10 ways searchI’m sorry. I misled you with the title of this article.

It’s quite funny how many of these ’10 ways you can…’ articles have cropped up over recent years, in the age of increased online social networking. Perhaps this type of advice has always existed. There were old wives tales, and tips that have been shared through word-of-mouth since the dawn of communication.

But the list of 10 seems to have caught on particularly well in this internet age. I would conjecture that it has something to do with human love for quick-fixes and magic-bullets – specific instruction that completely eradicates a problem rather than a general principle to aid your thinking process. Doing a web search for ’10 ways to’ yields pages and pages of results.

Of course, not all of these articles are bad. Many are quite useful and informative, especially when the topic is something very narrow. However, more often than not, especially when the advice is related to a general topic like ‘be more confident’, it seems that the tone is trying to give you specific rules to follow rather than some underlying principles that will help you to come up with methods that are suited directly to you.

Side Note: Induction vs Deduction

Perhaps this is related to inductive vs deductive reasoning. Induction means that you infer a general idea or structure from particular incidences. Deduction works the other way around. You have a general idea, set of evidence, or principle in mind, and this allows you to derive (deduce) a particular fact about a given situation.

Quite often, much of this step-based advice is more closely linked to induction than deduction. Whilst this is neither wrong or right by itself (one can be more effective than another depending on context), inductive arguments which use observations from a small sample of experience can paint an incorrect picture when extrapolated to a more general setting. Sometimes we can’t avoid this though, when we don’t know about the overarching general principle. This is usually the case in new scientific and academic discovery.

Potentially more troublesome is when deduction is used but the general principle is omitted from the article. This is why you end up with millions of different tips on how to be more confident or lose weight, but if you look at them more deeply, they usually all seem to come from one or two general ideas. In these cases, the danger is that not all individuals reading the specific statements understand how to correctly put those titbits of information into their correct context. This can cause misinformation, and a faulty understanding of whatever the subject matter is.

Some Examples

I’m just going to pick some random examples of ’10 ways to…’ articles that I find on Google to hopefully illustrate what I mean.

http://www.warrenbuffett.com/warren-buffett-10-ways-to-get-rich/

There’s always a lot of self-help advice going around, no matter what the medium. This article about ‘getting rich’ is really about listing the ways in which Warren Buffett became rich. Whilst that does not mean the advice is necessarily false, it is framed in a way that makes you think ‘hey if he did that and became rich then I should do that too!’.

http://tribesports.com/infographics/10-strange-ways-to-stay-healthy

Health is another issue close to everyone’s thoughts. This article is not bad, it includes some references at least (though a few of these sources seem questionable). However, all of this is rather obvious advice provided by governments and your GP, along the lines of ‘eat healthy and do some exercise’. The specifics are often down to personal preference, since not everyone’s body responds to things in the same way. In other words, this list really doesn’t need to exist.

http://healthyliving.msn.com/weight-loss/10-ways-to-burn-fat-and-keep-it-off-for-good

There are a lot of these health oriented articles around, as you can see. None of them need to exist since they all just give you a set of rules from a relatively elementary set of principles about how the body works.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201407/10-ways-feel-better-about-how-you-look

This is a better example. There’s some general discussion about the problem of self-esteem first, and the advice comes at the end. It is fairly clear that the 10 ideas are suggestions that are derived (or at least closely linked) from the previous discussion. This seems to give the reader a better understanding of where the advice actually comes from, and so encourages you to think about principles.

http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/231277

Here is another good article. The principle of behavioural nudging has been discussed and linked to in the opening of the article. The rest of the examples offer some suggested ideas based on that underlying theory. This allows the reader to get some practical advice, but also makes it easier for them to understand exactly why that advice works. This means that you might be able to deduce other tips yourself in future.

http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/homehygiene/Pages/Foodpoisoningtips.aspx

This is from the National Health Service in the UK. There’s nothing wrong with their advice as such. However, a simple understanding of how and under what conditions bacteria breed, and when this is likely to be harmful allows one to figure out exactly what measures they need to take. The problem with this type of article is not that the information is incorrect, but that people are not really told the underlying theory.

Quite often, these public service announcements are overkill, and for those that don’t realise this, it can result in inefficient actions to be taken. As an example, the ‘five-a-day’ fruit and vegetable guideline gives you a hard and fast rule to follow. ‘Eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day to be healthy’. I’ve seen people get caught up in trying to arbitrarily meet this requirement rather than understanding what nutrients their body needs and how to best achieve this.

http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/publications/10_ways_to_prepare.html

Saving has always been a big problem in economic terms, and there is a lot of advice from governments to try to help you to save more and save wiser. This article is a good example of some good general information mixed in with some rather throwaway advice in order to pad out a list of 10. This highlights another issue with the ’10 ways’ format. It seems that because this article style is so popular, writers seem to think that they have to invent 10 bits of advice, even when this is completely redundant. There are some good general investment and saving guidelines, but they seem to be muddled in with specific actions. There are really only 2 messages that I can see here: figure out how much you need in retirement and then make this a savings goal, and figure out what savings accounts and employer contributions you can take advantage of (with a list of some common examples).

http://www.womenshealthmag.com/health/10-ways-drink-more-water

Not even sure what to make of this one.

http://familyshare.com/10-ways-you-are-being-unfaithful-to-your-spouse-and-you-dont-even-know-it

This is close my idea of a nightmare ‘help’ article. It’s effectively dictating to you how you should or should not behave in some kind of self-righteous way. ‘Don’t do it’ and ‘you must’ are recipes for narrow thinking.

Stay Smart

There’s no doubt that these top 10 articles are popular for a reason. They give us specific practical statements to follow that might help us to solve a problem. Many of them are very well written, but just as many (if not more) are not. I guess given that I reeled you into this article by appearing to offer some advice, I should give you some.

My ‘tip’ is simply to stay smart and remain sceptical of what you read in these articles, and try to figure out what the overarching principle is (if possible) rather than accepting a given set of rules as they are. Inevitably, this will allow you to make your own inferences and try your own things based on what you know about yourself – something that no specific rule can ever take into account.