Have Goals? Then Keep it Simple

When we resolve to eat healthier, read more, watch less television, or become more productive at work, it’s hard to actually follow through and become that better person we want to be. What’s easy is avoiding the hard projects at work while we check Facebook and email first, or grabbing a quick cookie instead of a healthy lunch when we’re pressed for time.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has said that the key to changing behavior is making rules we won’t break too quickly. That means making rules specific enough to follow, but flexible enough to break once in a while without totally collapsing into the dark side – say, after eating a muffin we shouldn’t have. Saying “I’m going to diet” is too general, he says, but “No desserts during the week” is likely to be more effective.

A new book by Kathleen Eisenhardt and Donald Sull called Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World says that in our world of overabundant data and distractions, simple clear rules sometimes work better than complex, elaborate solutions. Some simple rules can help us get things done and execute tasks better-- these are process rules. Others can help us make hard decisions quickly or under pressure by setting boundaries or prioritizing choices. After all, there’s no decision fatigue involved when there are clear guidelines.

A good example of a simple rule that the authors give are the three dietary guidelines Stanford football players follow: 1) eat breakfast; 2) stay hydrated; and 3) eat as much as you want of anything that can be picked, plucked, or killed. An example of a boundary-setting rule in a pressured situation would be Mt. Everest expedition leader Scott Fischer’s rule that, “If you aren’t on the top by 2:00, it’s time to turn around.” (Unfortunately, he ended up breaking that rule with tragic consequences in 1996.)

But setting the right rules takes some careful crafting. The authors say that when we define the objectives we’re trying to achieve, we often make them too vague. Objectives need to be specific. In addition, a number of conditions are needed for rules to work effectively: We can only follow a limited number of rules at a time. Rules have to be customized to our situations. They can only apply to well-defined activities. And there needs to be latitude for discretion.

We all know there are situations where rules do not work. In finance and investment, there are plenty of problems that are too complex to be handled by easy guidelines. But in a world rich with choice and information, rules can be a start. A simple behavioral rule to save 15% of every paycheck can get you pretty far toward a healthy retirement without doing anything too fancy at all.

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