4 Steps to Setting Your Own Rules — And Keeping Them!

Business man holding up his arms in victory with a blue office building in the background

Google “rules to live by” and you’re met with hundreds of thousands of search results.

Those results are countless “do and don’ts” for business, life, health, relationships… but how do you know which rules to follow? With so much information available online, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed — and when we feel overwhelmed, we do nothing.

You don’t want that to happen to you, so here is some inspiration to act: I’m going to show you how to set and live by your own rules. That way, you can actually follow your own advice and do what works for you. After all, no one knows you better than you know yourself.

Once you set your own rules, they become rules with no exception; rules you don’t break under any circumstances. You no longer have to decide whether you’re going to workout or whether you should drink on a weeknight or not, for example — you simply follow your rules.

While “rules” tend to carry a negative connotation, they can ultimately empower you, hold you to a higher standard, and keep you on track with your goals.

Here’s a 4-step process that will help you set your own rules — and commit to them:

Step #1. Decide what you want and why you want it. This can be a goal you want to achieve (“I want lose 14 pounds”) or a trait you want add to your personality (“I want feel more confident on a regular basis”). Success in any area is built sequentially, so begin with a single focal point.

Once you’ve decided what you want, you must determine why you want it. “Great leaders are those who trust their gut,” writes Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why. “They are those who understand the art before the science. They win hearts before minds. They are the ones who start with WHY.”

If you want to lead yourself to being more consistent, you need to know why. Do you want it because you believe it’ll make you happier, more money, or look good? Knowing your “why” will take care of your “how.”

Step #2. Evaluate what’s not currently working. Once you know what you want and why you want it, it’s important to look at what’s not currently working in your life.

If you want to eat healthily — and in time, become a healthy eater — you need to identify what you’re currently not doing. Are you self-sabotaging because of a limiting belief? Are your friends holding you back? Or are you simply not using the right strategy?

Write down everything that isn’t working, or hasn’t worked before. This will prevent your from repeating mistakes.

Step #3. Determine what your “ends rule” and your “means rule” will be. These rules should be a guideline that moves you towards your goals. Think of them as a system, an automated process that moves you from where you are to where you want to be.

An ends rule is what you would like your rule to be, eventually. For example, “I never miss a workout.”

A means rule is what you need to do to get started implementing that rule. For example, “I always put my workout clothes on when I get home from work.”

You’ll notice that a means rule is a lot easier to uphold, and for good reason: it builds self-trust.

The most common mistake we make when setting up rules to live by is setting our initial expectations way too high. We set rules like, “I always eat five portions of fruits and vegetables a day,” or “I never eat chocolate,” so when we fail to live up to our rule, we feel disappointed and believe we’re not the kind of person who can be consistent enough to meet our goals.

But you can set yourself up to win by making your rule really easy to meet in the beginning. If you’re unsure of what your means rule should be, ask yourself, “Would I need to motivate myself to do X?” If you answer no, that’s a good place to start.

Step #4. Honor your rule by taking action and allowing no exceptions. I currently go to the gym five days a week. This isn’t for everyone but it works for me. I have a no-exceptions rule for exercise: “I always work out on weekdays.” I wasn’t always like this, though: I used to be extremely unmotivated.

The tipping point came when I simplified going to the gym by defining an easy means goal: “I always put my gym bag by my front door.” That was it. If all I did was honor my means rule, I’d win every time.

Here’s where it gets interesting: When you overcome inertia and take action, you tend to want to either improve on your rule (like eating more regularly, exercising more frequently, etc.) or to complete it altogether to meet your goal. This behavior is linked to a phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, and it’s one of the most effective tools at our disposal when setting our own rules by which to live.

Do you admire someone for his or her self-discipline, confidence or work ethic? I can guarantee there’s a rule behind it. If you’re stumped for ideas, don’t be afraid to take what’s working for someone you admire, tailor it to your needs, and — ultimately — make it better.

Rules aren’t made to be broken — they’re made to be improved upon.

To see Early to Rise Editor Craig Ballantyne’s 12 Rules, click here.

Written by Sam Thomas Davies

About the author: Sam Thomas Davies scouts the leading edge of the human sciences for what’s new, surprising, and important. He writes about research-based ways to improve habits, add new skills and sustain excellence. To learn how to seize the potential of your life, read his free ebook, Unhooked: How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones That Stick.