Simple rules to live by — ideas that make your life better

Here are the seven simple rules that have greatly improved my life (and made my children happier). Do you have simple rules that guide you?

Simple Rules to live byPolitics disgusts me today and I don’t want to write about it. Instead, inspired by a lunchtime conversation I had with a friend, I’d like to hear from you the simple rules (if any) that helped re-frame how you viewed your world or your conduct in a way that made your life better, happier, more productive, and of more value to those around you.

The reason I ask this is because, over the years, a few simple rules have appealed to me. They’ve helped me break out of bad habits and form good ones. They did so, not by micromanaging my conduct, but by providing me with principles that changed how I viewed myself and the world. That’s the re-framing I’m talking about. None of these rules or principles are complicated; none require micromanaging; and all apply to myriad situations, although I originally brought them to bear on specific issues that vexed me.

Here are mine:

“Few rules, but unbreakable.” I got this from R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days, a novel about life in a small English public school from the end of WWI to the beginning of WWII. It’s a wonderful rule, whether one is raising children or overseeing a project. Micromanaging is exhausting and demoralizes the people being managed. Making clear what’s important — and just how important it is (unbreakable) — gives people freedom to move forward while keeping intact the things that matter most to you, the rule maker.

“Catch them being good.” This was perhaps the best piece of child-rearing advice I ever received. I wrote a whole post about it, which I won’t repeat here. Suffice to say that, if you honestly praise good behavior, instead of focusing obsessively on bad behavior, not only will your children behave better, but you will feel better about them. And of course, it’s not only children who value honest praise. Dale Carnegie wrote a whole book about that.

“Opinionated but not judgmental.” My mother was the queen of judgments. I loved her and made her my role model. Accordingly, I was not a pleasant teen or young woman. Luckily for me, my sister once threw out in a conversation that she was “opinionated but not judgmental.” I was so struck by that notion, I completely modified my communication style. My kids liked me better and I found myself with more friends. When it comes to children, there’s a world of difference between saying, “Your friend is so stupid to do drugs,” and “Your friend is such a lovely girl. I think it’s so sad that she doesn’t see that in herself and, instead, turns to drugs.”

“Make your bed every morning.” This one came from Admiral McRaven’s commencement speech at the University of Texas, when he talked about lessons he learned as a Navy SEAL. He explained the important things flowing from that seemingly inconsequential act: You start your day by completing a task, which paves the way for completing other tasks. Also, if you have a really bad day, it’s comforting at the end of it to crawl into a neatly made bed. Both those reasons made eminent sense to me. In my middle-age, I therefore completely changed a lifetime habit of leaving the bed unmade (my protest against a managing parent), and turned bed-making into a keystone habit that has allowed me to get to other tasks during my day.

“Be grateful.” Life isn’t always what I wish it to be, but I’m so blessed. Whenever I feel whiny, I count my blessings. I’m certainly allowed to recognize the imperfections in my life, but I’m not allowed to let those overwhelm the many wonderful things that surround me. I hope I never lose my sense of gratitude for those blessings.

“You may not always recognize immediately the value of a particular event, including a bad one.” This is a distillation of something from Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice, a novel about a young woman’s experiences before, during, and after WWII. The first half of the book is largely concerned with her life in Malaya after the Japanese captured the island. It’s a brutal, sad tale and, at the mid-point of the book, she describes that time as three wasted years. The person to whom she is speaking says that we cannot always know which experiences will matter in our life until much later — indeed, sometimes the meaning of those experiences may not be obvious until after a person’s death. The second half of the book, of course, is concerned with the far-reaching consequences — for many people — of her wartime suffering. I love the book and I love the message. Even rotten things may be important, but you may need the perspective of time to understand why and how.

“Insults don’t win arguments.” In my posts, I will say unkind things about Hillary or Obama or Pelosi or Trump or Ryan. However, if I’m in a discussion with someone who doesn’t share my views, whether that discussion is on Facebook or in person, and I want to try to persuade that person to think about things my way, I constantly remind myself that insults don’t win arguments. Indeed, the fastest way to hurt your intellectual position is to open with an insult. It’s better to open with an honest compliment (if possible) and then to cast your argument in a world of ideas that does not impinge upon the other person’s ego. Having said that, though, I don’t always manage to avoid the cutting phrase that ensures I lose my argument and I’m not going to change the unkind things I say about those people who affect my world in negative ways and whom I will never meet in person.

I still struggle daily with my many failings. I’m a procrastinator, I have a quick temper I must constantly subdue, and I’m dilatory about maintaining friendships that I value greatly. (Those who correspond with me via email know that, when it comes to reply to those emails, my personal road to Hell is paved with way too many good intentions and way too little timely action.) Still, those five simple rules have left me in a better place, both practically and emotionally, than I could ever have imagined 30 years ago.

How about you? Do you have simple rules that have helped make you happier, more productive, a nicer person, a better parent, or anything else positive? I’m interested.