Your Life, Your Rules

It’s your life, and while there’s a lot in it that’s beyond your control, you can choose to set your own rules. The rewards of identifying a set of life rules can be profound, because when you live in accordance with them, you live purposefully and with integrity, infusing your days with meaning and increasing your capacity for fulfillment. 

On the flip side, it can sap your energy and spirit to be living a life that unintentionally is at odds with your rules, and unless you take the time to identify them, how would you know? There’d just be this nagging feeling that something’s not quite right.

Without identifying and acknowledging YOUR RULES, you’re at risk for feeling empty, adrift, or overwhelmed. So, today, I’m recommending that you take a bit of time and establish your own set of life rules.

I’m not giving you a special exercise to help you do this, because I don’t want to be prescriptive. This is going to be your personal quest, and you can use any method of self-reflection that appeals to you – meditating, journaling, batting it around with a friend, or thinking about it in the shower – whatever works for you is the right way.  If you want more guidance, feel free to comment and I’ll give you some more ideas. I recommend you come up with about 5 rules (it doesn’t have to be exact).

What are “Life Rules”?

Life rules are different than goals or action plans. They’re more general and abstract. So, “make sure you fold the laundry after you do the dishes”, or “never let the gas tank get below ⅓” are not life rules. Those might be good rules for effectiveness and productivity, but they’re not life rules. Neither are, “don’t eat carbs” or “lose weight”.  While self-care may be a valuable pursuit, and that may involve lifestyle or nutritional nudges, IMO life shouldn’t revolve around depriving or measuring your body. 

The bottom line is that I’m recommending that you identify what’s most important to YOU – not to your parents, spouse, friends, neighbors, politicians, or even your mentors – your rules will be the values you want your life to reflect.

To give you an example, here are my current top life rules:

  1. Don’t hurt anybody
  2. Take care of yourself
  3. Be helpful when you can
  4. Have some fun (and don’t take yourself too seriously)
  5. Hold the future in mind – loosely

This isn’t an exhaustive list of what’s important to me – I also value gratitude, compassion, personal growth, and other stuff that’s less admirable. But, I discovered that these 5 rules help me balance my tendency to take care of everyone else at the expense of myself. For example, as long as I prioritize not hurting anyone, I can allow myself the freedom to nurture myself a little bit, even if I can’t always fix everyone else’s problems.

These rules also remind me to chill out on my tendency to live in the future – constantly anticipating the moment when everything will finally slip into place (or fall apart; it depends on my mood) and to bring myself back to the present moment where my life is actually happening. And, yes, I have a bunch of productivity and lifestyle habits too, but my life doesn’t revolve around them. Those habits keep my life running efficiently, so I have the energy to live according to my rules. 

Once you’ve identified a working draft of your rules, sit down with some paper and write them down.  

Your rules may be similar to mine, or they may be quite different. Perhaps your top rules involve achievement, spirituality, charity, or adventure.  If you value adventure, for example, one of your top rules might be to “take the road less traveled”, and if you value spirituality, one of your top rules may be to “notice the work of the universe (or your higher power) in the mundane”.  The point, of course, is that you get to write them, so please use language that’s meaningful to you.  Spend some time with them to make sure they fit, and once they feel right, you’re ready to roll. 

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Once you’ve identified your rules, you need to make sure you look at them each morning. Put them where you’ll see them, and set an intention to live according to them. This shouldn’t feel like a job; you chose the rules. If it feels like a job, you need to take a second look at those rules and maybe give them a tweak.

Once you commit to living according to your rules, you may find that you have to make some changes in how you prioritize your time, money, and energy. If that’s what happens, it’s wonderful, because you’re taking charge of your life, and moving into a life with greater integrity and personal meaning. Some people make small changes, and other people discover they need to make major changes in their lives to live according to their rules. For example, I worked with a man who decided to get up a half-hour earlier in the morning so he’d be able to have breakfast with his kids to align better with his rules, and with a woman who changed her career from advertising to teaching even though she had to go back to school in her 30’s to do it. Both were ultimately happy with the changes they made!

One last thing: please remember that you’re setting your rules to paper, not carving them in stone. They’re your rules, and you get to modify them or even completely overhaul them whenever you want.