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Simple Rules for Life and Work

I’ve been breaking a lot of my rules lately, and I paid for it this week.

No coffee after 1pm

Log off Twitter an hour before bed

Only skip the gym if you’re sick or in (non-DOMS) pain

Bring your own lunch

These are small things. They sound pretty easy. Inconsequential even. Breaking one does not result in immediate calamity. But I know through trial and error that ignoring one or more of these for even a week or two leads to quick fraying of the cord that tethers me to my capacity as a functioning human being.

I’m certainly not the only person with rules like these. Occasionally I try to add to them (hello meditation habit I’ve been trying to build since the late 90’s), and it’s always tempting to address novel challenges with new rules.

But whenever I’ve done that, the weight of remembering my longer list of rules and navigating their application and interaction pretty quickly folds in on itself.

This is not only a personal phenomenon.

In Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt point to the US tax code as an example of how institutions and organizations feel pulled to respond to an increasingly complex world with increasingly complex rules.

“Applying complex solutions to complex problems is an understandable approach, but flawed. The parts of a complex system can interact with one another in many different ways, which quickly overwhelms our ability to envision all possible outcomes.”

“Complicated solutions can overwhelm people, thereby increasing the odds that they will stop following the rules.”

Company policies proliferate and lengthen in response to additional employment legislation and requirements. And your inbox? Is it currently filled with updated privacy policies from a range of services you don’t even remember signing up for?

I thought so.

Unfortunately, this is not a post about how to ditch your policies or overhaul the US tax code. Rather, it’s an observation about the value of simple rules when things get chaotic.

I’ve been reading Simple Rules for a couple of weeks, not fully registering that my own simple rules were slipping during a busy month that included some travel and lots of competing priorities. To be honest, it felt like I was getting away with it, what with the extra coffee and the distraction of Twitter.

This week brought that to a screeching halt. The news was horrifying, both here in Toronto and beyond. Work went sideways, and suddenly it was Thursday and my to do list was somehow longer than it had been on Monday?

It all hit me much harder than it would have, if I’d been consistently following my rules.

“Simplicity is even more important when people are tired, stressed, or otherwise cognitively impaired.”

What is a Simple Rule?

Simple rules are carefully and artfully devised, ideally with both evidence and experience.  They are specific to our own context, and to a single, well-defined activity. This makes them distinct from values, or principles that might apply broadly to many people or in more than one situation.  They’re heuristics rather than policies, which tend to be more prescriptive.

Simple rules are most effective when they are developed for use in important activities or decisions that represent bottlenecks in our work towards an objective.

My personal rules all address decisions that might present challenges to my physical or mental health (and in the case of lunch, my bank balance).  They may not be effective for you, or anyone else, but they help me make good, fast decisions that are in service to my higher-order goals, like reducing anxiety and maintaining my physical health.

An example of a rule in an institution might be the triage protocols in an emergency room, which help medical personnel make rapid decisions about where to direct care to patients in a disaster of accident. Or it might be triage of projects, establishing a priority for resource allocation based on a few key factors relevant to a specific organization.

Sull and Eisenhardt note that well-formulated simple rules can produce decisions that match or outperform more sophisticated decisions models across a wide variety of scenarios, with limited data requirements

Ignore the Long Tail

The trick to creating useful simple rules is figuring out the things that are truly central. Sull and Eisenhardt write:

“In many situations, a handful of factors matter a great deal, while a long tail of peripheral variables can be safely ignored.”

Like in the triage example, effective simple rules codify the most critical factors in important decisions, eliminating superfluous and potentially distracting information and focusing our attention on what matters.

I know that when I’m deciding whether to go the gym or not, my legs being sore from my workout two days ago (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is not a relevant factor in my decision. I know I can ignore it based on the research I’ve done, advice I’ve received, and many years of personal experience. So, my simple rule specifically excludes it from consideration.

Rules to Work By

Simple rules in our organizations are intended to avoid exactly what I did this past month: make short-term decisions that ignore the proven intelligence in simple rules. This works against larger objectives and destabilizes the system overall.

In fast-paced organizations and complex environments, effective simple rules can help us move quickly, without the need or pressure to check a manual or consult a policy, potentially getting stuck in analysis mode as we go.

You almost certainly have simple rules at work in your team and company already, even if you don’t label them as such. What are they? Has their wisdom and effectiveness been evaluated, recognized, and appreciated for the elegant tools they are? Or are they cast aside for faddish alternatives? Do they go out the window when things get hectic?

Read This Week:

How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You) – Tim Urban, Wait But Why

Better bring water and some snacks for this one; it’s looooong. And totally worth the time. In the typical Wait But Why style, Tim Urban takes on a familiar topic in a totally new, deeply thought way, with terrible sketches and weird characters (like the Yearning Octopus).

“When you overrate the impact of innate talent on how people fare in their careers—and you also conflate talent and skill level—it won’t leave you feeling great about your chances at many paths. Because we better understand the trajectory of traditional careers, we’re less prone to do this with them. A first-year medical student sees an experienced surgeon at work and thinks, “I can get there one day—just need to do about 20 years of hard work.” But when a young artist or entrepreneur or software engineer looks at the equivalent of the experienced surgeon in their field, they’re more likely to think, “Wow look how talented they are—I’m nowhere near that good,” and get all hopeless. There’s also the other common notion, that people who thrive in non-traditional careers had some “big break” at some point, like hitting a lucky scratch card jackpot—and I don’t know many people who want to risk their careers on scratch cards.

These are only a few examples of the slew of delusions and misconceptions we tend to have about how great careers happen.”

What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women – Catherine Tinsley and Robin Ely, HBR

Do many corporate initiatives focused on supporting gender parity rest on erroneous beliefs about how women’s disposition, behavior and attitudes differ from men?

“Things don’t have to be this way. When companies observe differences in the overall success rates of women and men, or in behaviors that are critical to effectiveness, they can actively seek to understand the organizational conditions that might be responsible, and then they can experiment with changing those conditions.”

Photo by Kerrie DeFelice on Unsplash




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