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How to Declutter Your Mind and Unleash Your Willpower by Using “Bright-Line” Rules

How to Declutter Your Mind and Unleash Your Willpower by Using “Bright-Line” Rules

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?” —The Miranda Warning

In the spring of 1966, a man named Ernesto Miranda was arrested in Phoenix. The police had very little to go on, but they suspected Miranda of kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old woman ten days earlier. The officers interrogated Miranda for two hours and were rewarded for their efforts: Miranda admitted to the rape charge and signed a confession paper.

There was just one problem. During the interrogation, Miranda had been alone and at no point was he informed that he had the right to legal counsel.

When the case went to trial, Miranda’s written confession was used as evidence. He was quickly convicted, but his lawyer appealed because Miranda had never been informed of his rights and thus, according to his lawyer, the confession was not voluntary. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld the decision, but eventually the case made it to the United States Supreme Court.

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The United States Supreme Court overturned the Miranda ruling by a vote of 5 to 4 because “The person in custody must, prior to interrogation, be clearly informed that he has the right to remain silent, and that anything he says will be used against him in court; he must be clearly informed that he has the right to consult with a lawyer and to have the lawyer with him during interrogation, and that, if he is indigent, a lawyer will be appointed to represent him.” (1)

The Supreme Court had just created a bright-line rule.

The Power of Bright-Line Rules

A bright-line rule refers to a clearly defined rule or standard. It is a rule with a clear interpretation and very little wiggle room. It establishes a bright line for what the rule is saying and what it is not saying.

The Miranda ruling is one example. If a police officer fails to inform a defendant in custody of their rights, then the suspect’s statements are not admissible in court. Plain and simple. Clear and bright.

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Most of us, myself included, could benefit from setting brighter lines in our personal and professional lives. Consider some common examples:

  • We might say that we want to check email less frequently.
  • We might say that we want to drink moderately.
  • We might say that we want to save more for retirement.
  • We might say that we want to eat healthier.

But what do these statements really mean?

  • What does it mean to check email less frequently? Are you going to “try to be better about it” and hope that works? Will you set specific days or certain times when you will be unavailable? Will you check email on weekends? Will you process email only on your computer?
  • What, exactly, is moderate drinking? Is it one drink per week? Five drinks per week? Ten drinks per week? We haven’t defined it, so how will we know if we are making progress? (2)
  • What does it mean to save more? More is not a number. How much is more? When will you save? Every month? Every paycheck?
  • What does eating healthier look like on a daily basis? Does that mean you eat more servings of vegetables? If so, how many more? Do you want to start by eating a healthy meal once per day? Twice per day? Every meal?

It can be easy to make promises like this to yourself, but they do not create bright lines. Fuzzy statements make progress hard to measure, and the things we measure are the things we improve.

Now, do we need to measure every area of our lives? Of course not. But if something is important to you, then you should establish a bright line for it. Consider the following alternatives:

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  • I only process email between 11 AM and 6 PM.
  • I enjoy a maximum of 2 drinks per night.
  • I save $500 per month for retirement.
  • I eat at least two types of vegetables per day.

These statements establish bright lines. These statements make action steps precise and obvious. Vague promises will never lead to clear results.

Using Bright Lines to Break Bad Habits

The examples I outlined above focus primarily on building new behaviors, but bright-line rules can be used just as effectively to break bad habits or eliminate old behaviors.

My friend Nir Eyal proposes a similar strategy that he calls “Progressive Extremism.” To explain the concept, Nir uses the example of being a vegetarian. If you were interested in becoming a vegetarian, you might start by saying, “I don’t eat red meat.” The goal is not to change everything at once, but to take a very clear and extreme stand in one small area. You are establishing a bright line on that topic.

Over time, you can progressively move your bright line forward and add other behaviors to the mix (i.e. “I don’t eat red meat or fish,” and so on).

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How Bright Lines Unleash Your Hidden Willpower

Establishing bright lines in your life can provide a huge boost in daily willpower. There are two reasons for this.

First, bright lines shift the conversation in your head from one of sacrifice to one of empowerment. When you don’t have a bright line established and you choose not to do something, the tendency is to say, “Oh, I can’t do it this time.” Conversely, when you do have a bright line clearly set, your response can simply be, “No thanks, I don’t do that.” Bright lines help you avoid making just-this-once exceptions. Instead, you are following a new identity that you have created for yourself. (3)

Second, by establishing clear decisions in your life, you conserve willpower for other important choices. Here’s the problem with trying to make daily decisions in muddy water: Without bright lines, you must decide whether a situation fits your standards every time. With bright lines, the decision is made ahead of time. Because of this, you are less likely to suffer from decision fatigue and are more likely to have willpower left over for work, relationships, and other health habits.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Ernesto Miranda didn’t escape prison for long. He was soon sentenced to 20 to 25 years in prison for a robbery he committed during a separate crime.
  2. I want to give credit to Brian Johnson for originally developing this drinking example and for sparking my research on bright-line rules, which led to this article. Thanks Brian!
  3. Related reading: How to Say No, Resist Temptation, and Stick to Your Health Goals

Featured photo credit: Mark Fischer via flickr.com

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Last Updated on March 13, 2019

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. I personally see a rut as a productivity vacuum. It might very well be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. While I’m normally productive, I get into occasional ruts (especially when I’ve been working back-to-back without rest). During those times, I can spend an entire day in front of the computer and get nothing done. It can be quite frustrating.

Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, a student or other work, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

1. Work on the small tasks.

When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks which have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

Whenever I finish doing that, I generate a positive momentum which I bring forward to my work.

2. Take a break from your work desk.

Get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the washroom, walk around the office, go out and get a snack.

Your mind is too bogged down and needs some airing. Sometimes I get new ideas right after I walk away from my computer.

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3. Upgrade yourself

Take the down time to upgrade yourself. Go to a seminar. Read up on new materials (#7). Pick up a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college. How’s that for inspiration?

4. Talk to a friend.

Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while.

Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

5. Forget about trying to be perfect.

If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies.

Just start small. Do what you can, at your own pace. Let yourself make mistakes.

Soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come. And then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

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6. Paint a vision to work towards.

If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the end vision in mind?

Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action.

7. Read a book (or blog).

The things we read are like food to our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great materials.

Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. Stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs, such as Lifehack.org, DumbLittleMan, Seth Godin’s Blog, Tim Ferris’ Blog, Zen Habits or The Personal Excellence Blog.

Check out the best selling books; those are generally packed with great wisdom.

8. Have a quick nap.

If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep.

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9. Remember why you are doing this.

Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall why you are doing this. Then reconnect with your muse.

10. Find some competition.

Nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, networking conventions.. you get the drill.

11. Go exercise.

Since you are not making headway at work, might as well spend the time shaping yourself up.

Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, whichever exercise you prefer.

As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

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Here’re 15 Tips to Restart the Exercise Habit (and How to Keep It).

12. Take a good break.

Ruts are usually signs that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

Beyond the quick tips above, arrange for a 1-day or 2-days of break from your work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax and do your favorite activities. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest. My best ideas and inspiration always hit me whenever I’m away from my work.

Take a look at this to learn the importance of rest: The Importance of Scheduling Downtime

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Featured photo credit: Joshua Earle via unsplash.com

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