Simple rules that conquer complexity are actually quite widespread. “Bees use them to find a nest, Tina Fey to produce a comedy show, burglars to choose a house to rob, and the 15th century Jesuits to explore different missions,” says Donald Sull, coauthor of the new book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World. He and his coauthor, Kathy Eisenhardt, looked at how people can benefit from the simple rules that successful businesses like Pixar and Google use to guide their activities. Eisenhardt shares her thoughts with Life Reimagined
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How do simple rules work in the context of relationships?
Simple rules are ideal for relationships because relationships are repeated interactions, not single events, so having rules make sense. Relationships are important, so they’reworth taking the time to create rules. And relationships are emotional, so rules are especially valuable since we are least likely to choose wisely when we get overly emotional.
Rules are useful for lots of relationships like with adult children—how to give advice, like never or only when they ask—with a spouse or significant other—who does which chores around the house—and with grandkids—house rules when they visit.
Can you apply your four traits of simple rules to a relationship?
Trait 1: Limit rules to just a handful. Two to five rules work best. If there are more rules, they are too easily forgotten and if fewer or no rules, then too chaotic and confusing. A few rules that visiting children can remember—like shoes off, no running or shouting in the house, okay to play with any of the sports equipment—makes the time more enjoyable for everyone.
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Trait 2: Tailor your rules to the person or organization using them. The best rules fit the circumstances. A couple that prefers plenty of independent time may benefit from we/me time rules like we do own activities until 4 p.m. every day. In contrast, another couple who enjoys lots of common interests may need not need we/me time rules but may benefit from rules about managing money.
Trait 3: The rules should apply to a well-defined activity or decision.
Rules work best when focused on activities that are particularly important for a healthy relationship like managing wealth, for example. A rule could be: If giving financial help to children, insist on formal written documents.
Trait 4: Provide clear guidance without being overly prescriptive.
Rules are best when they are specific about what to do but also provide flexibility. For example, there could be family reunion rules like we all get together on Christmas in our hometown and spend Mother’s Day in Chicago. For other holidays, you are on your own.
You say there are three things to consider when making simple rules: Determine what will move the needles for you; find the most critical bottleneck; and craft simple rules that work for you. What if trying to hack through the jungle of information or emotion just seems too daunting?
Yes, the three steps can seem daunting. But here are strategies to make them easier.
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For determining what will move the needles, there is no getting around that it takes time to figure out what will increase positives/reduce negatives. But there are tricks. One is to carve out some quiet time. One couple took a road trip for several days during which they re-negotiated the rules for household chores while still enjoying the vacation. Or ask a friend or family member for their insight; an outsider’s perspective can help you cut to the chase more quickly.
For finding the most critical bottleneck, speed this task by quickly listing 3 or 4 recurring activities that might be the culprit and then comparing how they affect your objectives. Comparison is quicker and easier than trying to identify the critical bottleneck right away. One mom quickly compared several possible activities in her relationship with her daughter-in-law before deciding to focus on the day when she first arrived for a multi-day visit; one newly single man analyzed several activities related to online dating before deciding to focus on the initial introduction.
For crafting rules that work for you, the good news is that perfect rules are not required. Roughly correct rules usually work at least moderately well and are clearly better than no rules at all. If you do want better rules, then try a few diverse information sources like a credible book or website, advice from one or two of knowledgeable friends, and tracking your own experience for a few days rather than trying to gather lots of information from everywhere and then getting overwhelmed.
When should you break the rules or modify them?
Consider modifying the rules when the current relationship is not working well. For example, change your rules about interacting with your challenging brother when those interactions become mostly unrewarding. Or if times have changed. Say, your adult children now have kids, or your spouse is no longer working. In either of these situations, it's usually time to change the rules.
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