The Rules That Run Our Decisions

Do you ever think about the unwritten rules that run your life? It seems I discover a new one every day – an most of them are not of my making. I’m following someone else’s rules as if they are some kind of unbreakable law. The punishment? I never wanted to find out.

Until I started working on my personal capabilities and discovered that these rules were like a personal glass ceiling.

I could see through the barrier to the thing I wanted – but couldn’t get there with shattering those unbreakable rules. My rules about work and life calcified into a virtual dictator, governing my every move.

I spent the first half of my career “going to the office” every day. Having a defined place and time to do work was both freeing and limiting at the same time. This was an ancient era with no laptop and cell phone to keep me working, so when I was at home, it was NOT work time. When I was at work, it was work time. Easy.

Then I joined a small leadership firm with a distributed, virtual team. By now, computers and cell phones (not smart phones) were the norm and I worked from home. We converted my empty living room into an office, with a desk, computer station, file cabinets and all the things that recreated the office environment of my previous experience.

Along with the office environment came the rules.

Every day, I would sit down at 8:00 and work until lunch. After my very official lunch break, I worked in the afternoon until 5:00 or 6:00 and then be off. When I didn’t have anything pressing to do, I did a great job of looking busy and productive. After all, I wanted my boss, who lived 1500 miles and two time zones away, to see that he was getting his money worth. Could he see me working? No, although you would have thought there was a livestream camera in the corner watching my every move. What did my boss actually want? Results. As long as I delivered on the promises I made and got the outcomes we agreed to, he really, really, really did not care when I was at my desk or how “workish” I looked while working.

The rule I had invented for such circumstances was “look busy no matter what”. I’m sure it came from a previous job and it was completely irrelevant in this circumstance.

Actually, this rule was more than irrelevant. It was limiting.

Why? Much of this virtual job required me to develop insights and be creative. What I needed instead of chaining myself to a desk in an office was to set the conditions for me to deliver on my promises. For me, walking is the most powerful way I’ve found to prime my creativity and put things together in new ways.

Would I have dare take a walk in those days? Not on your life.

One day it dawned on me that my decisions were more often than not based on some stupid rule that I had been taught for different circumstances and then carried forward. Examples:

  • When scheduling, explain and justify to the other person why I can’t do a certain time
  • Answer emails first thing in the morning
  • Limit breaks to 15 minutes
  • Never have a personal call during work hours
  • Set my priorities based on the most urgent thing coming at me
  • Never stand up to or question what the boss wanted

I didn’t just all of the sudden uncover these rules (and there are many, many more). They were much more invisible and embedded than that. They were more like the dirty film on the window that you don’t notice until after the window gets washed or the dirt that becomes part of the carpet until a good shampoo.

Once I started working from the inside out, I began to look at my decisions differently. What rule is driving this decision? Is it relevant for today? Is it serving me and this situation?

Some rules are easier to change than others. Working with a coach has helped me through some of the deeper work of self-awareness – these rules can turn into beliefs that seem like truth. It takes another person to challenge your mindset. In fact, that’s the best reason to have a coach.

You can’t reach new levels with the rules designed for your past. The inner tyrant is quite convincing – and will keep your glass ceiling in place until you decide to change it.

What is on the other side of your glass ceiling? What is keeping you from living over there? What rules are running you? What would serve you now, in this place and time?

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