Switch to mobile version

Wise People Have Rules For Themselves

Post image for Wise People Have Rules For Themselves

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.

***

Photo by Eric Sunstroem

Learn to live in the present

A few times a year I offer a 30-day course on the basics of mindfulness and meditation, called Camp Calm. It's starting again in a few weeks, and I hope you'll join us.


Mindfulness practice is simpler than you may think, and can change your life. Learn more.

If you liked this post, get Raptitude sent to you. (It's free.)

We respect your email privacy

Arthur Guerrero July 23, 2017 at 10:53 pm

So true. When someone says, “It’s not good to be so hard on yourself!” they’re just trying to make themselves feel better. They secretly wish they could be doing something similar.

Good post!

Randy Hendrix July 24, 2017 at 8:18 am

Ditto.

Abhijeet Kumar July 23, 2017 at 11:10 pm

There comes a turning point, when it doesn’t feel like we are being hard on ourselves (feels more like sweet abundance). That feeling was only because we didn’t believe that it will help us. We believed that we will always be like what we are. We never saw our muscle memory to be what it was.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 8:15 am

Yes, totally. Often the behavior some people describe as “being hard on yourself” is really just being good to yourself.

Calen July 24, 2017 at 12:31 am

David,

I’m not certain I agree with your suggestion that “you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself” is generally bad advice. And I’m not certain that I agree with your characterization of those who offer it.

I suppose this might simply be a matter of where I am in my life. I’m a graduate student, and I find myself surrounded by the type of people who, as you mentioned, go “overboard” with their attempts to improve themselves. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to observe it in them but, more importantly, I’ve had a lifetime of opportunity to observe it in myself, as it has been a repeated source of paralysis for me. I suspect that it is a very common impulse.

There’s a healthy middle ground, I think, where rules are set wisely. They’re a way of simplifying the variability of the world around you and tuning out vast swaths of noise so that you can focus on the small bandwidth that you truly care about. I’ve used rules and habits this way, and when I do they are liberating, exactly as you suggest. There are few things in the world that are more empowering than the ability to look at the complexity of the world and decide that, for yourself, this one small part of it shall be made simple by your own choice.

The flip side of this is that I have often found myself overreaching in my efforts for self improvement because of an internal sense of lack. It often shows up as a belief that if I *don’t* set an ironclad rule, or *don’t* attempt something big and ambitious, then the no-good, lazy, neglectful side of me will do nothing of worth and I will be a failure. It is an attempt on the part of the conscious, speaking part of my brain to force the rest of me (the quiet giant) to act in the *correct* way. This often arises out of a misguided conviction that the only part of my soul that can reliably make my life better is the part that plans, and judges, and criticizes–the tyrrany of the neocortex.

In that context, the best piece of advice that I ever received came from my brother, who told me that my greatest fault was that I was too hard on myself. It took a few years for me to really understand it and apply it; at first I thought he was just being polite because he didn’t want to say what was really wrong with me. Gradually I came around. I started to see that the part of my mind that was constantly screaming, and belittling, and demanding that I get better was, in fact, the part that was crippling me and keeping me from getting better. It set rules that were too hard, goals that were too high, lists of demands that couldn’t reasonably be fulfilled. And so I spent far too long fighting against a crushing sense of despair. I find that as I lighten up, many areas of my life in which I thought I needed to make demands and set rules for myself are, in fact, areas which I quite naturally move forward in simply because I want to, and not because I have to.

So, you raised the question of “balance” in our self-improvement affairs. And this is a good question. My take on it is this; we have to learn to balance the impatient part of ourself that desires to improve (right now!) with the truth that change is slow and requires constancy and commitment. If we over-reach with our rules, or our projects, or our struggling, then we ultimately sabotage our own efforts. If not, we’re like the ten year old who wants to fly like Superman, who hurls himself off of the roof in a cape and spends the next two months unable to even walk.

I think this pattern is very, very prevalent. Perhaps it’s not as noticeable if you cast it in terms of “rules,” but if you look at the general desire to improve, you’ll find that many people are unhappy, and know that they need to change, and the thing that holds them back from succeeding (or often even trying) is that they demand far too much of themselves and thus paralyze themselves. A lot of what appears to be laziness and low standards is paralysis due to fear.

Regarding the people who e-mail you saying that you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself, or who say that we shouldn’t have to force ourselves to do things, I think there’s a kinder explanation. As you mentioned, they are probably well-intentioned; they simply know too many people who demand too much of themselves, or have experience with it in their own hearts, and know how crippling it can be if you set rules in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Good rules come from a place of self-compassion and abundance, not from a place of self-criticism and lack.

I suppose I should close by mentioning that I agree with almost everything you’ve written in this post. I just feel that you’re over-emphasizing the bright and sunny side of rule-setting, and suggesting that those who warn people against it are nay-sayers. Balance in all things, though; many toxic behaviors are just healthy ones that are twisted and taken to an extreme. I wish very much that I had more people in my life who had helped me to see earlier that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself, and that by setting too many rules, too fast, too constantly, I was really just caging myself.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 8:33 am

Good points here and I appreciate this comment. I think we are talking about something different here though. I’m not referring to ambitious self-improvement markers that we’re constantly striving and failing to meet (I *must* exercise an hour a day!) but moral rules about our own standards that we do not have to explain to others — ones we know we can live by, and know we are better for, if only we made them explicit to ourselves.

The bad advice I’m referring to is deferring to other people’s beliefs about what are and what aren’t reasonable rules to follow. Compassion for yourself, and a reasonable understanding of what you are capable of, are necessary.

In other words I’m not referring to the difference between being ambitious and being unambitious, I’m referring to the difference between deciding clear standards for yourself, and leaving your standards to cultural norms or pressure from other people.

BeesMakeHoney July 24, 2017 at 1:39 pm

David – Thanks for the clarification in your response to Calen. As a manic over-achiever I misinterpreted the context of your piece also. My rule setting has become the most restrictive and damaging patterns of my existence and for me is anything but freeing.
Sure – I can get positive results, but they are never enough.

Ebouros July 24, 2017 at 9:09 am

I relate to your story so, so much. And absolutely agree, especially the thing about toxic behaviors often being healthy behaviors taken to an unhealthy extreme (which makes them that much hard to spot – am I being obsessive, or just detail-oriented? Disciplined, or rigid?)

I was also a grad student until last year when I graduated and got a job. Academia is definetely a setting where many highly disciplined, intensely determined people dwell, so it makes sense that many of them do go overboard sometimes.

Arthur Guerrero July 25, 2017 at 1:04 am

Hey Calen,

Belittling yourself & excessively beating yourself up for not meeting high expectations is never a good thing. David was not advocating that.

He was trying to say that if you set certain standards for yourself, that you determined will improve your life, you shouldn’t change them just because a friend or stranger is egging you on, or giving you a hard time.

For example, if you decide to only have 2 beers at the bar tonight, because you have early errands to run the next morning, you shouldn’t change your mind and have 3+ beers, because your buddy is egging you on. Your buddy probably doesn’t have anything to do the next morning, and is solely looking out for his own good/ fun.

Basically, keep your standards if you already predetermined that those standards are what you truly want :) .

Abhijeet Kumar July 24, 2017 at 12:41 am

Sorry if I am barging in. I had a similar experience as you mentioned. There was a point in time when I was overwhelmed by goals/expectations. I agree with your take that any sustainable change requires commitment and can be slow.

But like you recognized too, I think David is not coming from the perspective of setting unreasonable expectations. Self compassion is always essential. Nothing can be sustained without it. I see people talk on both extremes (but they rarely live it out).

DiscoveredJoys July 24, 2017 at 2:36 am

Wise people have rules for themselves.
Wiser people know that exceptions exist but are very, very, rare.

I suspect the tall poppy analogy has some merit – people whose behaviour is ‘self directed’ and ‘obscure’ appear to be striving for higher status in the group, and other group members try to prevent the change in hierarchy. I can remember ‘ordinary’ workers proclaiming proudly that they didn’t want to be a ‘boss’ – and of course they were the least likely to qualify…

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 8:34 am

All rules have exceptions, I agree

Invert July 24, 2017 at 3:17 am

Great post!

So David, what are your rules?

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 8:39 am

Thanks Invert. Good question, but a big part of these rules is that they are personal, and I find it a lot more empowering that way. When we start discussing our rules with others, it really just opens us up to a lot of trouble — we feel like we have to defend our rules, we often make people feel judged, you get people calling you out on not following your own rule… it just weakens the whole idea of it in my experience.

Dennis July 25, 2017 at 9:14 am

“…a big part of these rules is that they are personal, and I find it a lot more empowering that way.”

Standing. Clapping.

Kristine July 24, 2017 at 4:02 am

Well, this was a timely post. Just as I was letting things slide out of hand “beacuse it is summer”.

Got my lazy self out of bed the moment I read this. Thank you.

Dean Wilson July 24, 2017 at 4:44 am

Great post! Have been wondering about your experiments in behaviour awareness and where they would lead you. Approximately nine years ago I came to the realization that my life had become a mess, the more I attempted to control those behaviours I knew caused myself ( and those around me) grief the more anguished and fearful I became. Salvation, for me, came when I accepted I have no control over people, places and things. Everything comes into my life through my choices and acceptance of subsequent consequences. I came to experience personal freedom through a simple operating mandate which applies to everything in my life…
* I am
* I do not know
* I accept
Be deliberate in all things.

Thank you for your continued offerings, I look forward to your sharing of what’s real in your life.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:10 pm

I guess it is important to point out that we aren’t necessarily able to live by every rule we can think of. I’m sure an hour of exercise a day would greatly benefit me, but I don’t think I have the intention or the schedule-management skills to make that happen right now, and maybe never will. There are a lot of comments about pressuring ourselves to do things that aren’t realistic — obviously we need to think a lot about what we are capable of at any given time when we’re deciding how to live.

Leticia July 24, 2017 at 5:04 am

I think the whole debate would be mute if you had said “wise people have wise rules for themselves.” The word repetition is ugly, but the intention is clearer.

I have a rule that I have to finish a project at home before I can start another. “You can only start working on that piece of furniture when you finish painting the bedroom”. That keeps my home from being a chaos of unfinished projects.

I also only buy tools when I have mastered the last one I bought and the need for the next one is something that has been bothering me for months. Months, plural. “You cannot buy that sander before you can sew on the sewing machine.”

My wardrobe follows the one in, one out rule.

Wanting things is natural. We all want everything. Learning to treat yourself as a child that you naturally are, is key to not living like a child. But if you want to be a good parent to yourself, you have to set reasonable rules. “You will never eat chocolate again” isn’t one. “You get one treat every time you go to the supermarket buy food” is a better one.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:12 pm

I don’t think the headline of the post implies that all rules are good rules, only that as people become wiser, their standards for behavior tend to become clearer to them, to the point where they leave behind certain troublesome categories of behavior completely.

Grace July 24, 2017 at 5:23 am

For the first time since reading this blog I would have to disagree, and so I thought I would leave a quick comment. In the vein that Calen is speaking of, the problem is many intelligent people suffer from the disease of perfectionism. Yes, these rules enable you to run faster, be more productive, get better marks etc, but they also enable the disease of perfectionism, which enhances the self-critical voice, distorts a sense of what is important, or what life is really about (e.g. not being perfect). The day I let go of the many rules that I punished upon myself was both the day that I stopped being the ‘cream of the crop’ professionally, and the day that I finally found the space to be happy just to be the flawed, rule-breaking me.

Ashley Kung July 24, 2017 at 1:21 pm

I have a personal rule that I don’t have to finish any projects I start (that is, personal projects that only involve me, not responsibilities or things that involve other people). It’s intentionally about not forcing myself to be perfect and follow through on everything out of obligation. I’ve started all kinds of projects that I’ve never finished, and I’ve never felt bad about it. It gives me the freedom to try lots of different things, and then stick with the ones I really enjoy and get a benefit from. Perhaps some of your “personal rules” are ones that allow you the freedom to break certain rules that others tend to follow? :)

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:21 pm

I guess I should have emphasized this more, but obviously we want to be living by rules that are actually achievable given our current level of self-control and skill. There’s nothing wise or realistic about perfectionism. And I don’t think perfectionism is a logical extension of setting sensible personal rules. In my experience perfectionism has much more to do with unhealthy and unfulfillable desires for the approval of others, which is one of the things serious, well-considered personal standards help free us from.

Lola July 24, 2017 at 6:17 am

Thanks David for the prick of encouragement I really appreciate the thought I set rules for myself years ago but for me being in an organized religion helps me to abide by those rules because in my choice of religion if I don’t abide by those rules there are consequences they help me to be a better person like I said I chose this because I like the rules in my life I still have freedom of choice my religious preference gives me excellent guidelines definite rules are different than guidelines though I find that I do better with a definite rule and even better if I stick closer to the guidelines which I don’t always do which is why I’m overweight like over 50% of America self discipline is difficult but when you have a standard or even a goal to be the best person that you can be and that includes being happy rules are necessity.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:23 pm

I’ve never been a proponent of organized religion but I think one of the things it can offer is a vision of what it’s like to have clear ethical standards. It’s important that the rules make sense to us on a deeply personal level, and that we reject the ones that don’t, but as you know there’s something freeing about wholeheartedly embracing clear precepts or rules that we know are good for us and others.

Paul July 24, 2017 at 6:22 am

I loved this post. Like so many here, it resonated with me, and I could have have written it so clearly, which is why I keep coming back.

For those worried about it leading toward perfectionism, please consider that all of David’s post should be read in context of everything else he writes, and perfectionism is clearly far away from anywhere he’s going.

He did deal with that by mentioning that “people sometimes do go overboard with exercise, frugality, and personal efficiency”, the rules have to be “well-considered”, and the advice under discussion was “generally bad advice”, not always bad advice.

I have found that as long the rules I make fall into the “well considered” category, and I review them every so often to ensure that they provide the value I want, I remain in good shape.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:25 pm

Thanks Paul.

The well-considered part is vital, and I suppose I should have emphasized it more. I’m not talking about setting heroic goals for ourselves, I’m talking about looking at our experience and wisdom and recognizing that there are clear lines to be found between worthwhile and not worthwhile behaviors, and it can be worth making those lines explicit to ourselves.

Priscilla July 24, 2017 at 6:27 am

Yes, I am “forcing myself” with my rules . . . forcing myself into a stronger, more educated self, a more compassionate and patient person. It’s very satisfying to strive for something and achieve it or at least know that I TRIED to achieve it. Eh, you said it better, David, good post!

MARK BAUSCH July 24, 2017 at 6:49 am

And as you live by the rules over time it becomes more natural and easier. It becomes second nature so to speak.

Randy Hendrix July 24, 2017 at 8:16 am

Brilliant post David! I think the first comment from Arthur says it all.

Satisfied Ghost July 24, 2017 at 8:57 am

Excellent post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Perhaps another way to say rules is habits. Habits like brushing your teeth become automatic and require no willpower. It’s something you just do. This post also makes me think of Gretchen Rubin’s Habit tendencies work. I tend to be more of a rebel so “rules” or “habits” are harder for me, even though I know they are “good” for me. If you haven’t checked it out, you may be interested. Thanks!

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:27 pm

Conditioning is a huge part of any change, and I’m going to do a post on conditioning soon. There was a time in my life when the idea of flossing everyday was unthinkable, and now the idea of going to bed without flossing is just as unthinkable. The physical act of flossing is no easier than it ever was, but my psychological relationship to it has changed drastically.

Ebouros July 24, 2017 at 9:00 am

I agree with most of the points in this article. It’s rare that the people on the receiving end of “You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself” are actually being too hard on themselves – but like all advice, it becomes relevant when it’s a true analysis of a situation. Watch out if, like me, you find yourself hearing it constantly from a wide variety of people, including very disciplined and active ones.

Which is why I kind of disagree on the balance thing. I doubt when people talk about achieving balance in self-improvement they mean a balance between good habits and bad habits, or wisdom and recklessness. For me, balance means equilibrium between good habits and the possibility to make spontaneous decisions – including some that might not fully align with my objectives.

I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to productivity and self-improvement and at some point in my life all my evenings after work were divided in 30 minutes segments with designated activities (my workday was similarly regimented). Cooking a healthy meal. Eating said healthy meal. Working out. Writing. Meditation. Relaxation with a cup of infused lavender. Bedtime. And, of course, I had rules. Many rules. About pretty much everything.

It felt good, it felt like control, it felt like I was pursuing my objectives and dreams actively. And after a few months, my social life suffered, I became incredibly unhappy and my anxiety spiked through the roof.

In my (very personal and absolutely not universal, which I fully realize) opinion, rules and habits are good and a necessary structure to one’s life. But also, we’re not machines, and too much structure is heavy and stifling and can become anxiety-inducing if that’s a thing you struggle with. The point at which structure becomes “too much structure” is different for everyone, I think. I now know that for my sanity I need to allow myself to break my rules and follow my whims sometimes – and I know that if I don’t make space for that, I’ll get nowhere because I’ll crash and burn somewhere along the way.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:37 pm

Maybe it wasn’t clear but I’m definitely not advocating a life where rules govern everything you do. I’m not even suggesting that rules should be used as a kind of structure for your routine or your.

More than anything, I’m suggesting the use of rules for deciding what costly behaviors you’ve decided to be done with: sleeping too little, eating after dinner, drinking too much, and so on.

Ebouros July 24, 2017 at 6:38 pm

Haha, I guess like in many cases the perspective of the reader has a tendency to color what they take away from a text! I’ve read your responses to a few other comments and I understand the point better now.

I ultimately realized I wasn’t the target audience for this piece because I fit in the category of people with a tendency to go overboard, as outlined with the experiment I described above. Which isn’t what you were writing about, so my need to warn against possible slippery slopes was misguided in hindsight. The kind of rule you speak of – the kind that ultimately just guard us from our own inclinations to partake in behaviors harmful to ourselves – are certainly, like you said, a tool of the wise.

On the plus side I leveled up my english comprehension skills during this exchange so it was worth it!

Kara July 24, 2017 at 9:16 am

I 100% agree with this. While I do think you can get to an extreme wth personal rule, thise are the exceptions and not the rule. Someone who works out for 30 minutes five days a week is very different from someone with an eating disorder.
I find that I am less happy when I compromise my personal rules for others. My rules help me live my best life.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:38 pm

Same. Those instances where we break our own rules are important, because like you say, you really notice what it was costing you not to have a clear boundary there.

Bobbi July 24, 2017 at 9:17 am

As always, enjoyed the post immensely!

Bernie July 24, 2017 at 9:19 am

Great post. I think a lot about these things the same way you do.

One thing that touches on this and baffles me is our relationship with comfort. It is like we’re collecting points for every time we’re being comfortable that we later can harvest in some strange way. When people announce that “we bought this expensive thing X, so now we no longer have to do Y” you can bet that in 39 of 40 cases Y is something they could need MORE of, not less.

Same thing when people credit sugar (or alcohol ) with the good quality that it is useful for quenching your urge for it! Or what someone wrote the other day in some thread: “No, debt is good, because then you don’t have to wait to get consumer product X”. They never “count” the addiction (which is a bigger negative) to begin with, so they don’t realize giving in to a harmful addiction is never a net positive.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:43 pm

Totally agree with you Bernie. Conveniences and comforts, once we’re accustomed to them, essentially make us worse at life without said convenience or comfort. Think of how many people won’t even do dishes in a sink, or walk to the store, or cook for themselves, because of their adaptation to devices or services that eliminate the need to do them (though not the benefits of doing them). The worst one of all is the luxury of having an entertainment device in our pocket at all times so that we don’t have to wait without entertainment — something we are quickly becoming incapable of.

Juliana July 24, 2017 at 9:23 am

Excellent article!! Thanks for that.

Heather July 24, 2017 at 10:15 am

I moved from a southern, rural place in the US to the bay area a few years ago. The southern place had few rules/ laws about behavior, and those that were there were lightly if ever enforced. The bay area has a million rules/ laws about behavior, and if they aren’t officially enforced, other people love to tell rule breakers that they’re breaking rules. The southern place had devout Baptists to guilt people into being good, while the bay area has devout Californians to guilt people into being good. It looks, smells, and acts like the same thing to me: they hate freedom, and assume they’re literally saving people from themselves by either threatening damnation or banning plastic bags, making soda more expensive, and wagging fingers at the neighbor with the gorgeous green lawn. In either climate — rural or “progressive” — I’m not sure how much self-discipline anyone could be expected to cultivate. They only know “bad” when they’re being yelled at about it, or fined, or shamed, or eaten up with guilt. I don’t think any of these states of being are remotely healthy.

I completely agree that there’s tremendous freedom in being self-disciplined, and having rules about yourself that work for you. [insert successful personal stories here] And I loved your post. Thanks.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:48 pm

Ironically, the kinds of social pressures that you’re describing are what personal rules guard us against. When we resolve to live by a certain personal standard, we inevitably encounter resistance to that from others. We have to decide what makes more sense — living by our own standards or by someone else’s.

Jose B. July 24, 2017 at 10:42 am

It’s strange that I never heard the crab methafore. I’m 41. I think in my country does not event exist any analogy for that behavior despite it’s something You can experience in almost any field or environment here. Some people just try to drag You down and still today don’t get the logic behind that. Maybe there is not. Just irrational feelings.
This reading has been quite revealing for me. Thanks.

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:49 pm

I think you’re right that it may not be logical at all, just an extension of our own worries about falling behind or being out-competed, which must be a pretty strong evolutionary impulse.

Ashley Kung July 24, 2017 at 10:42 am

Some people aren’t good at going from following rules from others (parents, teachers) to following rules from themselves. Just in the way that kids actually WANT boundaries (not just need them) in order to understand the world and thrive in it, I think as adults, we still want boundaries, too, in order to really thrive. But people don’t always understand how to give themselves those boundaries. Your suggestion here of personal rules is a good way to do that. When you are an adult, there usually isn’t anyone but YOU to keep you in line if you’re being lazy or doing something stupid (like living beyond your means).

A takeaway I really got was to make more things non-negotiable, the way that brushing your teeth is non-negotiable (as you point out).

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:52 pm

I totally agree. We do want boundaries — life is extremely complex and we’re overwhelmed with choice, and it’s easier to navigate that when there is some order to it. Even when the order is imposed on us (such as working to your boss’s schedule) it can be a relief to have fewer options. The trick I think is recognizing that we are, inescapably, the final arbiter of the rules we live by. This post is really just about realizing and owning that fact.

Jose B. July 24, 2017 at 10:58 am

I see this article explains the foundation of “habit formation”. Starts with the idea of an outcome. Then you design the plan and the daily rules to achieve that outcome. You follow the rules as an habit and eventually You get to the point you wanted to be.
Great reading as usual.

Jose B. July 24, 2017 at 11:03 am

Good at making rules bad at following any rule.
Any advice on that?
:)

David Cain July 24, 2017 at 4:46 pm

Yes. Start small and be aware that our ability to do anything depends on progressive conditioning — something that is difficult and painful the first time will be considerably less so the second time, and less the third time, and by the hundredth time it can be easy and pleasurable to do. But we need to be kind to ourselves and allow this process to take time. For some reason we tend to think we can leap to any standard at all if we just bring enough willpower to it, and I think that false belief is what’s behind many of the worries about perfectionism expressed in the comments here.

Jose B. July 24, 2017 at 5:22 pm

My experience is not always that way. It depends. Some subjects just drain me. The most I try the worst it goes. For the other subjects it will be a good approach. Come to the 100th time is always a challenge :) I’ll learn more about progressive conditioning. Thank You!

Gilles July 24, 2017 at 11:16 am

Thanks for this. It’s one of those paradoxical truths: discipline leads to freedom. Freedom does not lead to freedom. The people in my therapy practice who embrace this do much better than those who don’t.

Rosalina Peña July 24, 2017 at 11:45 am

This is how you get things done.

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 3:16 pm

Hi Rosa!

Bardon July 24, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Fascinating article and comments! Im always thinking about this and i can see a difference in how i feel in my body and mind when i am doing the horrible controling rules thing and when im doing the rule making that comes from a place of love….. ie when i became zero waste i cut out plastic with extreme joy and ferveur and this challenge has helped me enormously in life….i eat healthy, i spend less, i feel im actively doing Something for the planet and my house looks and feels healthy and beautiful because i have no cheapy plastic stuff anymore. I had the same amazing feeling when i did Konmari on my house but i have had terible time with the internet and setting rules about it…..it all feels so negative and controling and guilty etc but i think that it comes from a fear and hatred of the internet (mixed with a sort of guilty love of the internet and the escapism it provides) wheras the other two came from a love for the planet, a joy in setting myself a challenge that finishes one day and how great do i feel knowing that i am being active. The konmari and zero waste are permanent changes in me whereas any rules i have for internet usage will be broken for sure the next day. I dont know what to do about the internet usage thing and maybe just giving up being so hard on myself about it may be the way forward just rambling now. Thanks again for your Wise words!

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 3:18 pm

I think you are hitting on an important distinction that I should have made clearer in the post. These rules are not the kind of desperate self-scolding rules we make hungover on January 1st. They come from a real, learned understanding of the relationship between your behaviors and your well-being. They are expressions of love, for yourself and others.

Michael July 24, 2017 at 12:18 pm

David

You are right on target. after 45 years on this planet, I find that it is the rules I make for myself that determine my success, and give me the freedom to choose.

Well written, well done.

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 3:16 pm

Thanks Michael

Hillary Adams July 24, 2017 at 12:22 pm

Thank you for this article. For years, I’ve been a chronic list-maker (rarely follow them though), always yearning to reap the fruits of a disciplined life, and consistently giving in to the “give yourself a break” notion. It never adds up to lasting happiness, and I’m still making the same old lists. There IS freedom in follow-through. I need to read this post every day.

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 3:16 pm

I think I have a similar history with list-making. So many abandoned lists! But the rules that have worked for me tend to be some sort of renunciation — “I’m done with X and all that goes with it”. They’re simple and intuitive enough, based on my life experience, that I don’t need to write them down, and there aren’t really enough to form any kinds of lists.

Sudhir July 24, 2017 at 12:28 pm

A very thought provoking article -as usual. However, I would like to change the title and context to ‘Wise People have Wise Rules for themselves.’ We need to set rules for ourselves after due thought and, exceptions should also be clearly spelt or, evolved. For example, my rule is 30 minutes brisk walk everyday morning. However, if it is raining cats and dogs, I don’t go for the walk, same is the case if I am unwell. I need to have the ‘wisdom’ to recognise the difference between breaking the rule because of my mood and, breaking it on account of a genuine issue.

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 3:10 pm

I think it should be clear from this article that we’re talking about well-considered personal rules, not arbitrary ones, and that we will continue to use our brains as we live by them.

Benjamin July 24, 2017 at 12:49 pm

Thanks; this great post reminds me of a quote from Henry Miller who, when discussing his evolution as an artist, observed that “[t]he purpose of discipline is to promote freedom. But freedom leads to infinity and infinity is terrifying.”

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 3:13 pm

Yes, totally. Freedom is scary because we become responsible for the consequences of what we choose to do with that freedom. When we believe we only have one option, we don’t have to feel responsible for the results. I’ve written about that here:

http://www.raptitude.com/2015/06/you-are-free-like-it-or-not/

lenny July 24, 2017 at 1:14 pm

“We shouldn’t be forcing ourselves to do things!”

i think the reality of the situation is these ‘personal’ choices are more a buying into a morality that doesn’t necessarily fit in with ours, but we force ourselves to do it from such cultural indoctrination–for health, enlightenment, prosperity, etc.. If in reality we came across the necessity of such behaviors through true personal experience, then I would agree with you. And even then, clinging to lessons learned from personal experiences without always having the door open to have your beliefs crushed before you, is more weakness than anything. It is the truest essence of life to overcome boundaries, be they moral or otherwise, to truly appreciate life without divisions–but rather as a unified whole.

So to offer a counterpoint, perhaps life is about building the courage to jump every fence and learning to cherish every burn–amor fati.

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 3:07 pm

I agree with everything you’re saying here. The kinds of rules I’m talking about are derived from personal experience and reflection on that experience. You can reach a point where you know for sure that going to work hungover is something you’d be better off never doing, yet never quite make it a rule that you don’t do that anymore, so you still find yourself doing it now and then. We don’t automatically behave in the ways we know to be good for us, and personal rules are a tool for removing a lot of the bargaining and impulsivity that has us doing things we know we shouldn’t be doing.

lenny July 25, 2017 at 4:25 pm

“You can reach a point where you know for sure that going to work hungover is something you’d be better off never doing, yet never quite make it a rule that you don’t do that anymore, so you still find yourself doing it now and then”

The issue here is your personal rules are merely an extension of moral indoctrination that is not necessarily your own–thus why i call it tyranny rather than freedom. Instead of examining the fact that you’re consistently drinking as perhaps a means of dealing with your discontent or w/e from work, life, etc., you’re merely promoting that people create rules that help that follow the ‘healthy’ and culturally accepted morality–i.e. the ‘personal rule’ is stop drinking rather than examining the core of what is making you consistently drink and having the courage to truly reevaluate that and take action against it.

Ashley Kung July 24, 2017 at 1:44 pm

It’s possible to have your own set of personal rules without buying into a morality that doesn’t fit yours. Just make your rules based on your own morality, your own definition of success, and your own definition of what is meaningful to achieve. If others disagree with your rules, that’s fine. They can follow their own rules.

Ashley Kung July 24, 2017 at 1:50 pm

P.S. This was meant as a reply to lenny above.

lenny July 24, 2017 at 2:49 pm

“If in reality we came across the necessity of such behaviors through true personal experience, then I would agree with you.”

The vast majority of people are too cowardly to attempt to understand what their “own morality” really means. Mainly because there is a very high chance that once you discover your own true nature you have to accept the fact that people may, and most likely will, shun you in an attempt to cling to the beliefs that shield them from having to uncover their own, true, morals. So my comment is mainly saying that it’s very difficult to stick to your own ‘personal rules’ without really understanding who you are– which involves going through a lot of suffering in life and understanding what is truly ‘personal’ about yourself. Clinging to ‘personal beliefs’ that are not truly yours, even if you justify it as ‘healthy’ or w/e by universal standards, is therefore, in my opinion, a form of tyranny rather than freedom.

Ashley Kung July 24, 2017 at 3:28 pm

I think I might see what you’re saying. By true nature, are you by chance referring to advaita/nondualism/Buddha-type teachings (for lack of an exact term)?

John Khalil July 24, 2017 at 1:50 pm

So good.

Kate July 24, 2017 at 3:12 pm

Hi,
Great post. Perhaps the biggest problem with the advice ‘don’t be so hard on yourself’ is that it’s just too general. Some kinds of hard work damage you more than they help you. Some help you more than they hurt you. I wish we had a common saying that captured the importance of learning to know one from the other. Eg pushing through the pain while running a marathon and injuring yourself badly could be called the bad kind of ‘being too hard on yourself.’ But feeling driven to tackle the race in the first place? Probably the good kind of being too hard on yourself…Pushing yourself at work and burning out vs working toward ambitious goals in a healthier way/environment would be another example. And when it comes to caring for mental health, I feel like being hard on yourself (or others) in a good way vs a bad way is especially nuanced.

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 2:43 pm

Perhaps the biggest problem with the advice ‘don’t be so hard on yourself’ is that it’s just too general.

I totally agree, we use and hear that phrase in all sorts of contexts, and I think the variation there explains a lot of the responses to this post. Beating yourself up is bad, yes, and establishing clear moral standards for your behavior is good, and they can both be met with that phrase.

Kate July 26, 2017 at 5:43 pm

Hi David,
Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Just after reading your blog I happened to read this powerful article about a star Manitoba criminal prosecutor who pushed herself too hard through what turned out to be bad PTSD: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/pushed-to-the-brink-435928583.html . …Honestly, I think it’s so much harder, and so much less respected or understood, to learn to be kind to yourself in a way that can still lead to success than it is to just keep pushing yourself. Perhaps it’s a bit like self-coaching, as opposed to self-discipline? One might also say that this lawyer’s own clear moral standards – protecting people by putting criminals in jail – were quite a strong driver toward her being so destructively hard on herself. Purpose-driven morality drives a lot of people to be ‘hard on themselves’ – what happens when that kind of moral purpose conflicts with more self-oriented moral standards for health and productivity?

David Cain July 28, 2017 at 10:57 am

I think it’s a matter of broadening our sense of what the right and wrong thing to do is. Working yourself into ill health strikes me as a kind of unexamined obedience to a social role, rather than an a real awareness of how best to help people. On flights there’s a reason they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask first.

Kate August 4, 2017 at 10:21 pm

A belated reply to your comment, David – you’re right about how important it is to ‘put on your own oxygen mask first’. To do so, you almost have to be very ‘hard on yourself’, ie disciplined, about ‘going easy on yourself’ in the right way. From inside a high-achiever’s mind, that’s a difficult game to play, even when one’s mental health is at stake. Not that it isn’t a goal worth achieving ;)

Su July 24, 2017 at 3:40 pm

Thanks again David – and all the commenters – for sharing your thoughts and ideas. And there are so many aspects within this text to ponder. Regarding just the one aspect of other people advising I too have learned that there is no better expert in knowing what I want and what I need than …. me! And just in case this might be a good “dog ear” – I’ve trained myself to check every line thrown to me by benevolent fellows with 2 exploring questions:
• Is that right?
• Is that right for me?
Usually, these 2 questions are followed by a swift and distinctive Yes or No from my very own expert :)

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 2:46 pm

Agreed… our own lives are 90+% private internal experience, and it’s hard for anyone to know enough about it to tell us with certainty how to navigate that experience. Having said that though, we all do have blind spots and it can really help to enlist someone else to think about one of your problems.

Kevin July 24, 2017 at 5:06 pm

Some of my rules.
I never try to figure people out that exercise will just drive you crazy
In manufacturing business we always stay below the radar screen
Never chase women let them come to you.
Treat people like you want to be treated.
There is money in honesty. So honesty is my best policy.
Nobody will watch your money better than you will.
At the ends of the work day it’s my personal time to exercise and listen to music.
Please share your rules as I would like to know?

Diogo Rossi July 24, 2017 at 5:13 pm

Right on!

Rules as well as heuristics creates boundaries in our brains so we don’t have to be making decisions all the time about certain topics! Rules, at first enforced through self discipline, in turn become habits and these habits constitute our self.

Calen July 25, 2017 at 1:22 am

David,

I re-read my comment as well as several of the replies that followed (including your own). I apologize; I suppose that the nature of a comments section is that some things get emphasized in resposnes while others are lost. One thing that I didn’t want to get lost (which did) is my appreciation for what you wrote; I agree with almost everything you said, and you have a way of taking complex ideas and making them clear in a way that sticks them in my mind where other well-meaning lessons would otherwise slide off of it. So, thank you for writing this post, honestly.

If there’s anywhere we disagree, I think, it’s more a matter of phrasing than principle. Your talk about rules is absolutely correct given a few assumptions – that the people setting them are choosing the rules for themselves, that the rules come from a place of self-compassion and understanding, that they are set wisely. You’re discussing the boundaries that enable us to draw a distinct line between who *we* are, versus who the outside world (including our untamed impluses) wants us to be. I get that completely.

My own perspective is that rules are a tool – and as with other tools such as hammers, ledgers, computers, and pens, the ultimate determinant of their utility is the nature and intent of the person using them. You’re discussing rules used in a certain context for a certain purpose, and in that context and for that purpose your post makes complete sense. I simply felt that it was a bit unfair to characterize the advice “you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself” as generally bad, given that I have my own experience with the tyrrany of self-set rules in a different (and much less healthy) context. I think that there are countless people out there who need to be told (and helped to understand) that they shouldn’t be too hard on themselves.

And I hope that my comments didn’t imply that you don’t already understand that, because it’s clear that you do. Your blog is the main one I come to when I need to remind myself that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself, and that it’s possible to strive for constant improvement while still being at peace (thanks for that, btw). So, ultimately, I think that any discrepancy between your position and mine is more about the way we talk about things, rather than the things we’re talking about.

Anyhow, best wishes to you, and as always, I look forward to your future posts.

C

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 2:49 pm

I do think we agree for the most part, particularly that I’m presenting personal rules here as tools. Like all tools we can use them in destructive ways. I imagine each of us has a our own relationship to the phrase “being too hard on yourself” because it’s so vague and so judgmental, and we’ve all heard it in different contexts. I really just included it as an example of the kind of language used in the scoldings I get about setting personal rules.

Sarah July 25, 2017 at 2:08 am

Calen I couldn’t agree more. I found this article a little disturbing. Maybe I misinterpreted it. I have found the most liberating and peace inducing action was ‘acceptance’. Self improvement is great to a certain point, but self acceptance is ultimate.
If someone was to express that you were being ‘ too hard on yourself’ it would most likely be following the others expression of self doubt r self flagellation. I don’t agree that it comes from a negative place.

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 2:53 pm

i think it’s just a matter of getting lines crossed — the phrase everyone seems to be focusing on is really polarizing and emotionally charged, and because it’s so vague it’s easy to misinterpret. Skip the second paragraph of this post and the intended meaning may be clearer.

Acceptance is a really tricky term, because it can mean a lot of things, from complacency to total self-actualization. I try to avoid using it because it seems like I always set off the wrong connotations. I believe self-improvement and acceptance are not competing forces, you can cultivate both at the same time and there’s no balance that needs to be struck between them.

Rose July 25, 2017 at 6:10 am

I wanted to add a sidenote, since my psychiatrist has explicitly stated that I needed to make less rules, not more. Some people deal with life, or anxiety, or what have you, by making up a number of rules and sort of imbuing the respect of these rules with the capacity to make them safe or secure. That’s the first step that then becomes “checking if the stove is off five times before you can go”. Rules should serve your life, you don’t need to live to fulfill your rules either.

The thing is that rules need to be like a border and within those borders you should still have place to play and enjoy life. Once you’ve gone for your run the rest of your schedule is free for example.

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 2:54 pm

Oy.. I think rules is just too loaded a word. I am by no means talking about embracing obsessive compulsive disorder. Maybe the phrase “clear moral standards of conduct” would have been less troublesome.

Primal Prosperity July 25, 2017 at 12:41 pm

I think there is more of an issue of modern society, versus how our ancestors lived. This is just my opinion, but might be thought provoking to you… When we were hunter-gatherers, we didn’t put ‘rules’ on ourselves, but rather, our natural innate animal instincts kicked in to get food, shelter and to stay safe. We didn’t have to ‘work out an hour a day’ or ‘start hunting at 7am sharp’… We didn’t have to ‘resist’ Cheetos or ice cream or alcohol. Modern tribal societies have faaaaar less anxiety and depression than the average person living in wealthy first world countries… yet, they don’t journal their feelings or meditate. They don’t travel the world, or give motivational talks. They don’t ponder their purpose. Instead, they make art, and play music and dance and play with their kids for hours every day. They live in tribes (i.e. near family). They are not on Facebook or Twitter comparing themselves to others.

Zoos have a lot of rules and routines for the animals also because they are not in a natural habitat to live out their animal instincts. And they still experience high rates of depression, anxiety and disease. Same with the human zoo. So, in the end, what I am saying is that yes, in this modern world, we probably do need rules. However, it does go against every primal fiber of our being. We are meant to be lazy when possible, because as a hunter, you need to reserve your strength and not burn unnecessary calories. We are meant to overindulge in foods that taste fatty and sweet, because they are calorie dense and are hard to obtain in the wild. We are meant to crave salt because it helps us retain water, when a source is hard to find. We had abundant access to nature, until quite recently. So, some people just find that ‘making rules’ doesn’t work with their genes. So, ‘wise’ isn’t the word I would have thought to use, except that, again, in a society where it is too easy to be sedentary and get any kind of ‘food like substance’ we want (for cheap), then yes, you are correct that it is wise to impose rules. My way around it though, was to get rid of my car, and scale way back to part time work. Now, I get movement 2-4 hours a day, without necessarily making it a rule. I walk my errands and I love sprinting and resistance exercises, so I do them whenever I feel like it, which is often, but not on a schedule. My favorite activity is to be out in nature walking/hiking. Now, if only I didn’t have access to crappy food and drinks so easily… :)

David Cain July 25, 2017 at 3:00 pm

Our environment has certainly changed drastically, as you say, and that means different behaviors are going to make sense.

I’m not sure it’s true that hunter-gatherer societies did not have explicit rules. We do know many of them had (and still have) religious tenets and other social standards of conduct, so there’s no reason to believe nobody would have applied standards of conduct to their own behavior.

None of that is really relevant though — it should not be hard to see how adopting clear standards for oneself can eliminate a lot of drifting and stagnation.

Chris July 27, 2017 at 4:52 am

Yes! We’re afraid of being accountable too. If we end up telling ourselves that it’s our fault we’re fat/poor/unproductive, then we can’t blame our circumstances. Then there’s always the possibility that it blows up in our face and we fail even though we chose something, which can be even worse.

David Cain July 28, 2017 at 9:51 am

I’m starting to see the my-fault/not-my-fault distinction to be much less important than my-responsibility/not-my-responsibility. Our flaws, or our inabilities to do certain things might be our “fault” in the conventional sense, but they are still a form of circumstances. So it’s really always a question of taking responsibility for our lives or not, including both internal and external circumstances. Does that make sense?

Paula July 28, 2017 at 12:26 pm

Ouch! The truth hurts; but it’s why I’m still reading your posts… :)

I’ve struggled with self-discipline forever and I’m sure it’s because I attach too much emotion to whatever the “thing” is that I want to regulate, eg. food choices, exercise, projects. If someone’s having birthday cake, I feel like I need to eat some as part of the whole feel-good atmosphere of the party. And have a few drinks (which you’ve talked about in a previous post).

At 53, I also feel like I don’t care as much as I used to whether I’m disciplined or not (thanks, hormones); my brain is still telling me your words are good advice.

Rupalim July 28, 2017 at 8:35 pm

Personal rules are truly liberating, though it sounds like an oxymoron. I can vouch for it….Reminds me of William Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty

Myfinancekits July 30, 2017 at 10:27 am

Those people who cannot set rules for themselves are bound to follow rules set by other people. That is why they will keep complaining.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 2 Trackbacks }

Desktop version

Raptitude is an independent blog by . Some links on this page may be affiliate links, which means I might earn a commission if you buy certain things I link to. In such cases the cost to the visitor remains the same.