Updated on 08.27.11

Rethinking Your Rules

Trent Hamm

Right now, as you’re reading this, you’re completely in control of this moment, limited only by your absolute physical limitations.

You can choose to keep reading this article. Or, you can choose to go outside and take a walk. You can choose to get in your vehicle and drive to the next state. You can choose to close your web browser and start playing a game.

Most of the limits we put on our actions are completely self-imposed. We decide not to drive to another state because you don’t feel like going on a long drive at this moment. We decide not to take a walk because we’re a bit tired (or a bit lazy). The reasons for not acting on many of the options before us go on and on.

Here’s the thing: we’re conditioned from birth to do this. We are so good at just eliminating vast numbers of potential options that we don’t even think about it. We reduce our nearly infinite options down to a small set of them and make our judgments based on those handful of options. Even worse, we often look at others who make choices outside that small set as different and often mistrust them.

This is a mistake, and it’s because of this mistake that it’s hard for many of us to find great financial success in life.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. If I said that you were going to spend a day with your three closest friends in the world and you were going to plan out that day, what would you plan? You’d probably come up with a good handful of ideas, but instead of continuing to brainstorm, you’d probably immediately move on to deliberating between those options.

This phenomenon of coming up with just a few options (usually the ones that are most familiar to you) and then immediately moving on to deliberation between them happens again and again.

It happens at the grocery store. There might be twenty or thirty different kinds of salsa, but based on some criteria unique to you, you quickly knock those options down to just a couple that you’ll consider buying.

It happens at home. You have thirty minutes to fill up. What you do with those minutes likely comes from one of the first few ideas that comes to you.

It happens at work. What needs to be done next? You make that decision from one of the first ideas that comes to you.

Here’s a big secret, though. The best idea rarely comes from those first few ideas you’d come up with in the moment. Those first few ideas come almost entirely from the set of experiences you’ve built up in your life, from the people and the events and the media sources that have shaped and influenced you, and not from any sort of depth of thought.

Over the last year or two of my life, I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about the most common choices that I make. When I stop at the store to pick up a jar of salsa, why do I immediately eliminate most of the choices? Are there really good reasons for why I eliminate most of them? I’ll end up thinking about and studying the choice I make when it comes to salsa for a good hour trying to figure out why I’d make that choice.

Now, naturally, it probably isn’t worth an hour of my life to focus on such minor things. Who cares, right?

The reason for doing things like this is that it forces me to re-think all of the assumptions I use in my life. When I think about the assumptions I use for something as mundane as salsa, I wind up hitting upon assumptions in all areas of life.

I’m more attracted to labels that are colorfully designed. I tend to ignore labels that are in plain black-and-white. I will almost always examine items that are at eye level for me first. If I find something that meets the above criteria, I have a strong tendency to grab it. I immediately have the sensation of tasting certain flavors or smelling certain aromas when I see that word used.

All of these factors come up when I think about how I buy salsa, but these factors affect an awful lot of the purchases I make and other life decisions I make. When looked at independently, some of these factors are really poor tools for making smart decisions. An awful lot of generics and lower-priced items come with duller labels but contain a fantastic and low-cost product. The eye-level shelf is often a bad place to start shopping.

However, this doesn’t mean that rules themselves are a bad idea. They’re needed for speeding things up so that we can make quick decisions. The key is to make sure the rules you are using are good, sound rules. Do they have a basis in reality and in the things you actually value?

So, what are some good rules of thumb that work for my own shopping purposes? What should I do when I see “salsa” on my grocery list – and what “rules” should I use to make great decisions?

There are a lot of things I can do. Look at the labels for ingredients I don’t recognize. Look for the lowest priced option. Remember a particular type or two that we’ve had a great experience with in the past – or even maintain a booklet where I list these things.

These tactics are part of a new set of rules – ones that are more carefully considered. They result in better purchases, better use of my time, better use of my money, and eventually a better life.

They’re challenging to implement. We rely so much on the filters and rules we use for breaking down complicated choices that those rules and filters are deeply ingrained in us. The only way to correct them is to spend some time thinking about them and recognizing how they’re wrong, then finding new ones and actively trying to use them for our day-to-day lives.

The challenge is a constant one, as it looks at every aspect of our lives. However, the rewards are incredible in terms of money, health, time, relationships, and life enjoyment.

Rethink your rules, always.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. kc says:

    Agonizing over life’s small – indeed, tiny – decisions (which jar of salsa to purchase, for instance) is a great way of making something that shouldn’t be stressful, very stressful.

    Buy the brand you enjoy and get on with life. Life’s big decisions merit careful consideration – not what kind of salsa you want to buy.

    If your “new set of rules” require an hour to figure out what kind of soap, or jelly, or salsa you ought to buy, you need to reconsider your rules.

  2. chuck says:

    do you have a better example then salsa? i’m not too worried if i buy the wrong salsa.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    “The best idea rarely comes from those first few ideas you’d come up with in the moment.”

    Totally disagree – at least for those of us who have been around a long time with a lifetime of experience to draw from. Often the first ideas are those that are informed by experience & pop up before we have a time to second-guess or screen out based on our established preferences.

  4. Steven says:

    I thought this article would take a different direction, but nevertheless…yes, we all have choices. And when I think about the choices I have in life, I know that I could be sitting on a tropical beach halfway around the world. I could be living in Colorado (I love climbing mountains, hiking, and rock climbing.) I could be homeless. It’s really a matter of making the choices to create my reality…within the limitations of the society and law, of course.

  5. lurker carl says:

    After reading this article, I don’t think Trent understands that lack of experience isn’t the same as immaturity.

  6. Debbie M says:

    I think people would mostly do this when they start to feel that something they’re doing isn’t working for them. Instead of just letting this vague feeling sit, take the opportunity to re-think how you’re making decisions.

    I think everyone does this when they find they aren’t liking their job as much as they used to, or their boyfriend or girlfriend. Sometimes when you’re tired of living paycheck to paycheck it’s good to look over your spending decisions.

    So, I think with the salsa, I’d only do it if I often found myself opening that jar of salsa with anticipation only to find myself disappointed with the aroma or flavor or something.

    When you find yourself unexpectedly disappointed, that’s a good time to turn to this strategy.

  7. Jim says:

    “The best idea rarely comes from those first few ideas you’d come up with in the moment.”

    This is a wide open statement with nothing to back it up. I realize much of this subject can’t be empirical, but geez!
    I think Malcolm Gladwell would disagree with you, as well. See Blink.

  8. Tizzle says:

    I am surprised so few people have a reason for these decisions. I buy the salsa that tastes best, or sometimes costs least. I choose it because I’ve tried the others. I realize that’s an illustrative example, but to further it, my question is – don’t many or most people do this? I have a reason for nearly everything I buy.

    I also disagree with your statement “The best idea…” but I’d be willing to read studies showing this is true. I do think it might be true in the context of self-examination, but not more broadly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *