. I didn’t want to set a timer or do anything that would detract attention away from the conversation. In some cases, I found other strategies, such as silently glancing at a clock on the wall, but I found that the practice did not hold around others. I also found that there was a downside to the practice. Because I required myself to pre-portion my food, I found myself selecting larger portions than I otherwise would have eaten. I managed to curb the overportioning issue, but I reached a point where adding more static rules became counterproductive.
The experiment didn’t fix everything but showed me how to effectively use the willpower I had. Some aspects of the five-minute rule have remained in place naturally. I still maintain the natural habit of pre-portioning food, and I have learned not to overportion. I still often introduce time delays before eating. I have found that my willpower as it relates to food has become stronger than before I tried my experiment in 2022.
In 2022, I joined an accountability group, which would require a whole other blog post to cover. I only mention the group now to emphasize the role that external accountability has played. I have never believed in the idea of relying on others to hold me accountable for changing my habits. In fact, I’ve found that groups that embrace the idea of forced accountability tend to become manipulative and usually destructive. I can’t ultimately be accountable to anyone other than myself. The role of the group is to keep the ideals top of mind. The group’s weekly practice ensures that I don’t forget about what I said was important. We set goals every 3 months. I set an overall goal and I design a set of small experiments with leading and lagging indicators to measure on a weekly basis. I think of the framework as a laboratory for testing practices and seeing how well my theories hold up. The real question is: how successful am I at changing my habits? What works, what doesn’t, and why? Everything is an experiment, and every experiment leads to more questions.
The next time you hear a piece of clichéd advice, ask yourself what you think would be truly required to follow through. If, for instance, you were to “go all-in on your passion,” what would life look like from moment to moment? What specific behavior changes would you need to make? What would get in the way? What support would you need from others? And what prize would you hope to win at the end?
I believe there is no secret to success. All we can do is try one experiment at a time. Do the world a favor and think before you parrot another cliché.