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Why Advice Doesn't Work

By Cameron Elliott

Lucy felt trapped. It was nearing 3 am, and despite spending the last 8 hours at the library, she's made absolutely zero progress on her music history paper. She still has a half- completed stats assignment that was due yesterday, but Lucy can't worry about that until she finishes her paper and studies for tomorrow's child development exam.

The next day after failing the exam the next day, Lucy was required to meet with her professor who told her that she needed to study harder and do better on the upcoming midterm. That night, Lucy was 15 minutes late to her job as waitress, a common occurrence. Her boss scolded her for being late and questioned her dedication to the cafe. Diana, Lucy's best friend, said Lucy needed a better work-life balance.

Telling Lucy to work on her study skills or to work harder is no better than telling the homeless they need jobs, or telling an alcoholic to stop drinking; this advice fails on two counts: It's short-sighted and insulting.

Like most people, Lucy is fairly self-aware, she knows her strengths and weakness. She knows she needs to work on time management and on her work habits and she knows she's in danger of failing her classes.

Lucy's friends, teachers, and managers then ask, "If Lucy know all this, why doesn't anything change? Why doesn't she develop better time management skills?" From there, it's easy to start making assumptions about Lucy's character and motivations. Is she stupid? Lazy? Does she even want to change?

But it's not that simple. Telling a homeless person to find a job will not result in him landing a lucrative job and a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. Telling a deaf person to listen harder will not result in a miraculous healing.

Telling the person things they already know won't help. The problem isn't what's wrong, it's how to fix it. If you don't have the right tools, or don't know how to use those tools, you're not going to be able to accomplish much.

Which is why over the next few weeks, this column will explore self- discipline: what it really is, and most importantly, how to develop it

About The Author

Cameron Elliott, a healthy living specialist, maintains a blog on everything from philosophy to meditation to eating right to sleeping at


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