The Artificial Rules That Are Holding You Back by@mfishbein
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The Artificial Rules That Are Holding You Back

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Mike Fishbein
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Have you ever had to do something simply because it’s the way it’s always been done? Did doing that thing help you or hurt you?

Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp, wrote about a common assumption that causes interdependencies and slows teams down product development teams.

“If your company makes an iOS app and an Android app, and the iOS team can’t release a new feature until the Android team has finished their version, that’s crazy. That’s creating artificial dependencies that prevent separate teams working on separate things from each moving at their own pace. When you lock two teams together, you slow everyone down and create a whole host of frustrations.”

By questioning the assumptions that the iOS and Android apps needed to be the same, Jason enabled his team to work faster and produce a better product:

“You may say the iOS and Android apps must be the same. Different platforms but identical products, right? But why? That’s an artificial rule. If one releases a week or two or even three before the other, who cares? It’ll be fine. In fact, it’ll probably be better. Each platform can evolve on its own at its own pace — neither waiting for the other. None behind the other — each independent of one another.”

He referred to this counterproductive assumption as an “artificial rule.” An artificial rule is a self-imposed process, deadline, or requirement that doesn’t actually contribute to the desired end goal that the rule was adopted in order to achieve. Rather, the rule adds complexity and slows things down.

Some artificial rules get adopted because they help. But many get adopted for less than productive reasons, such as:

  • “It’s what we’ve always done”
  • “Everyone else is doing it”
  • Insecurity, lack of trust, or fear of uncertainty

Artificial rules create problems because we’re prone to work to abide by the rule rather than to achieve the end result that the rule was put in place in order to achieve and there are often costs associated with abiding by the rule. As a result, in abiding by the rule, we miss our ultimate objective. The rule gets in the way of our success.

In this article, I share six common artificial rules in life and work, how you can identify your own, and how you can break them.

1. “Respond as quickly as possible”

Tools like Slack, GChat, and email make it easy to communicate with your team. Sometimes, they make it too easy. For example, it’s easy for someone to email you at 11am on a Sunday while you’re out hiking, taking a break from it all.

When someone asks for something, we feel obligated to give it to them. That’s natural. However, I’ve found that often times, deadlines are self-imposed. There’s no real justification for the deadline. Rather, we create them, and this only adds constraints and stress.

Instead of abiding by the artificial rule that you need to respond to everything as fast as you can, try one of the these solutions:

  • Send a quick reply saying when you can respond
  • Ask when your colleague needs a response
  • Manage expectations about your response times before someone asks

2. “Work 9 to 5, Monday to Friday”

Setting a 9 to 5, Monday to Friday schedule ensures that you’re in your desk at those times. Some people need that structure. The 9 to 5, Monday to Friday rule is one that works for a lot of people. It worked particularly well when we needed to be in the same physical location at the same time in order to collaborate. But this rule also creates inefficiencies.

Sometimes you’re tired on Wednesday at 3pm and the rest of the day is surely going to be a waste of time, or the quality of your work will suffer. Other times, you’re energized at 7pm on a Sunday. I get my best work done in the mornings. Before I start getting emails. Sometimes before the sun even comes up.

Always keep the end goal — doing great work — in mind. If your work schedule doesn’t help you achieve that goal, change your rules.

3. “Maintain a content calendar”

A content calendar gets your team aligned on what needs to get done and when. It gives managers a sense of certainty in an otherwise uncertain process. The problem is, content calendars optimize for perhaps the least important aspect of content marketing: the timing that you publish.

When you publish doesn’t really matter. What you publish really matters.

The most significant and sustained results come from producing high quality content that provides value to your audience now and for the foreseeable future.

The quality of the content that you publish > The quantity of the content that you publish > The time at which you publish

If you can publish high quality content at whatever arbitrary publishing schedule you’ve set, that’s great. But don’t let the publishing schedule hinder your ability to do what actually gets results. Give yourself or your team the time they need to identify topics that your audience cares about and to produce content that truly provides value. Have trust in that process, despite the uncertainty.

4. “Grow bigger and faster”

Hypergrowth has become the norm. It’s what’s expected of us. It’s what Elon Musk and all the other entrepreneurs we read about in Techcrunch are doing. But, in fact, moving fast can cause you to break things, and not everyone wants to or needs to break things. Breaking things is risky and can prevent you from achieving your goals.

Furthermore, making lots of money is usually a means to some end goal. That end goal may be to travel the world, get married and have a family, or simply to be happy and healthy everyday. Often times, these end goals can be achieved through other means.


5. “Wake up early”

Waking up early is all the rage these days (I even wrote about earlier in this article!). Many people, myself included, can tell you about the great results they’ve achieved from establishing a morning routine. However, it’s important to question whether what works for other people works for you.

Some people have more energy and focus at night. I don’t see any problem with staying up late and waking up late if that’s what works for you. After all, the goal is to be healthy and productive, not just to wake up at a certain time.

6. “Maintain the perfect diet”

It would be nice if we could all make up our minds about something and stick to it no matter how hard it is. We want to think we’re capable of anything. But the reality is, we all have our weaknesses. Acknowledging these weaknesses can help you put yourself in positions where your weaknesses are minimized and your strengths are maximized.

For most people, striving to maintain the “perfect” diet is unachievable, or, at the least, unsustainable. Perfection is the enemy of good in this case. Rather than strive for perfection, I start small and optimize for sustainability.

I eat plenty of “cheat meals” on the weekends. I eat several foods that aren’t perfectly healthy, but aren’t all that unhealthy either. I eat them because they taste good, and incorporating them into my diet makes my diet far less miserable, and therefore, far more sustainable.

Lessons learned

  • Question whether the rules in your life are artificial or beneficial
  • Focus on achieving outcomes as opposed to simply abiding by rules
  • Do what actually works for you, not just what works for others
  • Trust yourself and your team

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