Simple Rules

Simple rules can ease our minds

Our brains seek to simplify information and processes so we can better respond to unfamiliar or complicated aspects of our lives. Parts of our brains are devoted to habit formation and create habits very easily, even when we’re not aware of it. One natural response to change and complexity is to try to pay attention to and manage every little detail. However, this isn’t an approach our brains manage very well, especially if we already feel depleted. As perception of stress increases, our cognitive capacity decreases even while we might try to control as many details as possible. Instead, we can prime our brains and nervous systems ahead of time by determining what is most essential—whether in a project workflow, a meeting or relationship. 

In Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex Worldprofessors Kathleen Eisehhardt and Donald Sull describe simple rules as shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information. Simple rules help us zoom out to the big picture and focus on what matters and what we have influence over. They give us flexibility to adapt to a changing environment while also having a sense of consistency (which can help put our nervous systems at ease). Read this Stanford Business Review post for a concise overview of the book.

Simple rules for simple rules

You already have simple rules in your life that were taught to you as a child like Stop, drop and roll in the event of a fire, or Look left; look right before crossing the street. Whether you know it or not, you likely have developed simple rules for your own unique journey. Consider:

  • Fewer rules are better than more rules. Most minds can hold about three seconds of information or three chunks of information.
  • Offer guidance rather than prescription to allow for creativity and responsiveness to unique situations. 
  • Develop simple rules to address a specific challenge or goal and tailor them to the situation.
  • Reflect on your simple rules periodically and adapt or let go as circumstances and you (or your team) change.

Design simple rules to fit the situation

  • How-To Rules like Focus on what’s working well and build from there or Ready, fire, aim.
  • Boundary Rules like  Do what’s yours to be done or If it’s not a ‘hell yes,’ it’s a no.
  • Priority Rules like First, do no harm or The customer is always right.
  • Timing Rules like Schedule meetings between 10am-2pm or Check email twice daily.
  • Exits and Letting Go Rules like If you haven’t used it in two years, get rid of it or Let go of anything that doesn’t spark joy.

align your goals and ease bottlenecks

Reflecting on where you want to go and what’s tripping you up can help you make sure your simple rules are aligned with what your vision and goals. Consider: What really matters to you in the context of a project, situation, or relationship? Where do you have influence and potential for impact? 

Pay attention to situations and activities in which you and your team feel energized, motivated, in the flow, or “alive.” This can give you information about areas that are working well. Perhaps you already have simple rules in place that you can make note of and apply to other areas. 

Also notice those times when you or your project feels blocked or gets pulled off course (this is sometimes referred to as finding the “bottlenecks” in the process). Where would you like to have more ease? This is one way to identify areas that could benefit from simple rules. What patterns do you notice? Are there actions you can take of let go of to maximize impact and minimize bottleneck?

Start by trying out one new simple rule for yourself and your team and stick with it for a month. Be curious about what changes and make adjustments if needed.  

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