The Beauty of Constraints

Rules — they have the tendency to irritate, anger and annoy the people who they limit, yet we can't deny their necessity in our lives. While I knew rules were good for things like safety, up until recently, I didn't really understand what practical purpose they served in the day-to-day.

I just finished reading a book called Crash Course by Kim Bearden who is the co-founder of Ron Clark Academy along with Ron Clark. One of the tenants of the school, which has received world-wide acclaim for its unconventional yet highly effective teaching methods, is a system of rules that hold the students to a high standard. Not because they wanted to turn it into a military-style academy nor because they wanted to set the kids up for failure with impossible standards. Rather, rules provided a structure for learning by removing a lot of the unnecessary decision making on the part of the students and training them in good lifestyle habits.

I've written before on the draining effect that decision-making has on our willpower. Each decision we make drains from a finite pool of willpower each day. By the end of the day, your ability to override your lizard brain and make hard decisions that are good for you even when they're not desirable is depleted. That's why you're more prone to snack on potato chips and binge watch Netflix when you get home from work even when your rational mind tells you to go for that run you promised you'd do.

Rules are a meta-cognitive substitution for willpower.

They allow us to eliminate options that won't be good for us, saving us from unnecessarily using willpower to make mundane decisions. For example, you and your spouse might make a rule of, "no Netflix until after we run" and hold each other accountable.

Obviously, rules are regularly taken too far and can seem burdensome when not correctly used. But since we live in a society governed by rules and we can't readily change them, isn't it better to try to understand their benefit than to complain about them?