How (and why) to Rewrite the Rules
The first thing you learn are the rules. The rules provide structure, keep us safe. They teach us how the world works and how to behave within it, and the consequences of breaking them (which we usually learn the hard way).
You have probably bumped up against the rules at some point, felt hindered or held hostage by them. You might even go so far as to think that all rules are bullshit and your life would be better if there were none.
Hear me out: Rules in and of themselves are not the problem.
Rather than break or denounce them all, you can do something different: Choose. Decide which ones apply, which don’t. You can rewrite them.
In this article, I’ll walk you through a process for rethinking the rules you’ve felt, well, ruled by, and how to rewrite them to work for you. Consider this a kind of wardrobe edit—we’ll clear out the rule closet and decide what’s out of date, what fits, and what definitely doesn’t. And why.
Are you following rules you didn’t choose?
Who among us hasn’t snuck out at night, trespassed at a pool, handed a bouncer a fake ID? There’s an undeniable thrill that comes with getting away with breaking the rules on purpose.
But where things get tricky are the unwritten rules, the ones that we don’t know we’re breaking until too late. It may be as simple as no elbows on the table (what was that about, really?). Or as complicated as “Good people don’t have money.” Also: Nice girls stay quiet. Boys don’t cry. Mature adults get married and have children.
The risk is believing that you were ever supposed to follow them all, that one set of rules is as vital or as rigid as another. Say, for instance, that spouses are as requisite as seatbelts (they’re not).
The problem with these rules is that we don’t necessarily choose them; it’s more like we absorb them. And so compliance with those rules isn’t always cognizant or clear. In his book Persuasion IQ: The Ten Skills You Need to Get Exactly What You Want, sales pro and bestselling author Kurt Mortensen points out that many of the rules we follow aren’t the result of reflective thought or intentional choice.
“Rather, it comes through imitating what society teaches is appropriate, and what we have been exposed to at home, school, or work,” he writes. “In order to truly change, grow, and prosper, 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? It is time to take ownership of your beliefs.”
Let’s examine and rewrite some rules, right now.
What if you wrote the rules?
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Let’s take a look at what rules you’re following— and how to rewrite them
To get the most out of this exercise, take a few minutes away from the fray: Close your door or put your earbuds in, put your phone on silent—and face down.
List 1-3 rules that are currently making life harder for you. Think about rules that you chafe against, that make you think you’re doing something wrong. Maybe it’s the “rule” that you should have earned X amount of money at this point, or gotten married or bought a home by now. Which ones are you tired of adhering to or breaking?
Pick one of those rules and dive in a little deeper:
- Have you been complying with it? If so, why? And why are you feeling friction around it now? What do you think is the reason you have tried to adhere to it?
- What would happen if you no longer complied? Maybe you’d break it, or amend it. Either way, what in your mind are the consequences of changing it, and if so, why.
- Who says? Who’s the authority here, and how is the rule enforced? Why does this person, group or governing entity matter to you or in general?
- So what? What’s the worst possible thing that could happen if you ignored or changed it. And how likely is that thing to happen?
- What would life look like without this rule? What would your days or nights look and feel like? How does it affect your work, family, future, and any other things that matter to you.
- Time to rewrite the rule. Write the original rule below, and beneath that, a rewrite. A way that you can make it a fit for your life, your wants and needs.
I’ll give a real example from my own life, and it’s pretty low stakes, which makes it a good one to practice rewriting. I’ve long struggled to comply with the rule that “I’m no fun if I don’t stay out late.” My friends like to stay out later than me, and I always worry about being the buzzkill.
But whenever I’ve broken the rule in an attempt to “be more fun,” I haven’t actually had more fun. If my head hits the pillow 30 seconds after midnight, my next day is ruined, my energy shot. And I have reached an age where I now know for sure that an extra hour or two tonight isn’t worth the whole next day.
The consequences of going home earlier? Will my friends disown me? Will I miss the party of the century? Not likely. Still, while I wanted to go home, part of me wanted to identify as the fun one. And I had to weigh those two things: On one hand, serving my ego, on the other hand, serving my mind, body, and entire next day.
I also had to uncouple the idea of being “fun” (i.e., worth hanging out with) and being up late. And when you really think about it, those things have nothing to do with each other. You can absolutely be fun and not stay out late.
So rather than try to come up with some lame reason why I would have to be home before 11p, I now have a good one: I made a rule. I have enacted a personal policy. My rule is my reason, period the end.
Rewrite: I can be a great friend who’s fun to hang out with, and I can also go home before they do. My friends get it now. They can even tell when it’s time. “Terri’s about to leave,” they say. And they’re right. And they love me just the same.
What about work? Maybe you, like me, tend to work more hours than you have to or should. The old rule is “If I’m serious about my career, I work every free moment I have.”
Rewrite: If I’m serious about my career, I have to be serious about my life and my health. I must ensure that my body is in peak condition to take on any challenges, and that means I take time to exercise and sleep (you can see a recurring theme for me here). Feeling good and rested aligns with my values, and so does working, but you can’t do one at the expense of the other and expect to perform at your best.
Here’s another one: “By 35, you should be married.” The implied consequence being that if you don’t, it will be harder to find anyone and you probably won’t. (This is incorrect, btw.)
I wasn’t married at 30, 35, or 40, or 45. And the world did not end and no one kicked me out of the country. I made a decision, for me, that married life wasn’t for me.
You may very much want to be married, and it’s hard that it hasn’t happened yet. I respect that, too. So your rewrite might be: “By 35, I will decide what I really want in a partner, and remain open to meeting someone. With every year, I become more confident in myself, which makes connecting with people easier.”
Your turn. Write down the rule that’s in your way, and do a rewrite that aligns with your intention and your values, and is one you can stick to.
What will you do to enforce that rule? Aha–this is key. Because if you don’t comply with the rule you came up with, and have no way to enforce it, you might as well not have one.
Once you start taking a close look at the rules you’ve been following, and start questioning and revising them, you gradually start to see many of the rules for what they are—as Kurt Mortensen says, things we’ve simply been exposed to. Or, as I say, hand-me-down clothes that you’re told you must wear when you really, really don’t.
This is the beginning of a new way of not just living, but of seeing your life. And that’s when things begin to change.
What if you wrote your own rules?
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