How to Create Unbreakable Rules and Win Every Day

Would you turn on the faucet? Just curious.

In Arizona, you can’t let your donkey sleep in a bathtub. It’s illegal. And yet, donkeys are still doing it!

It is illegal to curse within Baltimore’s city limits. 

A rule is “a prescribed guide for conduct or action.” The above examples are laws (formal rules) that actually exist, but don’t hold any real weight. Aside from their ridiculous nature, another key reason why they don’t hold weight is because they’re old and stale.

The donkey law was established almost 100 years ago in 1924, after a very specific incident involving a donkey in a bathtub. I couldn’t find when the cursing law went into effect in Baltimore, but I’ve been to Baltimore, and I can assure you that a lot of people there break that law on a daily basis. I’d wager that members of Baltimore law enforcement break that law on a daily basis. But if the law was announced yesterday, then as crazy as it sounds, a lot more Baltimoreans would probably watch their language.

Stale Rules Are Easily Broken

One of the greatest (and most overlooked) hindrances to goal pursuit is staleness. Case in point, people set New Year’s Resolutions on January 1st, and typically fail before February. It’s as if their resolution is a piece of food with an expiration date. They don’t fail for the first two weeks of January and then get moving, they succeed in the beginning while their goal is still fresh and then it gradually fades into oblivion.

A lot of this has to do with the circuitry of our brain. We are attracted to and stimulated by novelty, by newness. I’m aware that I don’t need to upgrade my phone every year, but I always end up doing it because the newer one seems like it will solve all my problems

It makes sense that new things get our attention. When something new enters into your field of view, you are wise to analyze it as it may be a potential reward or threat. If an alien lands in your yard, DO NOT IGNORE IT. Call 911, I guess, or keep it as a pet if it looks like the ET alien.

Our attraction to newness is useful for finding new rewards and defending against threats, and yet, it’s often our downfall in those critical but sometimes boring areas like exercising, being productive, meditating, keeping your house clean, and so on. Performing these tasks can seem boring, but the benefits they provide are electrifying. I’m not kidding. Having a clean house, getting important things done, and being in good physical and mental health are the foundation for an incredible life!

We all see this, yes? But what do we then do? We start making rules. 

“FROM NOW ON, I MUST EXERCISE FOR 30 MINUTES AT 7 AM EVERY MORNING.”

That’s a quote from you. I overheard you say it a few weeks ago. It’s a nice sentiment, truly, and the benefits would be palpable. But it’s the type of thing people do for four days before catching the excuse train to Netflixville. Before you think I’m pointing the finger at you, remember who’s writing this. I am King Lazy VII, Count Couch-ula, and one of the world’s first Stay-In-Bed Entrepreneurs. Left to my own tendencies, I am the worst offender at not doing the stuff I want to do, which is why I need superior strategies to rise above my natural disposition.

So… here are two such superior strategies for creating and following your own rules. Do this and you’ll break your most important rules less often.

1. Make Your Rules Fresh Each Day

Instead of following a rule you set three weeks ago, what if you were able to follow the same rule, but one you set today, right now? A rule is strongest the second it is set, and it gradually loses steam from that point until it reaches “donkey in a bathtub” status. If you let your donkey sleep in a bathtub in 1924 in Arizona, you might actually get punished for breaking the law! But if you did it today, you could probably charge admission.

Here’s how to make rules fresh. Instead of setting one rule for the next weeks, months, or years, you can plan to recreate a rule on a daily basis.

  • Stale Way: “I’m going to exercise after work every day.”
  • Fresh Way: “At 5 PM (before I leave work), I’m going to create my plan to exercise that evening.”

Do you see the difference? You might notice that both of these are actually rules, but the “fresh rule” is easier to follow because it’s only a rule that you’ll make a plan. Then you can make a plan to fit the flow of your day.

It seems somewhat counterproductive to insert an extra step into the process, because instead of deciding to exercise after work all the time, you’re planning to decide the same thing at a later time. But by delaying the concrete “I’m going to do this” intention, you gain two massive benefits.

  1. The sooner an intention is to the time of action, the more powerful and influential it will be (this is the freshness we’ve been talking about).
  2. ***SUPER IMPORTANT*** When an intention is set within the context of your current reality—something that can only realistically be done within the same day—you can perfectly adapt it to your exact situation. This shreds through one of the most common sources of resistance—context.

Regarding the second point, the reason so many goals fail is because they are birthed as rigid rules, and life’s curvy, dynamic roads BREAK rigid objects (this includes human minds, but that’s another topic for another time). That’s to say that your intention to exercise a month ago has no idea how to fit into your unexpectedly crazy situation today. It’s like trying to follow directions from a boss who just doesn’t get it.

Story Time: When I worked at The Home Depot as a lot attendant, my job was to load customer vehicles with lumber, concrete, plants, and other fun stuff. We had two types of carts—the flatbed cart and the lumber cart. There were two entrances from which we loaded (front and garden). People would start in Garden and end up at the front, and vice versa, and both types of carts were used in both places. This meant the carts were all over the place, but it generally worked well and balanced out naturally.

One day, because of ONE instance in which our carts were severely unbalanced to one side, my “brilliant” boss (Hello Mr. Walker if you’re reading this) decided to mark some carts, and those marked carts had to be kept in the Garden area. This meant that if a customer took a flatbed cart with a white mark to the front entrance and another customer took a flatbed cart without a white mark to the garden area, we would be required to switch them. These are the exact same cart and do the exact same thing, and we had to arbitrarily switch them places because one had a mark on it. It was a rigid rule that wasted time and frustrated us (and customers who had to wait for us) to no end. We broke that rule on many occasions because it worsened our service and rarely fit real life scenarios.

(This was my first job. Maybe this is why I work for myself now?)

When you set a one-size-fits-all rule, it won’t likely fit into your life at all times, only sometimes. And that’s really awkward, because self-imposed rules are supposed to be followed all the time for your own benefit. One way to get around this is to make your rule so small that it can fit in your life even in the craziest days… this is a mini habit! Making your rules fresh every day like a bakery makes bread is the other way to ensure they fit into your life. When you know the exact reality of your situation, you can adapt your general goals to it.

Another option: If you still prefer to have a simple, rigid rule of say, exercising every day after work, set up one or two backup options. The more flexible your rules can be, the less breakable they are. It’s important not to break rules because every time you do, you damage your self-efficacy (Defined as “one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task”). This is meta, because I’m giving you another option instead of rigidly telling you to do it one way. 🙂

2. Be Rigid In Reliability, But Flexible In Execution

The formal version of rules are laws, and laws are meant to be rigid and unforgiving for consistency’s sake. People think that their rules need to be rigid in order to get great results, but their application is often wrong.

Too many people prioritize their method of execution over reliability.

In other words, people will incorrectly believe the important thing is that they exercise for 30+ minutes, rather than that they show up at the gym. If you are rigid in the way you must execute your goals, you will be less reliable. Why? Rigid execution means that a certain level and type of performance is required, and if you can’t meet that performance requirement for any reason, you won’t try (which I’ve found is an excellent way to do nothing with your life).

Rigid execution brings out excuses, and these are often strong, valid excuses. Can you still meet your arm workout requirement now that you’ve broken your wrist? No, and so the second your wrist shatters, so does that rule. But if you are flexible in execution, you can modify your workout and still accomplish something. 

I was so inspired when I saw a girl in a full leg cast working out at the gym. The injury limited what she could do, but it did not limit her ability to do something. Remember the title of this tip? It’s “be rigid in reliability, but flexible in execution.” That was this girl! She hurt her leg, and was willing to be flexible in how she worked out in order to uphold her rigid requirement to show up.

Method of execution and reliability can’t usually both be rigid. One of them must be flexible to allow for the other’s rigidity.

If you choose execution as rigid, don’t be surprised to find that you’re “flexible in your reliability,” or in other words, that you don’t even show up half of the time. But if you dedicate yourself to rigid reliability, you’ll complement that by finding clever ways to execute when life throws barrels at your feet.

There are two runners.

  • Runner A runs with rigid execution in mind—he is going to run in a straight line with the same technique every race no matter what. He cares about technique.
  • Runner B runs with rigid reliability in mind—he knows what he wants to do, but he’s ready to do whatever it takes to win if his plans are foiled. He cares about winning.

During the race, some jerk throws barrels at their feet. Runner A continues to run as usual and trips over a barrel. Runner B sees the barrel and hurdles it just in time, winning the race and the purse of one million dollars. I don’t know why the purse is that much for a simple one-on-one race, but wow, congratulations to Runner B.

The difference between the two runners is that unlike Runner A, Runner B is aware that life is dynamic and unpredictable. He expects to have obstacles sometimes, and is prepared to adapt in any way he can to conquer them. Runner A is naive. He thinks he’s being strong and disciplined by setting rigid rules, but all he’s doing is setting himself up for failure when his rigid rule can’t be followed exactly. Rigid runners trip over barrels and lose a million dollars. Remember that.

Conclusion

To have more success with the rules you create to better your life, foster freshness and flexibility. Like Runner B, you should be prepared to succeed even if barrels are thrown at your feet. Think of every day as an individual race for the rule you’ve set. Every race is unique. Completing your task—whether it’s exercise, cleaning your bathroom, or meditating—means winning the race. Don’t predetermine exactly how you will get your task down and win. You can visualize how you think it might go, yes, but don’t think it’s always going to go that way.

Commit to doing whatever is necessary to win today, and prepare to do the same tomorrow. Keep your objectives fresh, and keep your methods flexible, and you will not be stopped by circumstances. You’ll jump over some barrels. You’ll smash others. Sometimes you’ll run unencumbered to the finish line. The method may vary, but the end result of winning will be the same.

(photo by Kylir)

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