How simple rules can help us become better at everything


Complex situations need equally complex solutions. Or do they?

This is the question explored in Simple Rules, a book by Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt.

Let’s be honest – how many times do we make something look really complicated so that we can come across as knowing more than everyone else or justify the fee we are charging.

But really, in many many areas, just using simple rules will give better results than complex ones.

So, what are simple rules and how can they help us?

Sull and Eisenhardt split simple rules into those that help us become more effective and those that help us become more effective.

Becoming Effective

Becoming more effective is squeezing more out of the time we have and that means saying yes to some things and no to others.

We can do these in three ways.

Boundary rules

First there are boundary rules. These are binary decisions of the yes/no variety.

What should we do and what shouldn’t we?

For example, when revising for exams for my first degree, I had two very simple rules.

I never worked after 12 in the afternoon and on weekends.

Working from 9 – 12 for four weeks before the exams was more than enough time to revise and prepare for them.

Prioritisation rules

The next kind of decisions revolve around what to do first.

The classic example of this is how medics triage patients during an accident.

Everyone is tagged based on the severity of their condition and how urgent it is that they are seen.

I remember being in an aircraft accident simulation as one of the volunteers to train the response teams where we were all labelled with the injuries we had supposedly sustained.

I had a broken foot and so was transported slowly by ambulance while enviously thinking of the helicopter ride being taken by the person with far more serious injuries.

Prioritisation can be a double edged sword, however, leading to unnecessary escalation and messing about unless the rules are clear and applied consistently.

Stopping rules

The last kind of effectiveness rule has to do with when to stop.

Enough needs to be enough. Cultures that have a rule that people should stop eating just before they are full have much lower obesity levels than others that stop eating when they are full.

Perfectionists sometimes don’t know when to stop. In most cases, it’s good to stop early – and that leaves us with the capacity to go longer on the things that matter.

Becoming Efficient

Where effective is about doing the right things, being efficient is about doing things right – and once again there are three types of rules.

How-to rules

How-to rules set out a pathway, a series of steps to follow.

The best example of this is the idea of mise-en-place – laying out everything that is needed and following an efficient sequence of operations to cook.

One thing I learned here was to put the pan on the fire before starting to get ingredients out. By the time I had everything, the pan was hot and I could get on with cooking.

Coordination rules

Coordination rules are about playing nicely with others – working as a team.

A nice example is when to use the words you and we.

When we talk to someone else and need to talk about a negative situation, say the person did something wrong, how should we phrase the sentence?

Is it You made a mistake or We made a mistake.

Using you will immediately result in the listener getting defensive and upset. With we, there is a recognition of collective ownership and a more likely move towards thinking of ways to stop the problem happening again.

Timing rules

The last set of rules are about timing – when to do things.

For example, many productive people believe that we should the things that are most important to us first thing in the morning.

When I started writing this blog, I did just that – the first thing I did every day was to write. And having that rule made it much easier to do the work needed

Many activities have cadences – a sequence that needs to be followed to get results. Getting the timing right on these is crucial.


Simple Rules is an easy-to-read book that sets out a clear map of what simple rules look like and how to come up with them.

So here is a simple rule – Read the book.

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