When Rules Become Rigid

“What would you say to watching a movie, tonight?” my husband asked on a random Tuesday evening.

My first thought was no, we can’t watch a movie — it is a weeknight and we have “shows” to watch on the DVR. But I said, “I don’t want to watch a movie. Why don’t we watch one of our DVR’d shows?”

He kindly said yes and as we were figuring out what show to watch and I dismissed a few of the ones he suggested, he asked me, “How do you decide what we should watch?”

Before I could think about it, I matter of factly explained my system: “I rank the shows into tiers. First tier is my favorite shows, second tier is the next favorite, third tier is Netflix or a movie, and the fourth tier is the DVR shows I don’t really care about.”

My husband looked at me stunned. “Wow, I had no idea.” I laughed and said, “I think I have a system for everything.”

And he said, “Well, not everything. I mean, what about going to the library?”

And again, without pausing to think, I said, “Well, of course, it depends what you need at the library. Are you looking for a fiction book? A non-fiction book? Doing research or just killing time? Depending on your answer, you have a different path.”

I share all of this because that night I spiraled up to learn how much rules and systems permeate my life. And the more anxiety I have, the more rigid these systems become.

Here are a few other ways these show up:

  • Your morning routine: doing certain things in a particular order and bonus points if you do them faster than normal.
  • At the grocery store: the order in which you have to walk through the store, the rules you have for organizing items for check-out.
  • How you put away your kids’ toys or organize their clothes.
  • The order in which you clean the kitchen.
  • The tasks you must finish before bed.

These systems themselves are fine. They can reduce our anxiety, give us something to focus on, and be entertaining (my three-tier system for choosing a TV show is hilarious). The problem arises when they become rigid and unrelenting. When we beat ourselves up for “doing it wrong” even though we created the rules in the first place! When we yell at our loved ones for not adhering to our way. Then they become problematic.

It starts with recognizing our rules, and trust me this is HARD. We often don’t see them because they are so ingrained and have become part of us. You will probably recognize the rules only when they get broken and when you notice yourself tensing up over something benign. Then simply ask yourself: Do I have a rule here? Am I being overly rigid? How can I add a little space here?

Sometimes I even challenge myself to break a rule just to do it differently. On the days I work from home, I might work in my pajamas (always getting dressed for the day is another one of my rules). Loosening up that rigidity and reminding yourself the world won’t crumble is helpful.

Special note: Remember to be kind about this practice. Your rules aren’t something to shame yourself for; they are something to notice (maybe even laugh at) and loosen up, if necessary.

Who knows, I might even watch a movie this week on a weeknight! Gasp!!

New on The Happier Approach Podcast

I have often fallen for the trap of thinking that a new system—a new calendar, a new journal, a new app—was all I needed to keep me organized and bring order to the chaos. But all around me are piles of half-filled calendars and long lost apps—the evidence of well-meaning systems that I eventually abandoned.

I know it isn’t a flaw in the systems that’s the problem but rather my own lack of commitment to these systems. So on this week’s podcast episode, I’m chatting with Tonya Dalton, productivity expert, author, speaker, and founder of Inkwell Press, a company centered around productivity tools and training. Tonya gets it. She understands the struggle. She isn’t about some “all you have to do is follow my system and you will be cured” way of thinking.

Listen in to the episode to hear what Tonya has to say about our love with the to-do list and what she calls “million-dollar minutes” that can help you think about your time differently. Check it out on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or over here.