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Wise People Have Rules For Themselves

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Every time I post a new behavioral experiment, or share a personal resolution of some kind, I get a few emails telling me not to be so strict with myself.

They always say something like “It’s not good to be so hard on yourself!” or “We shouldn’t be forcing ourselves to do things!”

This is a common thing to hear in our improvement-focused culture. I used to think it was a reasonable caution, but now I think it’s generally bad advice.

It seems well-meaning in most cases—people sometimes do go overboard with exercise, frugality, and personal efficiency. But I think it’s much more common for people to go under-board in some or all of those areas, and you can bet the person giving you a hard time is one of them.

We often hear about the importance of “balance” in our self-improvement efforts. But what exactly are we balancing? Good behaviors and bad ones? Are we looking for lives that are equal parts wisdom and recklessness?

Can you imagine someone saying “I don’t think we should force ourselves to brush our teeth every day. You have to live a little!”

You might have noticed a pattern in the most successful people around you. Wherever they excel, they tend to have personal rules that they take very seriously. 

Financially effective people tend to hold themselves to certain rules about money. I don’t borrow money for anything smaller than a house. I ledger every dollar in or out. I live on 80% of my income and invest the difference.

Fit, energetic people tend to have personal rules about health. I run or walk every day, rain or shine. I fill half my plate with vegetables. I don’t keep junk food in the house.

Productive people keep personal rules about work. I’m always at my desk at seven sharp. I clean out my inbox out every Friday. I don’t use social media before five o’clock.

These uncommonly capable people have figured out something that should be obvious: your quality of life improves when you set clear standards for how you live. You gravitate back towards “so-so” in any area where your standards are unclear. It works—both ways—like magic.

Equally predictable is the resistance you will face from others whenever you do set standards for yourself that deviate from the norm. Quit eating meat, and people will try to get you to eat meat. Start going to bed at ten, and someone will try to get you to stay up later. Quit drinking, and someone will buy you a shot. Work out regularly, and someone will say you’re being “obsessive”.

This notion that personal rules constitute “forcing yourself” is just a way of dismissing self-discipline as a possibility, for oneself or others. Brushing your teeth every day doesn’t require any sort of forcing or obsessing, just dental hygiene standards you consider non-negotiable.

Again, consider the absurdity of it: “I don’t think we should force ourselves to live within our means. No way I’m going to be so strict with myself. I wanna enjoy my life, man!” Nobody quite says that, but in many circles it’s normal to live that way.

Why so much contempt for personal rules? Part of it is probably a kind of tall poppy syndrome. If we can convince others that their attempts to improve themselves are vain or joyless, we can feel safer about our own trajectories.

There are probably deeper reasons though. We fear the prospect of losing any of our freedom, and we tend to think of rules as devices that only constrain. To say “I’m no longer going to let myself do X” can feel like we’re trading enjoyment and freedom for some drab moral aspiration like purity or perfection.

We’ve all experienced the pain of living under unfair or unsympathetic rules, especially the ones imposed on us as children by teachers and grownups. Having our freedom curtailed, often for reasons we don’t understand or didn’t agree to, is painful.

But setting rules for yourself is completely different. Freedom is the whole point. Who’s more free? The person determined to live on significantly less than their means, no matter what, or the person who shops like a “free spirit?”

Self-imposed rules aren’t constraints, they’re good decisions made in batches—they’re behavioral boundary markers you get to position yourself, through your own experience and wisdom. A good personal standard clarifies and simplifies, eliminating what would be countless painful decision points. You’re free from having to stop and negotiate with yourself for the hundredth time on the same issues. Should I have a third drink? Should I quit early and work Saturday instead? Should I lie and say I’m sick?

Despite our fear of rules, the feeling of acting in accordance with a well-considered personal rule is not a feeling of being bound or hamstrung. It’s a palpable feeling of power and independence. The real ball and chain is the liability of not having standards independent of your mood and other acute pressures. Without explicit no-go zones, there’s always a possibility of getting sweet-talked into every chance to “live a little”, whether it’s by others or yourself, and there’s nothing freeing about living like that.

For some reason, we tend to assume that “keeping our options open” means living with more freedom. But a range of options is just a range of possible behaviors, and personal rules are a simple way to eliminate broad categories of bad or mediocre behaviors from your repertoire—ones that reliably lead to debt, strained relationships, remorse and other freedom-destroying conditions.

It’s not hard to see how you might experience more freedom in your life when you don’t reserve your option to lie to get of an obligation, to check Facebook the moment you wake up, or to be hungover tomorrow.

After years of striving to “not be so hard on myself”, I am now enjoying the freeing, empowering effect of keeping personal rules that I never negotiate with other people, or even with my own bad moods. Clear rules reduce the need for approval, the stress of trying to have everything both ways, and the necessity of constantly explaining yourself. Since I began to recognize the freeing effect of personal rules, I’ve never felt more independent, and I’ve never worried so little about what others think.

Instead of going by mood or whim, you already know what you will do and what you won’t. You know which side of the fence you want to live on—on this side lies prosperity, consistency, and health, and on that side lies remorse, ambivalence and excuse-making, and other varieties of pain you’ve finally decided to be done with.

And you’re still free. You can always hop the fence and get burned again, which will only remind you why drew a line in the first place.

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Photo by Eric Sunstroem

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Patrick July 30, 2017 at 10:42 pm

This resonates because of a personal rule I’ve recently had regarding when I can eat, inspired by your post on intermittent fasting. Based on very simple boundaries, my relationship to food and specifically snacking has changed for the (much) better. Little limitations can work wonders!

TecCrowd July 31, 2017 at 12:24 pm

I agreed. I also some rules. Very interesting post. thanks for sharing.

Aaron August 1, 2017 at 12:53 am

This is an excellent observation that seems to be gaining some popularity recently. The same sentiment is echoed by Jocko Willink with the mantra “Discipline is freedom”. I think you have explained it more fully and eloquently here, but Jocko contextualized the same concept for team/leadership function. I find the overlap interesting.

Cubert August 1, 2017 at 5:42 pm

You know, it’s interesting. We try to set boundaries for our kids to help them manage their day to day lives with fewer variables to muddy up their minds. It seems the same logic should apply to us grown ups. Set your boundaries for things you need to have predictable, in order to focus your energy on the variables you have no control over.

Very thoughtful post, as always!

Chris August 1, 2017 at 9:58 pm

This is such a spot on article. I am 26 and have been thinking a lot about this for the last couple of years. To steal your words, I have been hopping the fence less and less and have been getting burned less and less. I just discovered this blog from a madfientist post and after two articles I can’t wait to dive into more of your content. Keep it up!

josé August 4, 2017 at 10:41 pm

Very insightful, I love the “rules are good decisions made in batches” idea, thank you.

Gym August 7, 2017 at 11:44 am

A kite cannot fly without a string keeping it grounded, so are the lives of most if not all the losers I know in life who refuse to control themselves. I recently read a quote that in so many words said the those that work the hardest have the best luck in life.

John August 10, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Great post! Freedom is an illusion. No one is free, if you get up every day and commute to a job you are slave to the traffic. This is just one example and if you think a little you will find more examples in one days experience. By not having self discipline you are creating a self inflicted tyranny of indecisiveness.

Deb August 10, 2017 at 10:36 pm

This was such a great post! I went whole foods plant-based a few months ago and yes, I’ve had people tell me I “a little meat won’t kill you” or similar.

I recently read this post which reminded me of yours: http://www.jeffnovick.com/RD/Articles/Entries/2010/10/26_The_Myth_of_Moderation_Pt_1__Do_All_Foods_Really_Fit.html

Most people don’t eat a little meat, eat a little sugar, drink a little alcohol or do anything else unhealthy in true moderation.

John Khalil August 14, 2017 at 8:31 am

Been meaning to comment on this for some time now, and so glad the comments are still open.

This is a life-changing write-up – one of your absolute best. A friend of mine who subscribes to Mister Spoils found this very same article a day after telling him about “favorite writer of mine” (without name dropping you) and when he sent it to me, I was so taken back like – HOW DID YOU KNOW? Mere coincidence. He said this article “completely changed my perspective on so much.”

My absolute favorite bit from this piece: http://johnxbreezy.tumblr.com/post/163375662473/after-years-of-striving-to-not-be-so-hard-on

Adding to my list of favorites:
‘The First-World Fear That Makes Life Harder’
‘The elegant secret to self-discipline’
‘How to Eat Less Crap During the Holidays’
‘You Are Free, Like it or Not’
‘You don’t want to be typical’

One of your posts (not listed above) inspired me to write this: http://johnxbreezy.tumblr.com/post/162034143313/how-are-you

I’ve emailed you in the past and commented on here, to which you have replied on both mediums, which I appreciated. Like I said, you have been blessed—easily my favorite writer on self-improvement and how to human.

Thank you. So much.

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