Guard Rail Rules of Thumb

Day 325 Week 48 Q4, Monday November 21, 2022

I speak to myself and other creative outliers often about the power-of-routine, or habits that are nothing more than automated behaviors. Once you know what you need to do, the degree to which you habituate it makes it much easier. In fact, it becomes difficult to not do it, that is what a habit is. But there is a problem. I like other creative outliers, do not love routine very much. We like mixing things up and changing what we do and who we are. We tend not always to drive the same routes or order the same meals in the same restaurants.  In other words, we like to take the road not taken. This can be stressful to partners, bosses, colleagues and anyone who wants to be able to accurately predict our behavior.

So how to reconcile the pull toward diversity of thought and action against the usefulness of routine and predictability? Well, I call the middle way Guard Rail Rules of Thumb.

Here are examples. I have not used an alarm clock for most of my life. This has meant the day does not always start at the same time, including when I get to work. Fortunately, I have had the luxury of being accommodated in this. If some days you show up at 6:30 and other days at 8:30, no one cares too much. If I get to the gym at 7 or 10 in the morning, it also does not matter much. And if my morning journaling is 800 words or 1500 words, this, too, does not matter much. What these all have in common are ranges of behavior. If I try to go to the gym between 7 and 10 PM instead of AM, it just does not work. I rarely get there, and even if I do, I no longer have the energy to do much. So for me, I have these guard rails which have evolved over years. I noticed that if I intend to leave for the gym later than 10 AM, I almost never get there because the day has already launched, and there are too many things to do that are already engaging me. My rule of thumb is I try to leave by 7 or 8 but the guard rail is 10.  This is not a very constraining routine, but it has become a habit. If I have not left for the gym by 10 AM, there is no point in even trying to go.

Some of you may be saying, what planet does this guy live on where he can have this much freedom in when he does what? Well, guess what a lot of creative outliers have enormous degrees of freedom in their lives because they crave it more than wealth, fame and keeping score. To some of us, the notion of being rich is having freedom.  Now of course this may also mean the freedom to work all of the time. I know of many marriages that thrive because the two parties do not see each other that much and when retirement looms, look out!

Seriously degrees of freedom are very important to me, and I suspect to many of you, my fellow creative outliers. For if you do not have the freedom, it is hard to create. Nothing kills creativity faster than an over-specified life.  A few years ago in Silicon Valley, when consulting to the VP of engineering of a Fortune 500 company about how to make his engineers more innovative, I noticed the executive piled so much work on his staff that they could never finish it in even an eighty-hour week. In Silicon Valley, this is sometimes seen as a badge of honor and a lifestyle choice. This is not a culture that supports a balanced life. When I was a CEO, I sometimes had to go in on Saturdays on holiday weekends and kick everyone out of the building to go home to spend time with their families. Yes, my teams of high-performance people got mad at me, but their spouses did not.  I knew everyone worked plenty hard enough, and more than a certain amount is simply not sustainable. 

Now, if you worship the god of more, more money, more products, more customers, more everything, well, good luck with that. Creativity and Innovation are not Quantitative. They are qualitative. This does not let you off the hook from routine, but this is where I find rules thumb to be more flexible. If you violate a rule of thumb, you do not get put in the dog house or go to jail. Or send yourself into whatever rental prison of your own making you choose.

But rules of thumb can function as excellent guard rails, kind of like lanes in the road. You can not stay imprisoned in between them always. You have to cross them. But if you notice you are driving over the line too much, it is time to pull over and take a nap or something. I do not beat myself up when violating my own rules of thumb, but I do notice it and self-modify my behavior. In this manner, the rules of thumb do function very much as guard rails.

Having a pile of rules of thumb, functioning as guard rails, do effectively act as routines, but not overly constraining routines. These are more creativity-friendly routines.  They are guard rails to be sure. And they form habits of automated behaviors, drastically lowering the overhead associated with getting things done.

But by using ranges instead of absolutes, imagination is given a freer space to roam. And predictability becomes more like guard rails than like prison walls. For a person like myself who tends more to worship degrees of freedom than accumulation, this works very well. And it is very sustainable.

But if you worship the god of more stuff, more status, and more money, this is probably not great advice. But if you are a creative outlier like me, you may instead want more freedom which is a different kind of wealth.  

The wealth of freedom to be true to yourself.