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How to Use "Always Rules" to Reduce Daily Stress

A simple tool to help life run smoother.

Key points

  • A heuristic is a rule that produces a good outcome most of the time.
  • Heuristic rules become automatic behaviors that don't require much effort. Useful heuristics can help you reduce self-sabotage.
  • To help with your self-regulation, parenting, work, or relationships, look for how simple, specific rules could work.
Christian Buehner/Unsplash
Source: Christian Buehner/Unsplash

First, let me explain what an "always rule" is.

An always rule is a type of contextual habit. The concept refers to the behavior you always do in a particular context. Many, many potential applications can reduce stress.

For example, I have an always rule that "I always take cold water whenever I go anywhere with my child, whether walking or in the car."

Why do I have this rule?

She's six. Asking her if she'd like me to bring water isn't a reliable strategy. Neither is suggesting she have a drink of water before we leave. Even if I do these things, she'll often ask me if I've brought water while we're out and become grumpy and dehydrated if I haven't.

So, everywhere we go, I take a soft cooler bag with a couple of icepacks and bottles of water.

The rule removes the decision-making, and because it's a habit, the behavior starts to require less self-control over time.

What makes this a type of contextual habit?

The context that triggers the habit is "going out with my child." It doesn't matter if we do this daily, weekly, or three times a day. Whenever that contextual trigger happens, the habit happens.

Habits have lots of benefits but, often, people only think about daily habits. Time of day is one type of context. Many other contexts can be used as habit triggers, but these are often overlooked.

An "always rule" is also a type of heuristic.

A heuristic is a rule that produces a good outcome most of the time. It's not guaranteed to produce an ideal outcome every time, but the aim is that it's better than ad hoc decision-making. It saves the energy of decision-making and prevents forgetting.

What are some other applications?

You can be extremely creative here! I have lots of "always rules" that I've accumulated over my adult life. I've written about some before.

  • A driving-related example.
  • If I feel slighted or otherwise annoyed or anxious upon reading an email, I re-read it after 24 hours. Why? Usually, I realize my perception of the email was skewed. I've often read hostility, lack of respect, or lack of friendliness into the email that wasn't actually there.
  • I always grab a big clip when I open a large bag of chips so that I can close them up whenever I've eaten enough. (This works better than expecting myself to hunt for the clip once I've already eaten part of the bag. That would likely result in continued grazing.)

How could an "always rule" help you?

  • First, think of any always rules you already use. You probably have some but haven't necessarily labeled them as such. This will help you recognize how, over time, these rules become automatic, almost unconscious behaviors and no longer require much effort. That's how you know when a behavior has reached the level of being a habit.
  • Next, observe your patterns as you go about your life. Look for how simple, specific rules could help your life run smoother and help with your self-regulation, parenting, work, or relationships. Useful heuristics can help you reduce self-sabotage.
  • Make sure the rules are specific enough. The contextual trigger should be very specific, and the behavior should be too.
  • Don't pick anything that you're not confident you could keep up with. That's unnecessary when there is so much low-hanging fruit you could pick. You should feel 95 percent confident that maintaining the rule would be easy for you, not disruptive, and not stretch your self-control.
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