Why rules are better than habits

“My nights during my last five years of my drinking always ended with the same ritual: I’d pour any beers left in the refrigerator down the sink,” said Stephen King, the author of my favorite book, The Stand. “If I didn’t, they’d talk to me as I lay in bed until I got up and had another. And another. And one more.”

I sincerely hope you don’t have the same struggles with alcohol as King. But we all have our Achilles’ heel. Perhaps yours is television or junk food. You know you should turn off the television and do some activity, but just as you’re about to leave your living room a pizza commercial comes on and you sit back down onto your comfortable couch. You are a little hungry, you think. Maybe you’ll just have a quick snack. And then a snooze. Before you know it you’ve lost all motivation.

Such is life. We are constantly fighting temptations that try to derail our best intentions at every turn. Let’s be honest. The obstacles in life far exceed the easy paths to success. Obstacles can knock you off guard. They can destroy all of your hard work, even years of it, in just seconds.

Chocolate, alcohol, pizza, lust, power, greed. They all pull us in the wrong direction.

How do you make the right decisions to overcome the temptations and obstacles in life so that you can succeed at work and at home? What can we do to be more like the transformation champion and less like the weak-willed human that we are?

It starts with your rules and creating your to-do list. But we also need something else. Our temptations are so pervasive; our flaws, so easily exposed. Our weaknesses make us so vulnerable. Humans, it sometimes seems, are built to fail.

The answer is to have a NOT-to-do list.

Having a not-to-do list is a powerful way to support the structure in your day and the freedom you want for your life. There is only so much that you can do, and do well. We must all say NO to things in life. If we didn’t, we’d all be working 24 hours a day and it would drive us all to an early grave.

Be clear about what you will and will not do each day. Be clear about what you will not do for success. Some items are easy. You will not lie, cheat, and steal. Those don’t necessarily need to be written down. But you need to be clear that you:

  • Do not hit the snooze button when you wake-up.

  • Do not check email first thing in the morning.

  • Do not answer every phone call that comes in at all hours of the day.

  • Do not mindlessly surf the Internet.

  • Do not waste time gossiping.

  • Do not argue with colleagues about non-work-related topics.

  • Do not consume food or drink that makes you tired or unwell.

You will need to add specific items that identify your individual weaknesses and the obstacles that come your way each day. You must make a list of not-to-do items so that you do not succumb to temptation in the morning when your willpower and discipline are strongest. The morning is the greatest opportunity you will have to make progress. This is where you must win the battle for your day and the war for your future.

Make an honest assessment of what will throw you off track. Identify these interlopers and banish them from your battlefield. The best way to avoid any item on your not-to-do list is to implement rules that make it all but impossible to do the wrong thing. If you have a system, it will make the right actions automatic. That is how you win the morning and have a Perfect Day.

Be strong and build your clear and concise not-to-do list. Add to it when you find an obstacle that is significantly sucking away your time. You will also find it helpful to identify two solutions for each not-to-do obstacle, should you find yourself giving into temptation. This will give your day more structure, and allow you to earn more freedom for your family, friends, and hobbies.

Be thorough with your list and ruthless with your time. You can’t do everything. Every wasteful activity in life robs you of moments you could spend focusing on your family, friends, and health. You must draw the line somewhere. Cut out the minutiae, win your morning, control your day, and know what you will NOT do.

If you want to be productive and successful, you can’t let your worst behaviors become your habits. Avoiding the wrong things, as Warren Buffett said, is just as important as taking action on your big priorities in life. If you find yourself in a rut, doing the same wrong things over and over again, then you must take on the task of spending time in introspection.

Often it is not heroic actions that bring us success. It is more about simply avoiding temptation and keeping out of trouble. It’s what we are able to avoid that allows us to stay on track and achieve superior results. For example, a dieter who can stay away from a Pizza Hut buffet will make greater progress than a jogger who goes to Pizza Hut and rewards themselves with a 2,000-calorie meal after their daily run. An investor who refuses to put money into risky investments won’t lose their nest egg. An alcoholic who stays out of bars will have an easier time staying sober

If you don’t want to eat potato chips, don’t put them in a bowl within arm’s reach or store them in plain sight. Hide them away in your cupboards, or better yet, keep them out of your house. For most people, if it’s in the house, we’ll eat it. So you must simply keep temptation out of the house just like a recovering alcoholic must stay out of bars. You must ruthlessly eliminate temptations from your day.

You have the systems and strength to overcome the snooze button, to say no to alcohol, to make the right choices at dinner, to protect your mornings and get your work done first thing in the day. You can win your days when you plan ahead – not only for what to do right but also for what to avoid. When you combine a specific plan with a will to win, a never-give-up attitude, and of course action, you will overcome temptations and make the right decisions.

You can navigate your way to success through the landmines that the world has set up in your way. You just need to be prepared. Take five minutes tonight and create that plan. List your weaknesses. Then identify two solutions to beat each one.

Eliminating temptations may require going to extremes as you break the hold of your addictions. Such is the level of effort required to get free of bad habits. Once you do, your rules and newly developed automatic actions will take over to protect you and help you make the right decisions.

You must have rules to address your most offensive behaviors. For the dieter struggling with night eating, you could have a rule that you do not eat after a certain time at night, or that you go twelve hours between dinner and breakfast. For the writer who wants to finish their first book, you could have a rule that you write for ninety minutes first thing in the morning. For the person who wants to break a bad habit, you could create a modified version of my tenth rule (“I will not be the person I don’t want to be…”) to address your shortcomings.

When you commit to your rules, you’ll have greater strength to overcome temptation. Rules are stronger than willpower. Rules are better than habits. Rules are essential to your success.

Deliver yourself from temptation, remove the bad habits from life, replace them with positive rituals and strict rules, and you’ll be on track to better days fast.