“Live by your own rules. Don’t let anybody hold you back. Be different and be yourself. You only get to live once, so make it whatever you want it to be.”
“The nicest thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.”
“If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says.
At the end of the game, in my book, we’re gonna be winners.”
Coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman, Hoosiers)
The rules you set for yourself will guide your life.
Fortunately, you can set your own rules. All you have to do is figure out what success looks like. The problem is that most people set themselves up for failure by doing one of three things:
1. They set standards that can only be met by not doing something.
2. They follow rules that are not directly linked to their goals.
3. They don’t consciously create rules for their life.
So what do I mean by rules? I do not mean some egregiously strict standard that is impossible to meet and requires you to place yourself in solitary confinement if you fail. I also do not mean some purposeless preference. Your rules must have a purpose; they are mental guideposts that fall in line with your beliefs and move you closer to your goals. Personal standards are meant to help you find ways to enjoy life, not to keep you from enjoying life.
Let’s say your goal is to lose 10 pounds so that you can live longer and have more energy to play with your kids. This is a reasonable goal for someone to have, right? Okay, now, which of the following is the better rule to create for your life:
A. If I don’t eat any junk food this week then I will go out to dinner at my favorite restaurant and be inspired to continue to not eat junk food.
B. If I choose to eat a healthy snack instead of junk food I will feel good about myself and be inspired to continue to eat healthy snacks.
The truth is that neither of the above rules is any better than the other. Rule B is more positive than Rule A but victory in either case comes down to a single action: not eating junk food. It is impossible to follow either of these rules forever. You will eventually cave and eat a sugary snack and, as a result, not “deserve” to go out to dinner, or not “deserve” to feel good about yourself. This is why people that break their diets by having a single cookie decide to throw all of their progress out the window and binge on junk food for the rest of the day. On a long enough timeline, the success rate of these kinds of rules drops to zero.
Now, let’s say that your goal is to stop working at a job that doesn’t fulfill you and start working for yourself. In this case, which of the following is a better rule to set for your life:
A. I will feel productive by answering all of the business emails in my inbox within one hour of their arrival and by completing my TPS reports two days before they are due.
B. I will feel a sense of achievement anytime I follow up on a sales lead or raise an intelligent point to my boss during our weekly meetings.
Both of these rules are great because they focus your attention on a positive result (i.e. productiveness, sense of achievement) and they set standards that are directly aligned with this result. The alternate scenario, not doing something, is excluded from the equation. Sure, you could not follow up on a sales lead, but this option is left neutral in Rule B.
However, these rules have absolutely nothing to do with the aforementioned goal, which was to stop working at a job that doesn’t fulfill you and start working for yourself. Perhaps, in some roundabout way, filling out your weekly reports on time and scoring points with your boss will help you start working for yourself, but the path is too obscure and indirect. It is critical to make the link between your rules and your goals as straightforward as possible.
Your perceived success in life comes down to the rules, or beliefs, that you have created for yourself. Whether you are aware of these rules or not, your brain will guide all of your daily decisions based on them. The key is to actively design your rules so that it is easy to win. I’m not talking about lowering your standards; I’m talking about constructing better guideposts. If you create better rules for your life, rules that you can follow naturally day in and day out, you will live in victory.
During my last year of Graduate school, I realized that I had spent the majority of my life creating and following rules that were destined to lead me nowhere. I used to write and rewrite different rules that I thought would help me fulfill my biggest dreams. Every Sunday I would make a list that looked something like this:
|Don’t eat any pizza during the Immunology seminar|
|Read two new scientific journal articles a day|
|Only look at emails for one hour each day|
|Workout 5 days this week|
|Put $50 in my savings account|
Gross. The only way that I could follow any of the above rules was by not doing something very specific (i.e. by not eating pizza, by not reading two articles, by not saving $50). Moreover, there was no clear link between any of these standards and my overall goals. For example, I clearly had a goal to maintain my vitality, but the rule, “Workout 5 days this week” says nothing about why it is important or why I should do it. In other words, the scope of each of these rules was far too small and far too uninspiring. Its no wonder I ended up rewriting the rules for my life every week. I was setting myself up for failure.
Over time, I learned how to design lasting rules that are fulfilling, yet easy to follow. My current standards are easily met, not because they are low, but because they are directly tied to my overall goals and because they provide me with a variety of ways to meet these goals. Now, it’s impossible for me not to win.
You can rewrite the rules for your life and give yourself as many ways to win as possible by doing the following: first, write down the 5-10 things you care about the most in your life (in no particular order). These are your overall goals; think of them as your core values. Try to encompass each of these goals in 1-2 words. We want to create lasting rules so the scope of each goal should be large and should trigger a strong, positive, emotional response in you. For example, write down love, enjoying life, health, respect, money, confidence, family closeness, generosity, etc.
Second, under each goal, write down complete sentences describing how you can move towards it and fulfill it. These are your rules. Remember to focus your rules on a positive result and to make the link between your rules and your overall goals as clear as possible. The best way to do this is to simply describe actions that make you feel like you’re moving closer to your goal. For example, for love you could write, “anytime I am being warm or supportive of someone”. For enjoying life you could write, “anytime I am engaged in the present moment”.
Here are the rules I wrote for myself last year (you can zoom in on each image by double-clicking it):
The rules you write for yourself will influence your entire life, so make sure you take time to consciously create them. Once you design your own rules, I guarantee you will live each day more fulfilled. Enjoying life will come naturally.