As I’ve noted before, if you’re single, you’ve most likely received your fair share of dating advice—both helpful and extremely unhelpful.

It’s amazing, with how much dating advice is out there, how little of it is actually helpful. “If it’s supposed to happen, it will happen.” “Plenty of fish in the sea.” It’s not that advice like this is necessarily bad, but you couldn’t call it helpful.

Helpful advice has some action in it—it gives you some things to actually do that will benefit you, whether you’re single, dating or “It’s Complicated.” And these pieces of advice are as good a place to start as any.

Rethink Your List

A lot of us have created a mental or physical checklist of qualities we seek in a spouse. These traits are based on the values we hold or what we find most important. The first list I created many years ago contained over 30 obligatory qualities for my future partner. Yikes.

However, it is important to remember that lists will always reveal more about us than they ever will about someone else. Whenever we label something (or someone), we are essentially only defining ourselves. Understanding this concept helps us hold on to our list loosely, writing most items in pencil, not in pen.

If we clutch to an ironclad, stagnant list, we could very easily miss a potential mate. Our future spouse will be far more colorful and dynamic than a list will ever encompass, so give God permission to add, subtract and modify it frequently.

Clarify Meaning Often

Miscommunication and strife often occur in relationships when two people place different meanings on the same event or circumstance For example, I could ask a woman out for coffee instead of asking her on a date. In my head, I meant coffee-date, but left unverbalized, she could very well be receiving mixed signals. Then, when we are sipping lattes together, we have to deal with the unnecessary and awkward vagueness of trying to guess the meaning the other person is placing on the outing.

Even during steady relationships, differences in meaning occur with regularity. If my date wants me to meet her parents, I might believe the relationship is getting serious, but she may consider it just another fun date. And married couples deal with miscommunication all the time. Mixed meanings like this occur in all aspects of guy-girl friendships, dating relationships and marriages, whether it is placing a hand on a hip, going on a road trip together or meeting siblings.

The bottom line is that when you feel there could be a discrepancy in the meaning of a circumstance, it is important to communicate the significance you place on it. Habits like this from the get-go will produce an honest and healthy relationship.

Regularly Visit the Spiritual Gym

I believe the type of effort required to create an amazing marriage will be similar to the work required to win the Super Bowl. Professional football teams spend countless, dedicated hours at the gym and endure many grueling practices during the regular season. They fully expect their hard work and discipline to pay off. If the team becomes the champions, you would expect words like endurance, sacrifice and preparation to be used by the players in post-game interviews.

Likewise, the time we invest during our single years becomes our own regular season and the optimal training ground for marriage. Marriage will undoubtedly challenge all of our selfishness, pride, and ego, so why wait until we’re dating to begin training for the most daunting human-to-human relationship?

It is true that Christ doesn’t ask us to change ourselves for our future spouse; instead, He transforms us for His sake (1 Timothy 4:8). But that transformation requires us to learn to sacrifice our own selfishness and rest in Him. A healthy marriage will just reap the benefits of spiritual fitness.

Lead Your Heart; Don’t Let it Lead You

Scripture commands us to “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). While this doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding any sort of romantic relationship or physical contact with the other sex, following this wisdom will protect us from unnecessary pain if the relationship ends before marriage. The primary way we lead our heart (or rather, let God, and not your feelings, lead your heart) is by taking the relationship appropriately slowly.

We can deliberately take an unhurried approach to a new relationship by following three principles. First, center the conversations on mutual interests and minimize deeper conversations until higher commitment exists. Second, focus the early stages of the relationship on fun, shared activities such as jogging, playing board games or attending a concert. Third, for new dating couples, place a moratorium on physical touch until you are confident in the direction of the relationship. This may seem extreme, but enticing activities like holding hands and kissing become tantamount to emotional Super Glue. For others, have honest discussions about how you intend to make smart choices regarding your physical relationship.

While there are certainly many other pieces of helpful dating advice, I’ve found keeping an open mind about my “list,” clear communication and guarding your heart are helpful at whatever stage of life you may be in. And “helpful” advice is the best kind.