From the day I could talk, I knew I wanted to be seven. I was named after the famous western about a wandering cowboy. My father talked up what an honor it was to share a name with this cool, strong silent type and I couldn’t wait to see the man for myself. It was determined that I’d be old enough to watch Shane on my seventh birthday. When the day finally came, I had already decided this was my favorite movie. I sat and watched, more captivated by the glory of new privilege than any concept of the storyline.
Youth is spent in a constant quest for new experiences and fewer rules. We pine for the day we can watch R rated movies, stay up late, drive wherever we want, or go have a drink at a bar. Every new freedom is just a stepping stone to the day we are finally independent of any restrictions of parental dependency. The cruel twist is that if we are ready for this day, we’ll know that good living can only come from our own discipline. We are going to have to create our own rules or watch as mindless consumption and immaturity lead us down a path of regret and missed opportunities.
Most rebel from making these rules, however, believing them to be prison bars. Paradoxically, they are the opposite. Intentional guidelines and willpower free us from the common impulse enslavement where short-term pleasure is prioritized over long-term satisfaction and fulfillment.
As Jocko Willink has famously said: “discipline equals freedom”. Sacrifice is a non-negotiable of life. Discipline means choosing what really matters and intentionally sacrificing in the prioritization of a greater purpose.
Every successful person has rules they live by, whether that means daily exercise, having family dinners without TV, or always doing the day’s hardest task first. Personal rules are more important now than ever, as brilliant marketers embed themselves into every corner of our lives selling cars, sweets, drugs, television shows, or anything we could possibly be made to believe we “need”, or “deserve”. Even the digital media world this article exists within is predicated on a model of selling “human brain time”. Mindless consumption rules the day. As pleasures are promoted everywhere and society constantly tells us you have to do this or that, sanity can only come from boundaries.
With a biology inclined to gorge and rest and a world that makes this easier than ever, health can only follow a set of personal rules. Success is not restricted to only one path. We must personalize and prioritize based on our unique personality and needs. Still, there are a few boundaries I think are most freeing:
Don’t Count Calories – This sounds like the opposite of good advice. I’ve basically started off the health rules section by eliminating restrictions. Yet, in all my time working in the fitness industry, I have never seen someone lose weight by counting calories and then keep it off for more than a year. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it isn’t the norm.
This includes weight watchers, counting your macros, or any diet that revolves around meticulous tracking, especially when they are set up as 20 or 30-day fixes. These guess at daily calorie expenditure and ignore the metabolism X-factor while trying to manipulate calorie totals rather than grow to understand lifestyle habits conducive to long-term health. Nutrition is complicated and emotional. For most, my Only Diet that Works approach is all the health advice they need, at least until their habits have become a lifestyle of a few years.
No Added/Artificial Sugars – The evidence is in and added sugar is killing us. Despite its ubiquity in U.S. society, particularly around kids, It is as addictive as a drug with tremendous negative consequences. Want to make long-term health easy? Don’t count calories, but eliminate added sugars. You’ll eat mostly real food and the rest takes care of itself.
Intermittent Fasting – This is not for everyone, but I have found it most freeing and not just for the health benefits. Most people intermittent fast by finishing dinner and not eating again for 16 hours. For me it means dinner is done by 7 and I don’t eat lunch until 11 or 12. In the mornings I only drink black coffee.
At one point, I’d have thought this impossible, but I became intrigued after repeatedly noticing top performers, like Tim Ferriss and Pavel Tsatsouline had adopted this lifestyle. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to strike at a very human experience for which I’d never let myself become comfortable. I’d always been a hunger wimp convinced that I would melt if I didn’t eat every 4 hours.
Humans throughout history have faced food scarcity and had to operate, usually hunt, after significant periods of time without food. I am amazed how my relationship with food has changed. I now understand that hunger is a feeling that comes and goes. Jumping into a project almost always eliminates any consciousness of hunger and when I do eat, flavors pop like never before.
I now work out in a fasted state and feel far more alert and focused. Like good rules tend to do, it has freed me of some dependency. I’ve poked holes in the belief that I must have food to operate, thus allowing me to live in more flow.
Own the first 30 minutes of Your Day
This is essential for staying on vision and keeping sanity in the 21st century. If you are like most people, you wake up and check your phone. Immediately you are being pulled by the tricks of the attention economy rather than your own intent. More than likely there is an email or a message and you are thrown into reactionary mode. My suggestion is no phone in the first hour. Whether you use this time for movement, meditation, reading, or journaling, it has tremendous potential to set the momentum and intention for your day.
Email and Messaging Boundaries
We waste a lot of time checking email and messages. Like moths to the flame, we’re subconsciously drawn to them, often unwittingly. Our neurobiology has been hacked. We crave the dopamine from scratching the messenger itch and exacerbate the issue by keeping our message alerts dinging and vibrating against us all day.
Other than the mental and emotional health consequences of our constant partial attention, they also rob our productivity as we never get into a state of deep work. The solution is to silence all the message alerts. Go to phone settings and eliminate sound and visual pop-ups. If people really need you, they will call. Then set up specific times in each day for email, phone messaging, and social media.
By batching these items in a couple time frames, you will waste for fewer mental calories transitioning in and out of reaction mode and will be far more focused on the tasks that really matter.
This isn’t about being rude, it is setting boundaries to reinforce how you want to live your life. What would you do if you weren’t addicted to social media? Read more? Go on more walks with your wife and dog? Talk to your kids about their homework? Mindful tasks usually trump the mindless.
Rules for Kids
Here I just want to list a few that I think have been lost from most parenting and yet have tremendous benefit to creating autonomous, inquisitive, balanced citizens:
- Homework done first when they get home from school.
- No TV until after dinner. Go outside!
- Weekly chores must be done to earn privileges such TV and eventually the phone and driving.
- Save 10% of income.
- No phone until 8th grade. No phone zones: outside, in car, in bed, at dinner, in group activities
Break the Rules
Be sure to think outside the box and don’t blindly accept other people’s rules-including mine!. There is no shortage of peer pressure telling you to act a certain way and most of it is just the imposition of other’s interests. You can quickly find yourself miles away from where you wanted to be if you live only to make satisfy expectations.
Why do you have to go to every 5 years old’s birthday party in your kid’s class? Why does your child need dessert every day? Why do you have to put your 9-year-old on a select baseball team that practices 30 minutes away and travels every weekend in the summer?. Be a critical consumer and question other people’s view of reality.
Also, unless you have a full-blown addiction of some sort, it’s a good idea to break your own rules occasionally. I like to plan these times and days. Friday I’m going to have pizza and drink wine. When I visit my brother next month, we are going to a diner for breakfast and crushing pancakes. On a random rainy Sunday, my wife and I might binge a couple episodes of Game of Thrones. Sometimes you’ve got to break the rules.