The Power of Self-Imposed Rules

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Many people don’t like rules. Or they like or dislike them depending on convenience.

Imagine setting rules for themselves.

Who needs a self-imposed rule, with all the rules already around?

Short answer: everybody.

The birth of a solid self-rule

Rules may be there for several reasons, even if not always positive or sincere reasons.

But we’re speaking of rules intended for ourselves. There’s no need to set rules unless necessary or wanted. If we set a rule, why?

Let’s try with an obvious example. If you touch a boiling pan, you burn yourself. Never touch a boiling pan barehanded. It’s already a rule. Hardcoded, for an adult.

But not a “true” rule, right? Too evident and specific. It’s just… not needed. It’s there, but there’s no need to make it explicit.

But what if we generalize? Maybe, be careful with dangerous objects. Still probably a bit obvious, but it could make much more sense. Anytime you have to deal with something that can potentially do severe damage, you pay more attention than usual.

But let’s try to generalize a little more.

Be present.

It’s a rule, for someone. Anytime they’re unaware of what they’re doing, of what’s happening, of what’s around, they slow down, they pay attention, they relax for what’s possible, they stretch their senses. Valid for dangerous situations and a lot more. Not just for monks, but ordinary people too.

It’s a rule to me.

And it’s much less obvious than the previous examples. Because the reason for the rule is not obvious, and it goes to the root of the problem.

And it perfectly fits in my perspective on life.

If I’m unaware of what I’m doing, that’s just something not worth doing, for me. Simple as that. If I’m unaware of what’s around, I should pay attention, because dangers or opportunities can be there without noticing. You can’t know if you don’t know. Simple as that. If I don’t realize that I’m living, now, will I really have lived? Again, simple as that.

“Be present” is a meaningful rule to me. It covers so many aspects of my life. I just see it as unavoidable. It’s not an imposition. It’s just my truth emerging, being explicit.

Solid rules are a byproduct of investigation into what matters. When you find solid ground, the right path emerges, and rules just pop up.

It may not be a life rule. It might be an everyday-life rule, like making the bed in the morning, not drinking coffee in the evening, whatever is right for you. Or what is right to everyone, you included, like looking before crossing. But, when something is clear and matters to you, the proper rule is just plain obvious.

Why not?

So, why not have an explicit rule for something you believe?

I’m not speaking of gratuitous rules, of impositions. I’m speaking of what matters to you, decided by you.

If it feels like an imposition, it could likely be that what you believe in it’s an imposition itself. That’s why you don’t feel the need to stick to it. The reason for the possible rule it’s not yours.

Precisely like rules from the outside. If you don’t understand or accept the reasons, it’s likely that you’ll try to walk your way around. But if you would have set those rules yourself, or you trust who set them, you’ll be the first to comply.

If you wonder about the rule, it’s time to dig more. But if you acknowledge that a rule is there for the right reasons, dismissing the rule is not wise.

If the right reasons are there, not wanting to set or even mention a rule could hide other untold reasons.

The first gift of self-imposed rules is the clarity needed for setting them.

Not wanting rules as a principle is bonus food for the mind. Can you be so confident as never to need a reminder? Are you so “right” in anything you do, not to need guidance, even if guidance set by yourself for a good purpose?

Is it some authority in your past that made you allergic? Is it worth staying allergic, nowadays?

Rules as a reminder

Most of my rules are just that. Reminders.

That way, as soon as I notice that I’m not complying, I see that something is wrong, and I fix it.

Another rule that I have is not to lie. That’s much more difficult to follow. And, of course, nearly impossible in our society. But I know my reasons for that, and the many consequences of a single lie to myself or the others. So, I try to stick to that rule as much as I can. Almost always, I find a way that fits, or I accept the consequences of speaking the truth.

I don’t see those rules as enemies, but as friends. I want them to be there. And they saved me many times.

Rules as guidance

Still, you might need a little push.

Say you want to become a writer. You can’t do that without gluing yourself to your chair for hours, possibly daily. So, you might want to set a rule, that of writing at least one page each day.

It will feel like an imposition, on some days. On most days, actually. But you know that you have to do it, because you want it. So, you need a process, a routine. You may need that rule. Or another one for the same purpose. You decide. You’re the coach, but also the athlete who needs a plan and a process.

Rules as an efficiency tool

When you face obstacles, maybe under stressful conditions, deciding for the best becomes more challenging than usual.

What takes some weight off your shoulders in those conditions makes you more lucid and efficient.

Rules avoid you deciding anytime you face the obstacle, again and again. You already know what to do for that part of the challenge.

Like any coach can tell you, you decide to wake up early the day before, not at dawn, when sleepy and comfortably in bed. Once in bed, it’s too late to decide. The effort may be too much. You’re not in the right condition to decide. But, if you decide before, or even set a recurring rule, it’s easier. You don’t have the double task of deciding plus making the effort. You still have to put in the effort, but you don’t struggle to decide, you don’t have to mull over that every time.

It’s not just about obstacles, but also about the daily challenges. Rules – grounded rules – can simplify your life and boost your productivity.


It’s impossible to speak about rules without speaking about exceptions.

If it admits exceptions, is it a true rule?

But, if no exceptions are allowed, should I die to follow a rule? Or maybe lose an arm? Or the job? Or $100? What’s the level of damage that justifies an exception?

Self-rules are no exception, pun intended. Where’s the limit for them?

Sometimes things turn into unplanned ways. Does that rule still apply? Is the sacrifice still worth it? Was I right, when setting that rule?

Let’s be honest. Saying that no exceptions should be there is not realistic, and naïve. Humans are not perfect. Neither are rules and our capacity for superhuman efforts. Some exceptions are unavoidable.

The point about exceptions is simpler than it looks.

If it’s an excuse, it’s not an exception. It’s an excuse.

If you don’t write today because you’re ill, that’s an exception. Don’t blame yourself. If one day you’re completely out of creative fuel and need a walk, after long days at the keyboard, that’s it. Be kind with your past, present, and future self. Make that exception.

But if you don’t write because you have enough of it, like it was yesterday and will be tomorrow, or because you’re tempted by easy ways, that’s time to think about the rule you set for yourself, about why it’s there. If the ratio of the rule is still somehow valid, beyond your present mood, and you can’t honestly say that you deserve an exception… well, that’s not an exception, that’s an excuse. Be severe with yourself. Take your time, but write. Try, at least.

Rules as a gift

I see my rules as a gift. I delved into what matters to me enough to have those rules clear. Just searching for those rules was worth it. Having them is a bonus.

But if they’re not a gift for you, forget them.

Just don’t make it a rule.