We all absorb our life experiences both consciously and unconsciously, identifying patterns and formulating rules. For example, I love animals and have noticed that I’m happier when I have a pet, so one of my rules — which, surprisingly, I don’t think I have articulated before today — is that living with pets is worth a lot of sacrifice because they improve my happiness and wellbeing. A lot of the rules we follow are useful, but some are harmful and the two are not mutually exclusive. Avoiding risks, for instance, is a useful strategy for avoiding unnecessary stress and anxiety. However, it also limits your potential for success and happiness. In the long term, following this rule can have many negative impacts on your life and actually increase anxiety. It took me a long time to realise this in relation to my own anxiety, but the rule I had been blindly following in order to feel better left me feeling worse.
Identifying rules is the first step
It is obvious now that my rule to reduce anxiety was a fallacy, but I lived within its constraints for a long time because I never identified the rule. I never examined its accuracy or effects. Of course, rules can be complex and some might work some of the time, rather than being consistently beneficial or detrimental. Rather than worrying about how they work (or don’t) focus on simply pinpointing them.
• What patterns do you tend to fall into — are you prone to specific types of behaviour or relationships?
• Do you avoid doing certain activities, taking on certain responsibilities or entering into certain kinds of relationship?
• What do you tell yourself you could never be?
Compile the evidence
Once you know your rules (or rather, some of them), start gathering evidence of their effects. Don’t put yourself under pressure to find every effect straightaway — just start developing an awareness of the effects. Often, it is useful to notice the effects of your rules over a period of time, as you are living them, because it gives you a bigger, clearer picture. Take as much time as you need and concentrate on one or two rules at a time to avoid overwhelming yourself.
Keep, modify or discard
Not all rules are unnecessarily restrictive, so instead of abandoning every single rule you identify, think about whether they could serve you better — or if they already serve you well. For example, one of my rules is that I always research things I want to do, sometimes to a much greater degree than the average person. While I sometimes wish I could be more spontaneous, this rule serves me well in the whole. It encourages me to develop my knowledge and skills, which helps me achieve more than I would probably otherwise achieve. I follow this rule most of the time because, despite some disadvantages, it improves my life.
Rules which can be modified are tricky: you need to be honest with yourself and decide whether you are adapting the rule because you are too scared to discard it, or because it will have positive effects once modified. Modifying rules is a process, so approach it as an experiment. Try out one modification and observe the effects, then try another and compare. If the effects are, on balance, still negative after several modifications, you need to discard the rule.
An example of a rule I have modified is my previous rule that I would never submit writing because I was afraid of rejection. It protected me from rejection for sure, but it also meant I would never achieve my goal of being published. I didn’t want to replace it with an opposite rule (i.e. to submit everything I write) because I don’t want to submit writing which doesn’t reflect my best work; that would just waste my time and annoy the people to whom I submit work. So I modified the rule to this: if I have improved a piece of writing as much as I can at this point in my life and career, I should submit it. The modification means I risk rejection by submitting work, but I give myself a good chance of success by submitting only my best writing.
Discarding rules isn’t easy, but by deciding to discard a particular rule you have begun the process which will help you stop living life by the rule. Whenever you find yourself following the rule, remind yourself to re-examine the evidence.
• What are the alternatives?
• What could be the effects of each alternative?
• What do you lose by trying an alternative — and what could you gain?
Writing new rules
Changing the rules you follow means changing your life, which isn’t easy. Neither is it linear — adopting new rules relies on trial and error. Some changes will seem quick and easy, whereas others are more challenging. There is no magic formula: persistence is the key. As Einstein said, insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. As long as you keep trying something different, you have a good chance of success.
Deciding on new rules can be challenging in itself. You have to think about some big questions and consider possibilities you might have been ignoring for your whole life:
• What type of life do you want? What do you want to achieve? How would you like to spend your time?
• Which aspects of your life do you want to change? What are your top priorities?
• What rules would it be most fun to change?
You might find that last question odd or unexpected, but viewing the process of changing your rules as a game and a way to have fun can be very effective. You will be learning the principles while minimising stress. For this reason, it might be a good idea to start writing new rules for areas of your life which are less important to you right now. Instead of tackling the big parts of your life, which are typically career, money and relationships, start with something small — trying out a new hobby or going somewhere different.
If you find a change too challenging, choose the smallest change you can perceive. Read a book you have never considered reading before or cook using a new ingredient. Even small changes reinforce new rules by demonstrating how trying something different can have positive effects. Each change, no matter how tiny, challenges a rule many of us follow by default: that we should stick to what we know because it’s better or less scary.
Creating a new future involves following a different script
When you live by the rules you have always followed, your life follows the same course. If you want a different future, you need to write a new script and rip up the old one. You don’t need to do it all in one go — just work on it scene by scene. Rewrite your life one rule change at a time.
Your life will require many rewrites. Think of it as a film which is constantly in production — as long as you are alive, you will be adding new scenes, developing characters and changing the plot. One lesson I have learnt is that these rewrites are required more often than you may have anticipated; as you implement changes, you think of new changes to adopt. Don’t stick to a script which isn’t serving you as well as it could be, no matter how recently you rewrote it. Keep rewriting!