We make rules for ourselves or others. Then we change them — or break them, or ignore them, or pile new rules on top.
This is a recipe for chaos. What we need is a Rule of Rules — a rule to govern all our rules.
And where can we turn to for a good model of doing this? I suggest professional sports leagues.
If you’re a sports fan, you know that the leagues tweak their rules almost every year. Last week, for example, the NFL nixed the sudden-death rule for post-season overtime games. The MLB also recently changed a bunch of rules, including a big one about the designated hitter. And before the current NBA season, the league adjusted how fouls are called.
This all follows a simple schedule: The league plays a season under whatever rules it has. During that time, fans and commentators and maybe even players will debate whether a rule should change, but nothing is actually changed until the season ends and the off-season begins. Then the rules are reviewed and possibly amended. Then a new season begins, and the cycle begins anew.
This is the sporting world’s Rule of Rules: The rules can change, but first they must be played by. A rule almost never changes mid-season.
Why is this relevant to average people? Why should we all, in effect, create our off-season review?
First, let’s talk about rules.
Whether or not we notice, we set a lot of rules for ourselves. We work 9 to 6. We don’t drink alcohol on weekdays. We take notes during meetings and send them out afterward. Whatever it is! Whether you think of them as hard rules, or just routines or habits or goals, these are the blocks that create structure in our lives.
Once we find structures that more or less work for us, it’s easy to get attached to them. Sometimes we get so comfortable in our routines that we don’t even notice when they stop working. Case in point: Pre-pandemic, so many managers refused to let people work from home — even though, as we all would learn, working from home can work pretty well.
What we need is a regularly scheduled moment of rule review — a way to put us in the rhythm of actively assessing what’s working for and what’s not.
But we also suffer from the opposite problem: We break our own rules constantly. We’ll declare a rule (or habit or process) and then abandon it at the first sight of trouble. As a parent, for example, I am constantly creating rules for my kids and then either bending or just straight-up forgetting them. I am sure I'm not alone here.
This isn’t fair — to us, or to anyone we expect to follow our rules. Because if we don’t follow our rules for long enough, we can't learn whether they work.
Rules need time to take root and take effect. If we can’t give them that, we might as well fly by the seat of our pants.
This is why I love the way sports leagues operate.
They benefit from a natural cycle of rule-setting: They play for a full season, during which time the rules stay the same. Then in the off-season, they take stock of what worked that year and what didn’t, and they adjust the rules accordingly.
Of course, regular human life does not operate the way seasonal sports do. But you can still create an established moment to step back and decide whether your own rules are working.
How can we create that structure? Here it is — the Rule of Rules! We need to create a rule about how long a rule is followed before it is reviewed and revised.
In a sports league, the Rule of Rules is that rules don't change during the season. Maybe your rule is you reassess every three or six months. Or maybe, when you try new things, it’s worth explicitly treating it as an experiment with a specific expiration date. I just interviewed a woman whose company adopted the four-day workweek, and that’s exactly how they got there: They treated it as a one-month experiment, then reviewed how it went, renewed it for another month, and repeated and refined until it became permanent.
There’s no rule for how the Rule of Rules must be written. Take a look at your own rhythms, and at the natural pausing points in work and life, and your cadence will emerge.
Also, the Rule of Rules doesn’t have to be unnecessarily rigid. In 2019, for example, the NFL made a rare and very hyper-specific rule change just before the playoffs. When something's clearly broken, the Rule of the Rule of Rules can be that the rules can change!
This way, you can divide your own life into seasons and understand clearly what your needs are and how to address them — and how your rules need to evolve alongside changing circumstances.
Maybe work-from-home worked for your team last year when you were just a few people, and now that you’ve grown, you need to introduce some office time. Maybe a mandated morning meeting doesn’t work for a group that’s now mostly night owls. The only way to cater to those changing needs is to pay attention to them — and look, now you have a system!
If it turns out any part of this new system doesn’t work for you? Make a time to review it, and then change it. That’s the whole point.