TSR #9: Hard Rules

byHazard 2y9th Jan 20182 comments


This is part of a series of posts where I call out some ideas from the latest edition of The Strategic Review (written by Sebastian Marshall), and give some prompts and questions that I think people might find useful to answer. I include a summary of the most recent edition, but it's not a replacement for reading the actual article. Sebastian is an excellent writer, and your life will be full of sadness if you don't read his piece. The link is below.

Background Ops #9: Hard Rules


  • Examples
    • “Hell yes or no"
      • If you’re overcommitted, say no to everything that doesn’t make you say “Hell yes!”
    • Client standards
      • Don’t work with bad clients, and maybe only work for awesome clients.
    • Only work with people you admire
      • “If I worked with this person intensely 10+ hours per day for 14+ days straight and I was taking 3 days off to go relax on the beach, would I want them to go with me rather than be alone?”
  • Hard rules simplify decision making.
  • Banning certain foods (never eating cookies again).
  • Clean Separation
    • Work and play computer.
  • Rewrite better software instead of bug patching
  • Guidance
    • Make hard rules “easy to follow” by making them concrete and super clear cut.
    • Generalize skills
      • Quitting things in general
    • What are your needs? Can you get it better somewhere else?
  • Actionable Steps
    • Start thinking through why you do everything you do.
    • Gradually look to understand what needs a given activity is meeting.
    • Develop criteria for how you’ll meet those needs slowly, over time.
    • Build generalized skills like environment design, “the general skill of quitting things”, and introspection as to your motives on why you select activities.
    • Carefully select “hard rules” that make decisions for you automatically that are maximally healthy and life-affirming.
    • Ensure your hard rules are easy to follow. Don’t jump in too deep too fast.

Clear separation is a super useful idea. The work computer vs play computer example seems to draw out the key parts. First there is an acknowledgement that a given activity is trying to accomplish multiple things at once, and you'd be better served by doing them seperately. Second, there is a mechanism of seperation (two seperate computers) that makes it slightly effortful to switch gears, forcing you to consciously acknowledge when you are making the switch (as opposed to how you can reflexively get to reddit without ever having consciously chosen to do so).

One clear separation that I’ve been using for a while has been to make my breaks boring. It’s the same idea as lying on the ground. I allow myself to take breaks on a whim, but the breaks are only allowed to be stretching, walking, getting water, or going to the bathroom. Boring stuff that isn’t good a sucking me into an attention spiral. This has probably been one of the more useful simple things I’ve done to increase productivity and reduce stress.

Another clear separation I’ve made in the past year has been regarding spending time with people and working. When I first started university, I would do my homework with friends. Sometimes I’d even just work in the public lounge where people would be moving in and out. That was me going, “Well I want to get my work done, but I also want to be around people and I don’t want to miss anything.” Eventually, it become clear how much more time it was taking for me to do work when other people were around. I have since moved to basically doing all of my work alone in my room. I find that I can focus much more intensely, and get work done much more quickly. I also find it easier to hang out with friends, since I don’t also feel obligated to do work. Having a clear separation between work and hanging out has made both of those activities more fruitful for me.

Quitting easy things also strikes me as a useful habit. If you have a low value behaviour that you don’t really do that much, and it’s only sort of enjoyable, try making a hard rule to get rid of it all together. This gave me the kick in the butt to:

  • Delete the facebook app on my phone. I’m rarely use FB anyways, and when I do, it’s always profoundly “eh”. I’ve also logged out of FB on my laptop, and if I ever want to get back on and use it, I’ve got to re-login and immediately logout when I’m done.
  • Get rid of soda forever (unless someone will be incredibly offended if I don’t drink their soda). I almost never drink it anyways, and it’s always “eh” when I do.

Here some questions that might be useful for you:

  • Do you have any low value, not-super-enjoyable activities that you could benefit from making a hard rule of not doing them again?
  • What activities do you do that are trying to accomplish too much at once? What is a way you could cleanly separate the components so that both underlying goals get achieved more effectively?