Simple Rules

Summary Written by John Petrone
"Simple rules are shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information."

- Simple Rules, page 5

The Big Idea

Increase your personal value

"Personal value consists of the gap between those activities that bring you the most happiness and those that keep you from enjoying life to the fullest."- Simple Rules, page 147

Although doing more of what we love and less of what we don’t seems like common sense, many people don’t follow thru with this. Maybe they are overwhelmed by the process or just don’t know where to start. This is where simple rules can help increase follow-through.

Figuring out a good place to start can be difficult. The authors suggest a few thought-provoking questions to get going:

  • What aspect of your life do you most want to improve?
  • What activities bring you the greatest happiness and sense of well-being?
  • Which aspects of your life cause you the most fear, stress, or anxiety?
  • If you look back in five years, what will you regret not changing?
  • How might a trusted friend, spouse, or loved one answer these questions for you?

Based on the answers to the above questions, try to narrow it down to a more specific objective and see if you can identify a bottleneck. The authors describe a bottleneck as “something that stands in the way of achieving one of your personal goals.”

We’ve identified our objectives and bottlenecks and are now ready to move on to creating our own simple rules.

Insight #1

Create your own simple rules

"Willpower is a reservoir, not a river, and when it runs out (as it often does at the end of a long day), rules can be effective tools for imposing limits on behavior."- Simple Rules, page 150

Crafting your personalized simple rules will increase your chances of following through on your action plans created during the step above. Where do you start when attempting to create your own simple rules? Sull and Eisenhardt recommend investing some time to research multiple sources, such as reaching out to role models for advice and ideas, finding pertinent information in books or simply reflecting on past personal experience for figuring out what didn’t work in the past.

Some basic requirements for good rules: they should be easy to remember, few in number and provide concrete guidance. One of the examples provided in the book walks us through the decision-making for someone using an online dating site who needed to streamline potential dating opportunities. His bottleneck was reviewing profiles and writing introductory messages to prospects. It was taking too much time with mixed results. He settled on ‘How’s it going?’, which, based on a study, triggered a high a response rate from online daters. The salutation was short, easy to remember and took minimal time to write as he was browsing prospects.

Simple rules are also ideal with recurring activities and in situations where there are more alternatives than available resources. Since rules also function well with channeling willpower, they are great for activities related to diet, exercise and saving money.

The authors recommend keeping track of how well the rules are working. Sometimes they may have to be tinkered with to see what needs to change in order to get better results and increase compliance.

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Insight #2

Simplify to increase compliance

"Complicated solutions can overwhelm people, increasing the odds that they will stop following the rules."- Simple Rules, page 13

The reason that complex rules can be so overwhelming is that many times they try to “anticipate every contingency and dictate what to do in each scenario, thereby reducing people to automatons who do what they are told.” But in organizations and society, situations arise that can’t be predicted and people may need to react or respond on the spot.

The authors also cite a study on personal tax compliance that was undertaken in 45 countries. The conclusion was that the best predictor of tax compliance was the complexity of the tax code, regardless of tax rates. In other words, the tax code with the fewest complex regulations also had the highest compliance. That is truly amazing considering that today’s governments are fiscally challenged and this would be a great way to raise much-needed funds.

The key to success in simplifying is to limit the number of rules or requirements that need to be followed. Not only is this practical and efficient, but according to Sull and Eisenhardt, having a limited number of rules “simplifies the cognitive organization of the brain.” It is consistent with the way our brains are hardwired to operate. We were built for simplicity.

Although simple rules help maintain a strict focus on what matters most, simplicity is not easy. Steve Jobs said it best when he expressed that “You have to work hard to get your thinking clear to make it simple.” This great book demonstrated the practical benefits of simplicity and how to incorporate it in our everyday lives. It is up to us to do the heavy lifting and create some simple rules to reach our targets. What’s your personal value and what rules will you create to increase it?

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Donald Sull

Don Sull teaches strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He was formerly a Professor at London Business School and Harvard University, where he earned his bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. The Economist and Fortune have identified him among the next generation of management gurus. Prior to academia, Sull worked as a consultant with McKinsey & Company, and a management-investor with the leveraged buyout firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice. He discovered the power of simple rules when working as an undersized bouncer in a biker bar.

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