Five (Lousy) Reasons You Keep Following The Rules–and What They Cost You
How many emails are sitting unread in your inbox that you don’t remember signing up for? Perhaps you checked (or failed to uncheck) a box, opted in for free shipping in 2017 and here we are.
And even though you aren’t actively choosing this information, there it is, and will be, until the end of time. Why? Because it takes effort to unsubscribe. It’s easier to just accept what is than to make a change.
Spam is an apt metaphor for lots of things we fail to unsubscribe from—including other people’s rules, agendas, and ideas that explicitly dictate or strongly suggest how we should work, eat, live, you name it.
Some rules are so familiar, they actually become invisible to us. But, they still take up mental and emotional real estate, and navigating them can require energy and in some cases, can even block your way altogether (or at least block your view).
Sales pro and bestselling author Kurt Mortensen says that much of our behavior “comes through imitating what society teaches is appropriate, and what we have been exposed to at home, school, or work,” he writes in Persuasion IQ: The Ten Skills You Need to Get Exactly What You Want.
“In order to truly change, grow, and prosper," he writes, "we need to be consciously aware of the rules we’ve made for ourselves, where they have come from, and what they’re based on. Do they all serve you? Or are they sabotaging you?”
If you’ve got five minutes (you know you do), grab a pen and without overthinking, respond to this prompt.
Try this instead: Prompt:
What’s ONE rule, standard, or expectation that you’ve been struggling with lately, and why? Who has held you to it? What would happen if you didn’t adhere to it?
What other myths are holding you back?
Download my free mini-course: The Passion Trap: 5 Half-Truths Keeping You From Living a Full Life
Reasons Why We Keep Submitting to Other People’s Agendas
There are good reasons we often don’t put up a fight when it comes to doing what other people prefer or expect: We believe (or have been convinced) that it’s the better thing to do. It often is better…for the person who wants it that way.
Let’s dive into the perks we think we get which—spoiler alert—aren’t perks at all.
Reason #1: Doing what other people want is just easier
Thinking for yourself and acting on it comes at a cost: It can ruffle people in high places (or in your own house). The path of least resistance, we think, all but guarantees acceptance and approval.
After all, if you don’t want to get married or go into your dad’s business or buy a house, people are going to have some things to say about it. And chances are, they aren’t good.
We think: If I just do what someone else wants, I get a free pass on criticism and judgment, and no one can give me flak for it, because I was doing what they wanted. Right? Cool!
Spoiler alert: There is no such thing as a flak-free life.
You can follow someone else’s laws to the letter, and they’re still going to take issue with it. People are going to give you shit, regardless. It’s what we do.
We are flaw-finders by nature. There’s nothing you can do that couldn’t potentially earn you some unwanted feedback, or even rejection. If you’re doing this thing only to avoid getting crap for it, check again. You might get crap anyway. But I’d rather get crap for doing what I wanted, than for what someone else does.
Reason #2: Doing what someone else wants lets me off the hook!
Stick close to another’s agenda, and my risks drop dramatically, right? I don’t have to worry about making the wrong or riskier decisions, because they weren’t mine to begin with. Home free!
Spoiler alert: You’re not avoiding risk; you’re just taking a different one.
History doesn’t look kindly on those who do terrible things because they were “just following orders.” It’s a weak cover, to say the least.
Other people’s agendas may influence you, but they do not release you from the responsibility for your actions. The question is, which ones can you live with and defend?
You can take a job you don’t want, or marry someone you’re iffy about, and you’re not removing risk; you’re simply replacing it with another, bigger one: that you end up living a life that someone else chose for you.
Reason #3: Doing what I’m told gives me the right to complain!
When you stay subscribed to everyone else’s agendas, you’re going to have an issue with them at some point. And while complaining about it can feel as if it rights the scales, it doesn’t.
Complaints can and have ignited all kinds of change. Revolution-sized change. But only if you do something about the complaint itself.
Many a startup began with a problem someone had. But plenty of people have problems and don’t do shit about it. Don’t confuse complaining with improving.
Spoiler alert: Chronic complaining can lead to chronic inaction.
Show me a chronic complainer, and I’ll show you someone who would rather suffer a little every day than make a big, uncertain change. Complaining, after all, is actually comfortable: We love being right about how wrong things are!
What this is really about is personal responsibility. If you’re only ever following someone else’s rules, then you can complain without blaming yourself.
When you write your own rules and make your own choices, you have no one else to blame but yourself if things don’t work out. And most people would rather not risk it.
Read that again: Most people would prefer to blame someone else, even if it means not making their own decisions. They’d rather NOT do what they want, while retaining the right to be unhappy about it. No thanks.
Try this: Track your complaints for a week, or a month.
Jot down everything that gets under your craw and why. Then, review them.
Aside from obvious neglect, incompetence, or greed, what’s the common thread? A sense of being hurt or ignored, or incensed and righteous? That things are less fair for you? What patterns or themes emerge?
Then ask yourself: Do I want things to actually change? Or does the act of complaining serve a need in and of itself?
Reason #4: Focusing on others’ needs makes me a good person!
There’s a reason it’s easier to reply to emails than to start a big project or face a blank page: Checking stuff off a list feels good—even if it’s someone else’s list.
The merits of being a good girl or boy or worker has been ingrained in our minds. Praise, approval, and gratitude feel great. We’ll avoid upsetting or disappointing people we love and admire at all costs. But at all costs?
Spoiler alert: Being virtuous does not keep you safe, nor guarantee happiness.
We all have obligations, people to answer to. And while being a generous and giving person is something to aspire to, it can get real easy to put off everything you want to do because you’re busy doing things for other people.
Making a decision that’s right for you—whether it’s quitting a job or moving 300 miles away—may very well affect, upset, or disappoint someone. I get really wanting to avoid that. But is it worth not doing what you want? Like, ever?
You can spend your time doing everything you can to avoid disappointment and evade tension—but where does it stop? The more you do this, the more you’re likely to do it. Is your whole life worth someone else’s approval? No. Your life is worth so, so much more.
Reason #5: I don’t need to pursue my dreams now because I can do it later.
The great myth underscoring all of this is the myth of time—namely that it’s something we can “have.” In his book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman says that the idea that time is a commodity we can get, keep, or save, is an illusion, and that true freedom comes from embracing not infinite potential, but our very finite limits.
In a chapter called “The Efficiency Trap,” he says that any choice we make requires “sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing.” But if you never ask yourself whether the sacrifice is worth it, he says, your days will pile up with dumb stuff, simply because “they’ve never had to clear the hurdle of being judged more important than something else.”
What dumb stuff? Things that other people want you to do—namely because it makes their life easier.
Spoiler alert: The more you do to fulfill other people’s agendas, the more you will have to do.
There is a cost to efficiency, says Burkeman, and it’s becoming what management expert Jim Benson calls “‘a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations.’”
The idea of having “more time later” is an illusion. It’s simply a fact: As the years go by, we have less and less time. What will you do with yours?
Understand that the tendency to adhere to these reasons, and aim for the approval of others, is not a personal flaw! I do it, you do it, we all do it. Cooperation and compromise make the world go round. But what you practice, you become. And if you only ever accommodate others and defer your own choices, that’s the thing you’ll get better at and tend to do more, which will cost you.
While your life doesn’t have to boil down to “them vs. me” every time, one thing’s for sure: If you do not make space for what you want to do, and defend it, it will erode as all things do into a million tiny tasks and efforts, usually for other people.
It’s like breaking a $100 bill—the minute you break it, you no longer have $100, but a collection of 10s and 5s and change that is soon spent.
How do you hang onto the big bills—of energy, time, attention—and be mindful of spending them where it counts?
You’ve got to become aware of the rules governing your actions from below the surface. Only then can you begin to reset—and rewrite—them for yourself. I call that a hard reset, and it’s critical to do for yourself.
The process involves taking a look at all of the rules that are holding you hostage right now, getting curious about what you might want to do, checking all that mental and emotional baggage weighing you down, getting clear about your (actual) values, and writing your personal rider, so that you are crystal clear about what you will do, won’t do, and why.
If this sounds like something you might want to try, I invite you to do it!
I created a program specifically for this step, and it’s called (surprise) Hard Reset! Click here to learn more about what it is and how to get started!
Burkeman, O. (2021). Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Mortensen, K. W. (2008). Persuasion IQ: The 10 skills you need to get exactly what you want. Amacom Books.