The Upside of Rules
Within weeks of completing high school, my best friend, Alex, and I had begun the adventure of our lives. We hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail together, roughly 2,100 miles from Maine to Georgia, carrying camping supplies on our backs. This impressed a lot of people and benefited and matured us in countless ways. That said, after completing the hike and speaking with friends and family, I noticed something peculiar: they all viewed the hike as a six-month slog, every day being a brutal uphill battle. The truth was that after the first three to four weeks, during which Alex and I were both brought to tears, we settled into a nice rhythm and trucked along steadily the rest of the way. This idea was transformative to me. The only thing required to accomplish great feats was to punch through the first few weeks until the effort required to keep going was minimal(2).
At this point, I began creating many rules for myself. I would decide some behavior was beneficial and commit myself to it until it became automatic. Then I would move on to the next behavior.
Over the years I have heard about others who have created their own rules. Here are a few rules I have a) heard about or b) developed myself for improved well-being:
Wear the Same Clothes
Many icons from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs to Barack Obama to Mark Zuckerburg wear the same few outfits on repeat(1). This is said to a) reinforce a brand and broadcast a sense of consistency and b) minimize mental effort spent on making relatively unimportant decisions. The latter reason comes from the psychology phenomenon: decision fatigue. Decision fatigue describes the diminishing ability to make good decisions through the day. The study initially demonstrating it came from analysis of Israeli judges' parole decisions. In the afternoon, when they were more "decision weary", they were more likely to deny a prisoner's parole request(3). Minimizing small choices like what to wear could have some benefit by conserving your decision-making ability.
No Music in the Car
One day on my way into work, I stopped halfway up the stairs when I realized that I was running up the stairs. The act of running up stairs is not a big deal, and certainly in some situations, quite healthy, but for me at that moment, I realized that I could not remember a time when I climbed a staircase without jogging up the stairs two at a time. At the root of it, was that I could not stand being alone with my own thoughts. I craved constant stimulation. I had to always be engaged in some interesting activity, even during "down time". So I decided not to listen to music in my car. That meant a few hours a week alone with my thoughts. It was quite annoying for the first few weeks, but over time, especially when overwhelmed, I came to look forward to these quiet moments alone in my car.
Inbox When Ready
This Chrome extension has been a game changer when it comes to incessant email checking. Email is an amazing tool but it can also drive you bonkers. I have figured out that most of my annoyance and stress from emails, does not come from the fact that I have emails, rather that I would go to my inbox to see if anything new had come in. I was getting an extra dose of overwhelm from the existing emails I had yet to respond to. They could be replied to in due time, yet seeing them in my inbox twenty times a day felt like doom looming around the next corner. Inbox When Ready helps solve this problem. First off, it hides the inbox by default when I use Gmail. This means I can still easily send new emails or look back at an old email attachment if necessary, without seeing my inbox. I have the option of opening the inbox at any time, I just do not see it by default. The other even more powerful feature is the ability to schedule times when you cannot open the inbox at all. I have added a restriction to prevent myself from seeing any inbox emails in the morning, lest I waste "fresh brain" time on emails when I should spend time on more important tasks.
Consider implementing a few rules in your own life to get your behaviors more in line with your values. My business, Digital Detangler, does just that for individuals and organizations. Before you gets started, though, I would caution you to avoid some potential pitfalls of writing your own rules:
Do Not Create Accomplishment-Based Rules Exclusively
The point of life is not to get as much as possible done as quickly as possible. Make sure your rules are not only focused on squeezing more work out of yourself.
Rules are Only for You
Do not apply your rules to other people. No one likes to be judged, and people will pick up on your condescension if you silently judge them for not following your own rules.
Rules are Meant to be Broken
During traffic jams I turn on the radio. Sometimes in the morning, I really need to get to my inbox. If a rule is preventing you from doing (or taking a break from) something important, give yourself a pass from time to time. The rule will still be there when you get back.
Forbes Welcome. (2017). Forbes.com. Retrieved 13 September 2017, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacquelynsmith/2012/10/05/steve-jobs-always-dressed-exactly-the-same-heres-who-else-does/#53cfb1235f53
Gazzaley, A. & Rosen, L. (2016). The Distracted Mind : Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Psychology of Daily Routines (or Why We Struggle with Habits). (2015). Develop Good Habits. Retrieved 13 September 2017, from http://www.developgoodhabits.com/psychology-daily-routines/