Rethinking Your Rules

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.

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