Re-Consider the Rules of Thumb You Use in Everyday Life.

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My adventures in the lands of happiness research led me to the concept of heuristics. Heuristics are “rules of thumb,” the quick, common-sense principles people apply to solve a problem or make a decision. They aren’t “rules for living” that you consciously try to apply; rather, they’re deeply embedded, often unconscious, rules that you use to make decisions, answer a question, or decide a course of action.

Usually heuristics are useful, though sometimes they lead to cognitive bias. Take the availability heuristic: people predict the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can come up with an example. This is often helpful (is a tornado likely to hit Manhattan?), but sometimes people’s judgment is skewed because the vividness of examples makes an event seem more likely than it actually is. People become very worried about child abduction, say, when in fact, it’s a very rare occurrence.

I realized that I have my own idiosyncratic collection of “heuristics” for making decisions and setting priorities. Well, maybe these don’t fit the precise definition of “heuristics” — but they’re rules of thumb I apply when deciding what to think or how to act, mostly without quite realizing that I’m using them. They flicker through my brain so quickly that I had to make a real effort to detect them, but I identified a handful:

My children are my most important priority.
Exercise every day.
People don’t notice my mistakes and flaws as much as I think.
My husband is my top priority.
“Yes” comes right away; “no” never comes.
Get some work done every day.
Whenever possible, choose vegetables.
I know as much as most people.
Try to attend any party or event to which I’m invited.
My parents are almost always right.
Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.
If I’m not sure whether to include some text in my writing, cut it out.
When making a choice about what to do, choose work.
I’m too busy to do that.

Looking at these rules showed me something. Several of them were difficult to balance. How could my kids, my husband, and my work all be top priorities? Also, I was pretty sure that my husband operates under the heuristic of “Try to skip practically any event to which I’m invited.” That explained certain ongoing marital debates.

Some of my heuristics were unhelpful. “I don’t have time” ran through my head dozens of times each day. I’ve been working to change that heuristic to “I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.”

I asked my friends if they had any personal heuristics, and I collected quite a few:
There’s no wrong decision.
Always say hello.
People in business, small or large, will take advantage of you if they can.
What would my mother do?
Actually, this is good news.
Say yes.
This is the fun part.
Do nothing, go nowhere.
Do everything all at once.

What heuristics are shaping your behavior? Though I may be mis-using the term. I mean – what are the rules of thumb that you apply to figure out what to think or do? Not what you WISH you thought (“Always take a moment to appreciate the sunshine”) but what you actually think (“Any parent who misses a school function has bad values”) — whether or not you actually agree with that thought! What springs to mind?

* At last, an answer. The CHICKEN did come before the EGG.

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  • Too often I assume that everyone wants to be physically fit, healthy, and active, so I can and have been annoying to many in that assumption by bombarding them with research on health as it pertains to fitness and diet, altered recipes to make them better for you, invites to the gym, etc…
    and my main fault is assuming that they’re “lazy” or “depressed” when they don’t want to improve themselves.
    When I do these things, I’m basing it on my own past experience…but I need to recognize that not everyone is coming from the same place I came from, nor do they share my path or destination.

    • A regular reader

      If they’re not lazy or depressed, what is their problem? Really, I consider complete apathy about health to be a problem, call it what you like.

      • I agree it is a problem. I guess I just don’t want to feel any judgmental feelings towards those who choose to ignore their health. It’s a tough call in my humble opinion.

      • Mrs_helm

        Sometimes people have a lot of other things going on that are taking priority in their life. While they may agree that they should be healthier, they just might not have the capacity to worry about it at the moment. In this case, being a supportive friend through their other issues is the best way to get them to a point where they can think about their health. (And if you can’t be supportive through their other issues, then you aren’t a good enough friend to have any business telling them how they should eat and exercise…unless they hired you as a personal trainer.)

      • TracyW

        Is it a problem? It’s their lives. Have you never heard of the attitude:
        “If you eat right, don’t smoke, and exercise every day, you’ll die healthy.”

        I do exercise because I find it enjoyable in and of itself and it improves my day-to-day life (I can walk around art galleries all day!). But my resolutions about diet are along the lines of:
        1. No matter how good it tastes, don’t eat any more when I’m already full.
        2. Snails just taste of whatever sauce they’re cooked/dressed in. Don’t bother ordering them again.
        3. Western-style mushrooms are evil.
        4. Order whatever dish on the menu you don’t recognise, subject to rules 2 and 3.

        I also avoid obviously dangerous activities like climbing power pylons and I look both ways when crossing roads. But beyond that, I’m not that much interested in my health. It’s not that my life is so busy that I couldn’t make it a priority, it’s just that I much prefer to spend that time and mental effort on other things.

    • Guest

      Some people ARE apathetic to their health, but you’re right – changing them isn’t your job, and their path might be different from yours. The bigger problem is making sure you aren’t judging people by appearance. “Fat” doesn’t equal “lazy”, and a person who is a size 6 may have much more unhealthy habits than an active size 16. Make sure your worry about someone’s health is coming from actual unhealthiness, and not from how you think they look in a bathing suit. Then tell them you love them, tell them you want them to be healthy AND happy, whatever that means for them. Then be their friend no matter what, and trust them to follow their own path.

      • Thanks for this reply. 🙂 I am absolutely all about health over appearance. I am a 42 year old woman who has been a paraplegic for 23 years. I just happen to be one of those people with a disability you see lifting weights, swimming, kayaking, etc… in 2003 after losing my mom, I became depressed, gained about 50 pounds, and ended up with high blood pressure and being pre-diabetic. Now, having lost and kept off the weight, and completely changed my lifestyle, according to my doc, I am healthier than most able-bodied 25 year olds. Yay!

  • I think what psychologists call heuristics mostly happen unconsciously; it takes the rigorous methodology of a study to even pick them out, for the most part, and the fact that they can be identified in studies means that they’re shared widely across populations.

    But that’s neither here nor there, really! Here are some of my rules of thumb:
    *Most of the time, people make active choices about what to do based on their values
    *If it’s sweet, I want it
    *Everyone’s time is roughly equally valuable
    *Framing things as questions is better than framing them as criticism, even if I’m not really confused
    *It’s important to optimize for the long-term
    *It pays to be nice to customer service people
    *I don’t want to do the things I should do
    *If someone asks me to do a task, I should think about who will have to do it if I say no and take this into account

    • growmyown

      I read through all the replies and it would be easy to pick something from everyone’s list, but this one spoke to me the most. It so matters to me who asks me to do something. If I admire and respect the asker, then I am more likely to say yes. I don’t want to make their job of lining up help harder. On the flip side, if the person asking is, in my estimation, a slacker, it is much easier to say no.
      This has been a very thought provoking post for me. Gretchen, thanks for introducing me to the term and making me think about my “operating system”.

  • Some of the things that used to be the script I followed:1. If someone says I’m wrong, I probably am2. People are smarter than me3. People are not interested in what I have to say4. I am basically unattactive(Geez allou! Are you depressed yet?!)It took a lot of work, a year of 12-step plus more of therapy and other work to really begin to re-write these mantras. Today they are very different:1. My opinion/input/ideas are just as valid as others2. If someone is being hurtful or mean, it’s a defect with them, not me3. When in doubt, be kind4. Thinking about my needs and wants is

    • LivewithFlair

      I love your new list, especially number 2.

  • Debra

    *Reading is terribly important.
    *I need to drink more water.
    *Motion is lotion.
    *Be open minded when receiving criticism.
    *Religion is bunk until I need it.
    *Drugs, alcohol and smoking are bad for unborn babies.
    *There’s nothing you can do to help an addict.
    *If I’m not willing to change a bad situation, then I must be getting something out of it.
    *I can easily abuse certain foods.

  • Liz

    “How could my kids, my husband, and my work all be top priorities? ” I noticed that as I was reading your post. Here are a couple statements that might help with that.

    To have a degree of harmony and experience on going support for your life you will need to make your PARTNERSHIP and the needs of the PARTNERS your 1ST PRIORITY.
    (This includes making YOUR needs a priority)

    Something I remind myself of regularly in regards to my marriage and kids… Our Partnership is our 1st priority and our children are the 1st priority of our partnership.

    I’ve been to some wonderful workshops where I heard this information. Worth taking a look into.

  • Over the last few months, my overriding rule of thumb, or mantra if you will, has become:

    More love is more love.

    When people are involved with me and rub me the wrong way, I ask myself, are they responding out of love? Because oftentimes, our partners, children, parents, friends, even maybe co-workers do and say things that we don’t like because they love us. And if someone offers you (or your family) love, you should find a way to accept it.

    As a divorced mom, there are many people who offer me and my kids love in shapes and forms that I didn’t expect and I always remind myself that More love is more love. My kids and I will always benefit from more love.

    And that is the truth from which I work when dealing with my ex’s girlfriend, who adores my kids and whom my kids adore. More love is more love. And it has never led me astray.

    • OBC

      I love this! It helps to accept unexpected ways in which people behave, and it might even make me more productive in handling relationships. If I start with an appreciation for the good intentions, perhaps I can react in a way that reinforces the best in what people do, and discourages the parts that end up being hurtful.

  • openfan

    Grechen, with regard to “act the way you want to feel”, I am not sure I get it.
    I understand that it can help your anger toward a person by doing something thoughtful for her, but at the same time, if there is a real problem with this person, are you going to talk to her about it and try to solve the problem?
    I mean by simply managing your anger, the problem can still come back again in the future. I think it is also important to identify the trigger.

    Maybe I misunderstood you in some way?

    • Imdeb0731

      faking it to make it….its not about avoiding feelings…just trying to be positive and optimistic. If you act that way you may start feeling that way too!

    • Well I think in terms of being angry with another person, first you have to change your attitude before you can deal with them rationally. It doesn’t mean you don’t deal with the problem, it just means you don’t deal with the problem while still angry. Also changing your attitude can help you determine whether it’s worth it to confront them, or whether you were just overreacting. If you do confront them you will be calmer and more likely to have a productive conversation about the incident then if you were still steaming over it.

      And of course there’s plenty of times where “act the way you want to feel” doesn’t involve anyone else. Maybe you’re just tired or got up on the wrong side of bed and need to overcome the bad mood. But it’s not about ignoring the problems, it’s about managing your feelings so you can keep it in perspective!

      • openfan

        Very useful! Thanks!

  • Kirsten

    * If you are unhappy at work, wait six months — things often change. If still unhappy after six months, look for a new job.
    * The 5 W’s of journalism (who, what, when, where, why) – I review these in my head any time I am providing information.
    * Everyone needs an editor (or, more generally, any work you create can be improved by having someone else review it & provide feedback).
    * Lowering your expectations is less stressful than nagging.

  • Bestwishesmarie

    (Some of my heuristics were unhelpful. “I don’t have time” ran through my head dozens of times each day. I’ve been working to change that heuristic to “I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.”)

    i love this. “self talk” is so very powerful. our perception is …. our perception…… is our perception ….. how we see the situation. what the situation actually is … 90 percent of the time … is not the issue !!

    • Bev

      self talk is very important as I have experienced, especially when there is no other person to talk to. I have concluded that talking to self is beneficial when searching for an answer. Self must be open to all answers.

  • LivewithFlair

    Here are some I like:
    1. Every person you meet has a treasure inside of them buried deep. Ask good questions to uncover it.
    2. There’s something beautiful about today.
    3. It’s OK to not like your parents. It’s OK to not talk to them if they are hurtful.
    4. Never be condescending. Everyone has a contribution, no matter what their education, economic situation, race, gender, politics, or religion.

  • superflatiron


  • DiscoveredJoys

    I used to have a heuristic of “when triggered by an event, remember how you felt when you said or did something dumb in front of other people”. It takes longer to explain than the rush of embarrassment I felt. Presumably this rule is meant to make me avoid social faux pas in the future. I mean that’s helpful once, but over and over?

    I’m not quite sure how it happened – it could well have been reading this blog or any of the many others I’ve read over the last few years – but I now have a new heuristic. Every time a (previously) embarrassing memory surfaces, I just grin. A big face spreading smile. It’s automatic and not under my conscious control, but I’ve found it impossible to rehearse past embarrassments when my face is grinning. Eventually the intensity of those feelings fades.

    Now that’s a rule I like.

  • Gretchen, I love how you changed “I’m too busy to do that” to “I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.” I get weary of hearing people use “I’m so busy” as an excuse … and of seeming to believe their busyness is so much more important than anyone else’s. We all have exactly the same hours in the day to live our lives. We can let our daily routines take over, or we can step back and figure out what we HAVE to do and what we WANT to do …. and then of course we have to be brave enough to give up the rest and honest enough to admit it’s by choice we do so.

    The Happiness Project helped me define what mattered most to me and make it a conscious choice to make time for those things (and to do them), and guess what? I’m happier!

    p.s. DiscoveredJoys–I do that same negative rehashing of past mistakes and am so going to try your method for getting over it. Thanks for sharing.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m so happy to hear that it has been useful to you!

  • The one that popped into my mind is “people don’t change” which I apply every time I wish someone would change in a certain way to suit me.

    People do change, of course (I hope!) but rarely do people change for other people, and almost never because someone else would like them to change something.

    I think my heuristic list probably contains more negatives than positives – no positive examples have jumped into my mind.

  • sarah (the SHU box)

    fantastic post! heuristics i should probably fix up:

    — i should be doing something productive all of the time
    — delegating is lazy and not worth the hassle
    — i work hard, so i deserve ____.
    — it’s not a workout without a long cardio session.

    and ones that i am happy with:

    — sleep is extremely important!
    — my husband is my #1 priority
    — quality trumps quantity
    — time > money

    • gretchenrubin

      I recognize the one about delegating! Fighting that one myself.

      • Has it been an ongoing battle? Are have you already won this fight?

  • Imdeb0731

    Listen to my inner voice.
    Distance from dysfunction
    Be on time
    Feed my kids 6-10 veggies/fruits a day
    People do the best they can
    be productive and then relax
    cook for people I love

  • shakeoffthegrind

    Thanks for the post. For us to be aware of these short-cuts provides self-awareness into our assumptions. Knowing assumptions will help with better communication in relationships and with building healthy overall habits. We don’t want to over analyze everything, but we still want to be aware of these habitual thoughts. Thanks!

  • I frequently find myself revisiting the Suze Orman heuristic: “People first, then money, then things.”

  • Joless

    “If something feels forced, step back and wait a bit. Either it will work itself out, or it will go away, or maybe something better will happen instead.”

    “The most unlikely people can often become your best friends.” This is proven time and time again in my life.

  • Joe

    Great post Gretchen,

    To deal with these shoulder mounted little devil talking back biters I created my own personal creed.

    Every morning while walking my dog I repeat my “personal creed” to remind myself of just who I am, my purpose and just what I believe in.

    Might not be exactly the same as what you’re talking about here…but I found that whenever I have to make difficult choice, I just repeat my creed and the right choice always seems to appear.

    Living Life By Design

  • KCCC

    What CAN I do? (In response to any “I can’t…” thinking. Powerful.)
    Assume good intent (okay, this one is a conscious choice, but I do use it)
    Be on time (or early… not one shared with my spouse! This is just instinctive.)
    Go toward what you want.
    Babysteps take me where I want to go. (To help me NOT to bite off more than I can chew… even little steps matter.)

    It’s hard for me to sort out rules of thumb that are the sub-conscious things I DO from the mantras I aspire to…over time, the latter actually do become the former.

  • Susanna19

    Here’s my list, off the top of my head. What does this say about me? Not all good, I’m afraid.
    – Finish work before starting play.
    – If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. (Corollary: If you can’t do it right, don’t do it.)
    – If you want something done right you have to do it yourself.
    – Never be rude.
    – Never be tacky.
    – Avoid small talk whenever possible without being rude.
    – Do not expect people to like you.
    – Most drivers of other cars are jerks.
    – Always protect children.
    – Do not eat unhealthy food.
    – I don’t have enough time.
    – I am too tired to do that.
    – Do not waste anything if you can help it (time, food, clothes, gasoline, electricity, words…)

    • gretchenrubin

      Many of these ring a bell for me! For example, I REALLY have to push myself
      for small talk — but I really think it’s important.

  • Rebecca Salisbury

    First Things First–so delightfully simple. When my child was sick the other day and I felt bad about leaving work, I applied this heuristic. Simple answer.

    If it it doesn’t taste that good, don’t eat it. (Apply this to the cardboard like birthday cake at the office party)

    Exercise is a top priority. Not an if I get everything else done, I’ll try.

  • Diana

    The thing about heuristics is that they usually operate automatically outside of consciousness so you need to figure them out from your actions. You can replace them with conscious heuristics though, which over time hopefully will become automatic and guide actions.

    Observing my actions, I realized that I am often guided by the heuristic “fill the space.” So, if I’m at a loss I grab something to eat, grab work to do, might fill the space with talk. I’m trying to replace that heuristic with “you don’t have to fill the space”

  • Sophia

    Gretchen, great post. Here are some of my old heuristics:

    1. If I’m the best qualified person in this group to do something, then I should do it.
    2. At any given moment, whoever needs me “most” deserves my attention, time and energy.
    3. Doing nothing is a waste of time. Always multi-task whenever waiting in line, taking the subway, even putting on a facial mask that takes 10 min to dry.
    4. If I want something done, I must do it myself.

    I’m working on using these instead:
    1. Let someone else do a mediocre job; I need to rest sometimes.
    2. At any given moment, I am responsible for taking care of my OWN needs. Nobody else knows what I need.
    3. Focus on one thing at a time. Waiting, etc. gives me a chance to simply breathe and rest.
    4. If I want something done, consider asking someone to help me with it.

    • Bev

      thanks I needed this today!!!

  • superflatiron

    thanks, i like this post

  • Kkwoj

    My rule of thumb may sound sick, but it works. When making a decision, I ask myself, “What would I do if my parents were dead?” While I love and respect my parents very much, they have far too much of an influence on my decisions than they should.

  • You left out one. And ultimately nothing really matters at all anyway.

  • Cijo

    Thank you for letting me know that you think same as me, and mostly all people. I too have many rules of thumb mainly borrowed from others. I conclude my heuristics as “Life is a continious process , apply what you learnt and live as it comes.”