How Bright Lines Make Life Easier

I’ve been focusing as of late on simplifying my life. I have a lot going on, between a full time job, raising two young children, trying to be a good husband, fulfilling my desire to write, and starting a business. There are plenty of times when I’ve felt overwhelmed by all the minutia of managing this on a day to day basis. So, I do what I have always done when I feel dissatisfied with something in my life: I try changing things up to see if it improves things (because more change is exactly what I need, right?).

One of the things I’ve focused on as of late is the idea of using “bright lines” to reduce the number of decisions I make on a daily basis. I heard about this concept in Roy Baumeister’s excellent work Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength(aff link). He writes:

“You can’t help but notice when you cross a bright line. If you promise yourself to drink or smoke “moderately,” that’s not a bright line. It’s a fuzzy boundary with no obvious point at which you go from moderation to excess. Because the transition is so gradual and your mind is so adept at overlooking your own peccadilloes, you may fail to notice when you’ve gone too far. So you can’t be sure you’re always going to follow the rule to drink moderately. In contrast, zero tolerance is a bright line: total abstinence with no exceptions anytime.

The idea is this: bright lines are clear and simple rules for how you go about your day. There’s no room for interpretation, no space for arguing over ambiguity. The choice you face is clear: either you follow the rule or you don’t.

While Baumeister mainly talks about applying this to abstaining from bad behaviors (like drinking), I also find it useful in defining daily routines and rituals. If I decide the night before exactly what I’m doing in the morning prior to heading off to work, it eliminates the expenditure of energy in choosing between various paths (do I have eggs or oatmeal for breakfast?). This includes not only what I do, but in what order I do it (do I make my coffee first or do my meditation breathing?). Sometimes things go awry based on the interruption by certain small children, but it’s helpful nonetheless.

I also find this useful in defining how I work during the day. I might create a bright line around my use of social media: I only check Facebook after lunch and before heading to the gym. Or I might limit when I check e-mail: I check e-mail once per hour at the fifty minute mark after a forty five minute work session. I can define how I administer my systems: there will be no changes made between 9AM and 5PM EST that have any chance of being disruptive (I wonder on that last bit, do we always know what changes will be “disruptive”? Anyway, I digress.).

Some might argue this is rigid and doesn’t allow for spontaneity. That’s absolutely true, but it’s also the point of so-called bright lines; they take away from flexibility in areas of my life where I don’t need it, so that I reserve my energy for parts where I do. Do I really want to expend energy deciding whether to wear a polo or a t-shirt? Or would I rather keep that energy in reserve, so that I am a more patient parent, or a calm and collected problem solver in the face of an emergency at work?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider implementing a few of these bright lines into your life. You just may find that you free up your energy for far more productive things. Share what you did and if it worked in the comments!

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