Hard Rules versus Soft Rules

Free choice is simultaneously a blessing and a curse.

Don’t get me wrong, I am as libertarian as (or maybe more than…) the next guy and I love the ability to freely choose things for myself.  I understand, though, that with choices come responsibilities.

In my personal struggles, not only with the primal lifestyle, but also with other areas of my life, my problems always come when I give myself any chance to deliberate on the details. Therefore, I give myself hard rules to stick to. Why? If I make every marginal decision about whether or not I am going to eat this cookie or eat this bread, I am likely to give in. I am weak and I know it. Soft rules such as, ” it is okay to eat this occasionally” or “just one cookie a day won’t hurt, 80/20, right?” do not work for me.

Soft rules are dangerous for two reasons:

1. We are likely to go overboard when we let ourselves decide whether or not to do certain things. Whether we eat too many cheat meals or exercise too little, it is probably a result of rationalizing our decision in the moment. Many of us are focused on the short-term and do not do well giving up benefits in the short-term for benefits in the long-term. This cookie or that bowl of pasta might taste delicious now, but too many “just this once” moments ruin our healthy eating and move us farther away from our goals.

2. Rationalizing marginal decisions time and again can easily become a habit. Like my driving to the store example, we frequently do things not because we want to or need to, but because we are used to doing them. Let’s face it, are we really eating that cookie because we truly want it, or because it is part of our “20%” that we allow ourselves each day (a.k.a. because we are used to doing it)? [I am grateful to my girlfriend Amanda for bringing up this point.]

Hard rules that you set and don’t deviate from solve the above two problems. Each time you are confronted with some small marginal decision, you don’t have to think about it. Your rule already made the decision for you. This allows you to easily stick to your resolutions without trying to weigh the possible costs and benefits (or, more realistically, rationalize little things). In short, hard rules keep you from developing habits that are potentially detrimental to your goals while simultaneously economizing on brain power.

Maybe you are a person who can use soft rules and stick with them. Soft rules might work for you and you might be happier because you use them. If you are one of those people, I applaud you. You are a much stronger person than I am. For everyone like me who might be struggling with taking a few too many cheats during meals and snacks or a few too many days off from your exercise routine, try trashing the soft rules and replacing them with hard rules. Resolve right now to solve your problem and stick with it. Examples: “I will not eat any grain products this month.” “I will exercise every Monday and Thursday morning.”

If you want to stick with your newly formed hard rules, I suggest you use the Pick Four system or Ben Stafford’s tips on creating and destroying habits and getting things done.

Are you a fan of soft rules? Do you think I am wrong? Let’s hash it out in the comments. I am always open to suggestions and criticism.

Or, are you interested in setting up systems to keep you on track and shield you from your own excuses? Let me know in the comments and I will set up a time to talk with you about what I am currently doing in my life with that sort of thing and we can talk about how I can help you get started implementing systems in your life.


About Chuck Grimmett

Web consultant, photographer, and problem solver. I also cook a lot and am learning to make data visualizations.
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7 Responses to Hard Rules versus Soft Rules

  1. Staffaction says:

    Chuck – nice post. And good timing…just seconds ago I turned on my phone ago to make some moves in my chess.com app. I finally said, “enough”. I am going to stop wasting time by playing chess ever 2 minutes. There are better things to devote my energy, mental power, and spare seconds too. So I deleted the app. Gone. Nice hard rule. granted, there are a million diversions out there, but at least I took care of a personal, important one. (Then I logged onto the primal challenge, a good diversion!)

    • Bob Ewing says:

      Ha! It’s true that we have to pick our diversions well. Chess is a great way to exercise your brain though. (One of Mark Sisson’s 10 Rules of Living: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/definitive-guide-primal-blueprint/)

      As you know, here at The Primal Challenge we encourage folks to unplug from their glowing rectangles every now and again, and just play.

      I have a buddy that’s quite good at chess (competitive tournament player, 2200+ ELO) and he said this to me recently: “I think ‘feeling’ by touching the pieces helps better with pattern recognition than ‘reading.'”

      He suggests folks play chess on on actual chess sets whenever possible. Just a roundabout way of suggesting that you can get some quality chess playing in without always having to divert to your phone or computer.

  2. geezerguy46 says:

    Chuck, thank you for this insightful post – it really resonates with me. I started off great with this Paleo/Primal thing, dropping excess weight fast and feeling better and better. Then I got complacent thanks to the 80/20 rule…. which gradually became the 10/90 rule for me. I lost (or actually regained) everything I had accomplished. Then I stumbled onto an app called “Lose It!” (www.loseit.com). The app allows me to EASILY track what I eat. The only thing I need to be diligent about is logging EVERYTHING that I put into my mouth – this is my one HARD RULE and so far I am able to follow it. Lose It! gives me instant feedback. I can’t “forget” what I ate earlier in the day and overdo it at night. When dining out or in someone else’s home, I can’t have “just that one little piece of bread” from the warm breadbasket because Lose It! will shove it back in my face when I look at my consumption stats for the day. I love this little app but didn’t know WHY it is working so well for me until I read your post this morning. Now I know it is because it is forcing me to obey some HARD RULES about my eating.

    (NOTE: I have no vested financial interest in the app – it is free – and there are probably many others that will do the same thing, but I found this one and it’s working for me so this is why I tell you about it.)

  3. Bob Ewing says:

    Really good post Chuck. I’ve been thinking about this. I was reading The Logic of Life recently and the author had a good section that tied game theory into overcoming addiction, and how the brain works differently in different situations. The author argues we essentially have two brains, a quick-emotion-impulse brain and a logical-thinking-planning brain.

    Evolution required both brains (when the monster in the woods shows up and starts chasing you, you don’t have time to think, you gotta start moving pronto) but the result is some tension in modern life. One key to overcoming obstacles, it seems, is to find a way to empower your logical brain to take control of your impulse brain. Hard rules seem to be a way to do that.

    “Sure that cookie looks good. My impulse brain is releasing chemicals right now that are really pressuring me to grab that cookie and eat it. Logically, I know that I shouldn’t do it. But my impulse brain is really amping up the pressure. How about this: I will allow myself three full cheat meals a week. Whenever my impulse brain tempts me, I’ll just write down what the tempting food was. And then when my cheat meal comes around, I can have the food then if I choose. That way, my logical brain controls the food going into my brain, not my impulse brain.”

    On a personal note, I find it easy to cheat during certain phases. (Say, after completing a marathon, I’ll give myself cheat meals which can encourage more cheat meals.) When I went 100% a couple months back, I was able to shift my mind and squash any impulse to cheat. No cheating was allowed. It became pretty easy, and made me feel strong. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to have a cheat meal at the end of the month. But the 100% — a very hard rule — locked me in and made me feel strong.

    One potential downside is what happens if you break a hard rule. It’s super important to make sure the hard rule is was one that can be obtainable and obeyed. And IS obeyed. Sticking to hard rules results in progress and increased confidence. Breaking them results in failure and self-doubt. Once failure and self-doubt kick in, they can quickly create a terrible downward spiral.

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