San Francisco Chronicle

Adhering to rules can set you free

- By Simone Stolzoff Simone Stolzoff is the author of the forthcomin­g book “The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life from Work.”

“We think of rules as fences or walls, but they’re actually pathways to how we want to live.”

Casper ter Kuile, author and spirituali­ty researcher

In college, I had a rule: If I ever came across a cookie I wanted, I’d eat it. As someone who typically experience­s analysis paralysis, the rule allowed me to bypass the internal deliberati­on of whether or not I deserved the cookie. It protected me from negotiatin­g every decision anew.

Rules get a bad rap. People think of them as weapons wielded by strict parents and humorless referees. But there’s another side to rules — especially ones you set for yourself — that’s particular­ly relevant by mid-February when research suggests 80% of New Year’s resolution­s have failed.

Rather than restrict us, rules can set us free.

“We think of rules as fences or walls, but they’re actually pathways to how we want to live,” author and spirituali­ty researcher Casper ter Kuile told me. “It’s not the boundary of the rules that we need to focus on. It’s the space they help create.”

Ter Kuile’s research has taken him from Benedictin­e monasterie­s to orthodox Jewish synagogues, and he’s found that the rules and rituals that we may think of as restrictiv­e often have the opposite effect.

“When we have to negotiate every choice we make, it’s exhausting,” he said. “Commitment equals freedom.”

Research on decision fatigue supports the idea that the more decisions we’re forced to make each day, the more our cognitive abilities suffer. One famous study found that parole judges were less likely to grant parole in the afternoon as the strain of making decisions all day wore them down. (Mark Zuckerberg cites decision fatigue as the reason he always wears the same gray T-shirt.)

It’s easy to see how the constraint­s of, say, living as a Benedictin­e nun breed a sense of expansiven­ess in other realms of life. But in our secular world, dozens of rule-followers with whom I spoke professed a similar sense of freedom from their self-imposed constraint­s.

Hope King, a broadcast journalist, follows a color schedule for what she wears on TV depending on the day of the week, which she finds “totally liberating.” Financial coach Ramit Sethi has a rule that he “never questions spending money on books, appetizers, health or donating to a friend’s charity fundraiser,” which keeps him from second-guessing investment­s that he values. Kat O’Leary, a social media strategist, has a rule that she eats burrata cheese any time someone or something disappoint­s her.

“This way,” she said, “my worst-case scenario is always burrata.”

Craig Benzine, a Youtuber who goes by the handle WheezyWait­er, has built a career of implementi­ng different rules in his life. He’s cut out sugar, gone vegan, taken 20,000 steps a day, lived without a smartphone and tried just about every other wellness trend you can imagine.

Benzine has found that with time, he tends to focus less on what he’s giving up and more on what he’s getting by adhering to each new mandate.

“Rules simplify things,” he told me, reflecting on his year without alcohol. “Rather than get bummed that I couldn’t drink, I started to get excited about waking up feeling good.”

The Latin root of the word rule, regula, means to regulate or guide. Personal rules are not necessaril­y about permitting or forbidding certain behavior. Rather, they point toward a certain way of living. Perhaps that’s why trends like 30-day yoga challenges, Dry January and NaNoWriMo, a tradition where aspiring authors pledge to work on their novels every day for a month, are so popular — they free us from deliberati­ng over whether we’re going to write, drink or exercise. Rather than an “if ” it becomes a matter of “when.”

For workplace expert and self-proclaimed people-pleaser Liz Fosslien, personal rules have helped her differenti­ate between what is important to her and what’s important to other people. For example, she knows that as an introvert, she needs ample time to recharge at home with her family. So she implemente­d a rule to preserve three evenings each week without any plans.

“It helps me reinforce my personal boundaries,” she said, “and because it’s a rule, other people take it less personally.”

It’s easy to imagine the danger of taking rule-setting to the extreme.

“There are some rules that make us prisoners in our own lives,” said Nedra Glover Tawwab, psychologi­st and author of “Set Boundaries, Find Peace.” “But rules that aren’t made from fear or scarcity can help us live in line with our values.”

What I appreciate most about personal rules is that they are, in fact, personal. The rules we choose to live by are votes for the type of people we want to be. I have always looked up to my stepdad, a lifelong jazz musician, who never passes a street performer without giving them change. For a while, my sister was a vegan with a hot dog exception. Our personal rules can be individual­ized, quirky and make little sense to anyone else.

The cookie rule was never just about baked goods. It was a reminder that I wanted to be the type of person who let himself appreciate what he loved. The rule granted me the freedom, however arbitraril­y, to be uniquely me.

 ?? Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2020 ?? Nuns pray during Mass at St. Ignatius Church. The constraint­s of living as a nun can breed a sense of expansiven­ess.
Jessica Christian/The Chronicle 2020 Nuns pray during Mass at St. Ignatius Church. The constraint­s of living as a nun can breed a sense of expansiven­ess.

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