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Why is it so difficult to follow your own advice?

I dealt with this problem the other day. I have a rule for my graduate students called the 10-minute rule. Basically, the rule says that if you are working on a project, and you get stuck for more than 10 minutes, you should stop and get help. The purpose of this rule is to help alleviate long hours of frustration. Usually when my students get stuck, if they email me, I can see what they are doing wrong and advise them on the next step. I can usually send them some quick directions and get them back on the right path again.

But I struggle to follow this advice myself! Here is what happened to me the other day: I bought a new projector, and I went to the Apple Store to figure out what cord I needed to connect it to my laptop. I met with one of the workers, and he showed me the cord I needed to buy. I went to a different store, bought the cord, and went home. Feeling confident, I sat down and plugged my projector into my computer.

It didn’t work. I unplugged everything and tried again. Still nothing. Starting to feel a little frustrated, I re-read the instructions to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. It still wouldn’t work.

Instead of following my own rule and stopping after 10 minutes, I fiddled around with the projector for over an hour with zero success, and ended up feeling really frustrated and angry.

Finally I quit the hopeless venture and tried to calm down.

The next week when I had some time, I went back to the store to get more help. I had to go to a few different stores, but finally someone was able to figure out that the cord I had was wrong, and I needed a different one. The new cord finally worked, and my projector was up and running.

The point here, however, is that it was tough for me to follow my own advice (i.e., the 10-minute rule). It’s easy to forget my guidelines when I’m in the heat of the moment. For example, when I was trying to get my projector to work, I wasn’t thinking clearly. I kept trying to do the same thing over and over, expecting different results. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t get it to work and I needed help. I was stuck.

Here are two tips to help you when you are struggling to follow your own advice:

  1. Check in with someone else. I think it’s part of being human to struggle to follow your own advice. It’s natural to get caught up in a situation and struggle to navigate it clearly. That’s part of the reason why we need to be in community with other people. We need others in our lives who we can check in with. We need close friends, a small group, or a counselor. For example, I could have called a friend in the midst of my frustration and discussed my situation. He could have given me a reality check—something along the lines of “Yeah, technology can be pretty frustrating. I might try it one more time, and then make an appointment at the Apple Store.”
  2. Check in with your ‘smart self.’ Here is another strategy you might try if you can’t check in with somebody else. Ask yourself what your ‘smart self’ would say about your situation. In other words, if the intelligent version of yourself could give you some advice, what would he or she say? The point here is to get yourself un-stuck. See if you can get outside the situation and observe it from a different vantage point. If I could have done this, I might have realized that I was trying the same thing over and over again, and nothing was working. I might have realized that I was getting angry and frustrated, and it would be helpful to take a break. I might have been able to admit that I’m not great at technology and I needed some help (and that’s okay).

Discussion: Do you find it difficult to follow your own advice? What do you think about the strategies of checking in with someone else, or checking in with your ‘smart self?’