Rules tend to be thought of as a negative. They are meant to restrict us, to keep us from performing acts that lie outside of the norm, and to keep us from danger or harm. Show up to school at this time, perform these chores, take the garbage out, no R-rated movies when you’re young. Rules are what we desperately wanted to abandon for much of our life. When we are young, we live in a rule filled world, with adults constraining us no matter what direction we turn. As teens with angst, all we want is freedom. We dream of what life will be like when we are set free, can embrace independence, and decide what we do and when we do it.
But as we age, and shed our rule-bound life, reality strikes. We look to adults who have freedom of choice–what they eat, which show they watch, or where they go. As we grow into adulthood, the element of choice overwhelms us. We may have achieved our childhood dream and be allowed to do anything, but with so much possibility, we end up settling. As we become overwhelmed with decisions, the freedom of choice leads not to a weight lifted off our shoulders but anxiety. Do we get in the run, stick to our salad at lunch, show up to that optional presentation?
Our lives slowly unravel as we are now in charge of setting our schedule, and we come to realize what we missed in our clouded teenage brain induced haze; the hidden benefits rules provide.
Instead of limiting us, what rules do is allow us to free up space in our minds. They take the decision away from us; when we know that we have to run at 7am in the morning, because we have mandatory practice. Or that we have to finish a paper because it’s due the next day, or that we must brush, floss, and clean the dishes. We may complain or groan about it, but we know they must be done. There’s little debate of whether or not we have to complete these tasks.
What rules do is they focus us. They take the choice away or at least minimize our ruminating about whether or not we should go to the gym at 6am. It’s as if we are offloading that decision, converting it from a concept that we can have an internal debate on, to a habit that must automatically be done.
It’s not that you had more willpower as a high school or college runner to run those 70, 80, 90 miles per week. It’s that you had no choice. You made up your mind by committing to being a runner, and either designed rules or had someone else dictate those rules. It wasn’t a matter of willpower or motivation, it wasn’t even a choice, you had to get it done.
And research backs this up. As we shift decisions and behaviors to be almost automatic, we feel less fatigued. If on the other hand, we ruminate and debate our choices, we become mentally fatigued, and it appears like we have less self-control.
As adults, it might be time to turn back the clocks, and institute rules back into our life. No, it’s not time to be obsessive compulsive and regiment our life, but instead to give ourselves boundaries, so that we can offload the decision.
I often think back to High School and College when I ran up to 120 miles per week in the lovely Houston heat and humidity. It wasn’t required to run that much, so how did I do that? I had rules. During those years I had a hard 10pm bed time, I allowed myself desserts after long or really hard workouts, and I was going to run twice a day during weekdays.
Was that the healthiest way to do things? Well, I probably took it to the extreme, but even now, when I want to get focused and get something done, like my forthcoming book, for example, I set mini-rules to keep myself from drifting off course too much.
As an athlete or even a coach or writer, it’s not about restricting yourself, it’s about setting the occasional boundaries to keep you from drifting too far off course.
Rules are there for our own protection. They might not be as innately appealing as the freedom we once so desperately desired. But they are for our own good, to fight, in the background against our less desirable tendencies. We aren’t suggesting we all transport back to our childhood and live life without any freedom. All we’re suggesting is that perhaps, a rule or two may be worthwhile. Even if it feels somehow wrong.