Rules Are the Cure for Misery

Sep 05, 2022

Sometimes rules get a bad rap. Please don’t get defensive about the idea of having rules in your life. I would like you to understand something. If you knew me well, you would know that I am not a very “rulesy” person. I know those kinds of people are usually not the ones I like to hang around. So, I am not coming at this topic as a purveyor of rules for rules’ sake. I am coming at it from a different angle.

I think you only need rules when you find that something is continually happening that you do not want to happen, or something is not happening that you desire. And, some sort of misery is the result.

I do not suggest the rules that I follow in my personal life for everyone. When it comes to my writing, I have a very strict set of rules that I adhere to because they specifically help me to achieve the desired result. I couldn’t do it without them. That is when a rule is needed.

I was talking to a friend recently about this topic and he said that it took him thirty years to figure this out, but that it has changed his life. He and his wife have a little getaway cabin on a lake not far from his home. They bought it to retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life, like many couples do in various ways. They looked forward to owning it when they bought it, as they had very hectic lives. But he quickly realized something when he began going there. The space was not enough. He was free to take it all with him, at least in his head, when he was there.

He said that he would go there sometimes, have a plan to spend more time there, and then go back home because he would need to get some things done. But, when he looked at it that way, he would find himself at the cabin after spending the night, and early the next morning begin to feel the pressure, the gnawing inside, that he better get going and go “do all the things he had to do. Better get on the road and get to ‘it,” whatever “it” was, he said. He found that when he was there, he was actually not there. So, he made a rule: He would define the time specifically that he was going to be there as the no-work zone and make that a rule. “I will be at the cabin until noon, with no work, and then I will go back home and get some things done.”

He said that a miracle occurred. Just because he had added the structure of a no-work zone until noon, he found that he could actually enjoy the time he was there. He was not fretting, thinking, “I need to get going, get on it.” INstead, his mind had a time-off zone, and he finally allowed himself to be there. It would have not mattered, as he said, whether the time were noon, 11 AM or 1 PM. That was not the issue as that could always change. What mattered was that he had a rule for when he would be there with no work, and in that time when there was no work allowed, he was able to enjoy it. He said that he now comes back refreshed and ready to go, and the cabin has been a lifesaver.

While you may not be in the position to have a space with your rule, like a weekend getaway, you can have the rule do the same thing for you in whatever space you use. You can do this in your office or at home or at a park. Just have a no-work rule for a space of time, if work is in your way. Set it in stone, and it will give you freedom as you already know that you can afford it when you set it aside.

Here is the principle:

Find the misery, and set the rule.

Your rules can be related to work or other aspects of life, whenever the freedom to be miserable is taking over and needs to be limited. Here are some examples I have seen in different contexts of life.

Toxic Relationships

There are some people who for whatever reason are able to make you miserable. There may be people in your life with whom you are getting negative results, and with whom you need some rules. And remember, these are not rules for them, but for you. If you have a person who is always belligerent with you, you may not necessarily say “you are not allowed to talk to me that way.” He can do whatever he wants. Instead, say that you do not allow yourself to talk to someone who is behaving that way. That is a big difference. The rule is for you, not the other person. Let him talk all he wants. You just won’t be there to listen.

There may be some people that you need some personal rules with, even some they will never know about. It is your decision who you will allow yourself to talk to, who you will not allow yourself to talk to alone, when you will allow yourself to talk to some people, and when you won’t. Stay in charge of yourself, and when you do not absolutely have to interact with a certain person, don’t let yourself get sucked into one of those conversations. Set a rule.

Managing Energy and Performance

Only you know where the misery or the lack of productivity is in your life, so only you can know where some rules are needed and what the rules should be. For some people, my rules of no work at home and no work after hours would create more stress than it would relieve. I realize that, and that is why I said they are personal. The point here is that you need them if the normal ebb and flow of the way you are going about it now is not working.

Look at your own energy, along with your time, as your greatest resource. I find that many people allow the less important time eaters to use up the time when they’re at their best, and they give their leftover energy to some of the highest priorities. Ask yourself some questions to gauge your misery index, and then make some rules to address those issues. These questions might be:

  • When do you need your best energy? For which activities?
  • When is your best energy available to you?
  • What are your energy drains?
  • Who are your energy drains?
  • What physical practices impact your energy?

If you have time and energy, you can pretty much find everything else you need. But if you do not isolate and quarantine the drains on both of these, you will not have it in you to go get what you need. You will feel one of the two most uttered sentences that prevent people from accomplishing what they need to accomplish:

“I don’t have time.”

“I don’t have it in me.”

In my experience, getting a handle on the misery that is creating both of those experiences and making a rule to prevent them is like finding a gold mine full of time and energy. Set rules.

Wisdom and Random Rules

In human development, structure is internalized from the outside and becomes internal. Teach a child that if he chooses A then B is coming, and he begins to think in a linear path. Therefore, he makes choices that are going to give him the B that he desires. In other words, before the misery comes, he learns to make a choice that is going to prevent it. That is the move to maturity.

Sometimes we do not know the structure of life or certain situations or certain relationships until we are in them. So, we do not anticipate the ways that those jobs, projects, contexts, or relationships need to be structured. We don’t know what causes misery until we are there.

But, once we are there, and the misery becomes a pattern, we need to realize that this is not a one-time occurrence. It is a pattern. And we need to take ownership of the reality that whatever internal structure we are depending on to not have this happen is not working. If it were, we would not be having the problem on an ongoing basis. That is the time to realize that “I do not remember that if I do A then I will hate my life because B will happen.” Therefore, I need a rule to keep me from doing A so I will not get any more occurrences of B. Said another way: When “I better not do that or I am not going to like myself tomorrow” is not working, then we have to change to “I have a rule against doing that.”

Wisdom is, among other things, knowing to not do what we already have experienced as not helpful. Wise people are not smarter than other people; they just have learned from experience or they listen to the experience of others and believe it. They do not talk themselves into “It won’t be like that this time” or “it won’t happen to me.” They listen to experience, let it talk to them, and rise out of their denial that somehow “next time will be different.” So, really, rules are about learning from your experience and not repeating the same misery for longer than it takes to learn what is creating it. To continue to do the same thing expecting different results is not wise. Listen and believe the results that you are getting, and make a rule to not do whatever is getting you the results that you do not want anymore.