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The Trouble with Tip Lists

The Trouble with Tip Lists
by Shelley Janiczek Woodson, Ph.D.

There are tip lists on every topic imaginable, and they are everywhere especially as the new year approaches. They are difficult to ignore and difficult to follow.  From the sublime to the ridiculous, tip lists offer glib answers to complicated questions, and they will drive you crazy if you let them.  Here are seven things, tips if you will, to keep in mind when you read tip lists.

Who ARE these people?  

The tip list that pushed me over the edge was a list of ten things to do every day to start your day.  It included running, meditating, juicing, yoga, eating a healthful breakfast, and some other healthful stuff I must have repressed.  Do all of those things before your day even begins?

As the saying goes, there’s another side to every story. I had a roommate once who ran every morning, ate a healthful plant based breakfast then biked to work. Seeing this guy (who eschewed caffeine, by the way) run all around town at the crack of dawn, then suit-up and bike many miles to work, had some of my sedentary neighbors hanging their heads in shame. What they didn’t know was, that healthful breakfast was the only food my roommate would eat all day, as he struggled with anorexia. Running was an obsession for him, in part driven by his eating disorder. He avoided driving because of a host of phobias. He was not a healthy or happy person.

So, don’t judge your insides by other peoples’ outsides, and don’t let the tipsters lay a guilt trip on you. You’re doing the best you can under the circumstances.

Tips don’t speak truth

When I first began studying sleep, televisions were never allowed in rooms where patients slept. TV was anathema to sleep docs, an evil device that disrupted sleep. Patients protested, insisting that watching TV helped them fall asleep and kept them asleep. Nowadays, labs sport large screen TVs with cable and the like. What happened? After some research, scientists looked at the data and changed their minds. Watching TV before bedtime is a good fit for some people. Decide what tips are a good fit for you and which ones you can cross off your list. For a different perspective, read tips for genders that don’t match yours. Rewrite and rearrange tips in your style. Make them yours.

You know yourself

I know that taking a bubble bath does not help reduce my stress level. In fact, it only raises my anxiety level.  Cleaning my house from top to bottom helps me relax.  That’s just how I roll.  You know what tends to work for you. Trust your gut.

Things change.

A caveat to the above: Just as the experts change the tips, people change. I wouldn’t continue to be a therapist if I didn’t see my clients change and change for the good.  Just because it never worked for you before, doesn’t mean it won’t work now. Give some things another try.

Don’t should all over yourself.

If you read a list of tips and you begin to think about what you should be doing, stop yourself. The S-Word will do nothing but deflate and discourage you. Think in terms of what you might prefer or might choose to do differently.  Therapists call this reframing. Change your internal dialogue, and you will begin to see external changes.

Paralyzing perfectionism

It rankles my sensibilities that this is a list of seven tips, as opposed to the more complete, snappy sounding “10 Tips.” But as you can see, I got over it. Perfectionism can create a mental roadblock, making it more difficult to take steps toward making change. Tip lists can overwhelm, taunting the reader with their haughty, holier-than-thou attitude. Don’t let that deter you. It’s okay to leave them partially or wholly uncompleted. If perfectionism gets in your way more often than you prefer, consider talking to a therapist about it. It worked for me.

Consider the source

Many tip lists are compiled from recycled information that’s been circulating on the Net for years. (Have you read the many incarnations of “10 Tips to Better Sleep” so many times you know them by heart?) Who is the author of the tip list, and what are their credentials? The author doesn’t have to have a university degree, they may have graduated from the school of hard knocks, but are they basing their tips on reliable and valid information? Is the author an expert? Examine the source with a critical eye, and consider whether it’s authoritative or not, in your opinion. And remember that even if tips come from an expert, you are the best expert on your own life!


About the author. Shelley Janiczek Woodson, Ph.D. is a therapist, researcher, and professor. She is a Licensed Psychologist and Health Service Provider in private practice in Massachusetts. She practices Positive Psychology and specializes in sleep, gender, and mood. She has worked with child, adolescent and adult clients in a variety of settings for over 27 years.


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