“Wise People Have Rules For Themselves”
by David Cain
"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 you drew a line in the first place.”