setting personal rules for myself

Published on April 18, 2020

I like to run experiments in my life.

Recently, I decided to phase out chocolate and other sweet treats from my life. Oh, how I have longed to eat the cheesecake purchased for me at Easter, but alas I have not given in. I have also decided to phase out caffeine. And exercise every day for 30 minutes on my exercise bike. And write every day.

All of these are experiments. To an outsider, these experiments may seem rather strict. You are honestly giving up chocolate? But how are you going to treat yourself?

This is a question I have been pondering a lot over the last few weeks, and I have come to a firm conclusion: I don’t need to treat myself, at least in the way you expect.

Many people’s first reaction when you say you are going to make progress toward a goal is “well, you’ve got to have room to treat yourself, otherwise you will never reach your goals.” That may be true for some people -- being too strict can make it harder to attain a goal -- but for me, this is not the case.

When I started my journey to eliminating sweet treats, I started to worry about how I was going to treat myself. Surely, I fathomed, if I completely eliminated something I enjoyed, I would end up giving up quickly, and going back to my old ways. But, I am glad to report, I am still going down my journey -- the cheesecake is in the refrigerator.

The way I make improvements in my life is to create strict rules and stick by them. There is one simple reason for this: strict rules leave no room for interpretation.

The rule “no sweets” is easy for me to follow. It is simple. When I see a sweet, I don’t have to ask myself “should I treat myself? I’ve had a productive day, after all!” Instead, I say “I have a rule that says I should not eat sweets, so I am not going to eat this sweet.” Then I move on with my life, as if nothing had happened.

What I have noticed is the people who make the most progress tend to be those with their own set of personal rules from which they do not deviate.

At work, I like to start by 8:00 am at the latest. I spend my first few minutes on small, productive tasks, then I delve straight into my deep work for the day. Doing shallow work in the mornings is not an option; that’s what my afternoons are for.

In my personal life, I exercise on my exercise bike every day -- no exceptions. I don’t buy myself candy, and I stay away from all the sweet treats which are only in my house because my family enjoy them. I like to read food labels, so I know what my body is consuming.

These are all simple rules. The first set of rules makes me productive, and the second set keeps me healthy. I don’t have any elaborate systems in place. I just have a set of promises I have made to myself about how I act.

Because these principles are clear and simple, it makes it easier for me to act in a situation where I may be questioning how to go forward. If I see some shallow work to do in the morning, I don’t do it, because I know I do deep work in the morning. If I see something I want to watch on television during exercise time, I will move on, because I exercise during a specific time every day.

There will always be someone around you who says that you are being too hard on yourself, but I have come to expect this as a natural part of life.

When you start making progress, other people will likely try to pull you down to their level, even if it is subconscious. They will say “can’t you just have one slice of cake”, even though you have just started to eat healthily. If you give in, it will make the other person feel better -- they don’t have to feel like they are behind in their healthy eating.

I think many people resist setting personal rules because they are seen as a way to curtail your own freedom. If you are not free to eat what you want, then that seems bad. If you are not free to watch the television show you enjoy, it does not seem like you are living the best version of your life.

However, this does not have to be the case. Having strong personal rules in place is a great way to become more independent. Instead of leaving your happiness contingent on whether you manage to find the “willpower” to do something, your mind will naturally know how to act in any given situation.

If you say “no X”, it’s clear what you need to do when you encounter X.

Some of my personal rules may be strict. Certainly, eating no sweet treats is a difficult one. However, I see these decisions as an investment in my future, rather than a limitation to my freedom. To me, freedom is not the ability to eat what I want when I want, neither is it the freedom to wake up when I want. Freedom is about making progress in my life.

My personal rules give me a compass that guide me through my day. Common decisions -- like deciding when I should exercise -- are now completely avoided, because my mind has a clear idea in mind of how I need to act, and why.

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