Make Your Rules (But Not Too Many) — Then Live By Them

Toby Hazlewood

What works for kids might actually work well for adults too.

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Tell me which way? (Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash)

In the midst of an argument or heated discussion with my wife, I’ve been accused of talking to her like she’s a kid. It’s fair that she should pick me up on this and I’ll apologise unreservedly. My intention was not to offend.

It’s not that I’m wanting to condescend or treat her unreasonably. It just strikes me that sometimes as adults we might do better in life if we operated within similar constraints and structures as those which we lay out for our kids.

Would it really be so inappropriate if that were the case? I’m starting to think not.

This is a story about how we apply rules and structures in our lives and in our expectations of those around us.

The rules we live by

Aside from abiding by the laws of the land and principles of common decency, many of us introduce and apply principles and rules for ourselves and others in the hope of getting what we want from life:

  • We commit to following a diet or exercise regime in order to lose weight and build our fitness.
  • We try and get in bed at a reasonable time in order that we get enough sleep, and wake in time to start work.
  • We establish goals in our businesses and careers and structure our work to maximise our productivity and in the hope it will lead to successes and promotions.
  • In our relationships we commit to date-nights with our spouse, we buy flowers and undertake gestures of kindness and affection towards them on a regular basis to reinforce our love for them. We ensure that we’re putting their interests to the fore alongside our own, hoping for the same in return. We believe that the strength of our relationship will grow as a result.

While these are all noble intentions, it sometimes feels overwhelming as the rules and structures we live by are more numerous and complex than they might need to be.

Would it perhaps be more helpful if we treated ourselves as kids again, framing our lives with a few simple rules that were easier to follow?

Would this be more likely to give us what we wanted from life?

12 (or fewer) rules for life

Lately, I’ve been binge-listening to episodes of the Jordan B. Peterson podcast. Many of these have been recordings of lectures delivered around the world, dissecting various chapters from his bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life - An Antidote to Chaos.

Peterson is a divisive character. Many (myself included) think he’s an extremely smart guy with interesting and insightful things to say. Others believe him to be the devil incarnate.

Source: Twitter

Regardless of their perspective, I think most would struggle to disagree with many of the lessons and guiding principles that he describes and discusses in his books and lectures if they would take time to absorb them.

Listening to a few of them back-to-back has been a really useful way of increasing my understanding of the core messages behind his work.

The title of this article struck me as I listened to the talk he gave in New York in September 2019.

It was offered in response to an audience question, asking Peterson for the best advice he could offer to parents in raising their kids. His response emphasized the importance of giving our kids clearly defined and consistently enforced rules which will help to raise them in the right way.

In essence, it’s a rule to allow us to live by a set of rules — a meta-rule if you want to think of it as such.

While the advice pertains to the raising of kids, it feels as though we as adults would also do well to use it in our lives too.

As few rules as possible

Peterson advises that the best tactic with children is to have as few rules as possible but to be categorical in their application and enforcement. This gives the kids the best chance of abiding by them and of being clear where they stand.

Most adults, certainly the parents amongst us would tend to agree that it’s good advice. Kids need rules and boundaries to understand their place in life and in order to live harmoniously with others as they grow and develop.

If parents are half-hearted and inconsistent about how and when they enforce such rules then the children will likely ignore them or will at the very least struggle to know what’s really expected of them.

It’s also far easier for kids and adults alike if there are just a few rules that are enforced consistently rather than having to live by a long list which is potentially contradictory or at the very least, overwhelming to enforce and to abide by.

Kids need a limited range of clearly defined rules that are consistently applied in order that they know what’s expected of them, so they can live happily and get what they want from life. The same is true for adults.

What’s true for kids often also applies for us as adults too.

Many of us seem to ignore such principles. We think that the challenges of life as adults are more sophisticated and complex, and assume the structures we put around our lives must also be scaled up.

I don’t think that’s always the case.

We convince ourselves that in order to achieve maximum productivity and effectiveness we need to employ a complex mix of productivity hacks and habits. We commit ourselves to a rigid set of rules and practices as a result.

In doing so we overwhelm ourselves and often hinder productivity rather than enabling it. There's a lot for keeping it simple (stupid) - the KISS principle.

We commit to a radical new dietary regime and an exercise plan. The diet has numerous of its own rules to abide by, and we struggle to fit in the regular and arduous workouts. We eradicate sugar, meat or dairy from our diet and resolve to abstain from alcohol.

The multiple rules and regulations suddenly applied to our life make us feel restricted and deprived. We struggle to abide by them all, gradually fail and often end up in a worse place than when we started, feeling demoralised and frustrated.

Keep it simple

In most endeavours and in most aspects of life, we’d be far better off setting just a couple of rules or a single guiding principle to set us on our way. Once we’ve proved we can follow that successfully, then we can gradually layer on additional good habits and practices so that we have a chance of sticking by them.

A few simple rules, consistently enforced and lived by — that’s surely a better way of achieving what we want in life, as adults and kids alike?

When raising kids in the hope of bringing about positive traits and behaviours it seems obvious to keep things simple. We dumb-down our demands and make the steps to progress seem achievable — a small reward is given for the successful completion of a small task. If things go off track it usually only requires a correspondingly small correction to rectify the situation.

As adults, we automatically and wrongly assume that we can handle bigger challenges and multiple complex rules and structures that we must abide by if we want to accomplish our goals.

I think instead that most would do well to establish a simple framework made up of a few key principles and then do everything we can to stick by them. This is far easier to commit to for the long term than to try and control and micro-manage every moment of every day in order to manipulate and deliver every specific output that we want.

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