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24 Rules of Thumb for a Better Life

Guidance for living.

Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, Public Domain

Many people are more likely to benefit from simple than complex advice, for example, one-liners that are easy to keep top-of-mind.

Rules of thumb are particularly helpful because they’re more flexible than rules—They’re guidelines: usually but not always wise. Here are some rules of thumb that have been particularly helpful to my clients.


The traffic light. In your utterance’s first 30 seconds, your light is green. In the second 30 it’s yellow—The person may be starting to think you've said enough. At the one-minute mark, you usually should shut up or ask a question.

20-40. In a two-person conversation, talk 20 to 40 percent of the time. Your conversation partner will feel likely better about the outcome and about you, and you’re more likely to learn something.

Disagree sparingly. You pay a price each time you disagree, let alone criticize. Assess whether it’s worth the price.


Accept or leave. Changing someone else's foundational characteristic is even harder than changing your own—Ask any psychotherapist. Perhaps after providing a bit of feedback that fails to help, you’re usually wise to accept your friend or romantic partner’s weakness . . . or leave. Trying to "fix" a person is a risky proposition.

Hang with people one notch better than you. Whether it’s one notch smarter, kinder, harder-working, or a better musical or sports partner, being around one-notch-better people usually rubs off. But two or more notches higher is more likely to make you feel bad than to improve you.

Induce intrinsic motivation, whether as a boss or parent. To the extent you can influence someone's behavior change, it’s more likely to endure if you invoke a person’s intrinsic motivation, for example, “I see a lot of potential in you and I know you want to make a difference as well as be an employee you can be proud of” rather than, “If you perform, I could see you getting a promotion" or “I don’t want to have to write you up.” Similarly, as a parent, “You’re a helluva good kid and I know you want to be one. Do you want to want to make more effort to come home on time?” is more likely to build intrinsic, enduring motivation than, “If you’re late, you’ll be grounded.”


Follow your passion....and starve. Too many people follow the same few passions, for example, sports, fashion, or environmentalism, so supply-and-demand means that unless you’re awesome or lucky, you may well have a hard time getting more than ramen-and-cat-food pay.

Put yourself in the employer’s shoes. Sometimes, job seekers should highlight what they want to sell about themselves. But more often, in resume, LinkedIn profile, cover letter, and interview, a wiser filter is, “Is this statement, while true, likely to make the employer more likely to hire me?

Steak over sizzle. Marketing is one of the fastest growing occupations, alas. Resist getting sucked in. Yes, networking matters. Yes, appearance matters. But ultimately you'll likely feel better about yourself and be more successful if you focus more on building and presenting your skills.

Build on strengths; skirt weaknesses. We are more immutable than we may think and that self-improvement gurus assert. Of course, core weaknesses (for example, a tendency to violence) need be addressed, but beyond such, it’s often wise to do work and avocations that leverage your core strengths and sidestep core weaknesses.

Maximum contribution trumps work-life balance. Of course, some people lack the physical or mental stamina to work long hours but, consistent with your energy level, you may well live a life better-led if you spend discretionary time doing work that uses your best skills to improve the lives of people in your sphere of influence.

Up isn’t the only way. Only some people are wise to aspire upward. To avoid reaching your level of incompetence or working more than is wise, decide whether, at least at this point in your life, it’s wiser to strive upward, be grateful for your status quo, or even take a step down.


Status is the enemy of contentment. We waste money. We endure painful careers for mere status. Whether it’s buying a car, choosing a neighborhood, or a career to pursue, ask yourself whether status is playing too large a role in your decision.

Reject the first offer; accept the second. In negotiation, anything you wheedle after the second offer is usually dwarfed by the risk of enmity, too lofty expectations, or even getting the offer withdrawn.

Give based on potential, not deficit. In choosing a charity, prioritize not the beneficiaries with the greatest deficit but those with high potential to profit and contribute to society. As every triage medic knows, it’s wise to devote limited resources not necessarily to the sickest but to those with the greatest potential to benefit.

Emotional health

Suppress and distract. Yes, sometimes a personal problem requires psychotherapy and/or drugs. But often, it’s wiser to suppress unwanted thoughts and distract yourself by doing something more constructive or pleasurable. Therapy tends to build the memory neurons associated with the problem or past negative experience. In contrast, suppress and distract tends to atrophy those neurons, thus making you happier. Plus, by not revisiting the problem yet again, you’re more likely to be productive and less likely to annoy others with your repeated "processing."

Low self-esteem is often a signal you should try to improve. Gurus often imply that low-self esteem is an irrationally negative self-assessment. More often, low self-esteem has significant legitimacy. Decide whether it’s wiser to try to improve or just pump up your self-esteem.


Better a plain, inexpensive school with good kids and teachers than a fancy school with lesser people. It’s easy to get seduced by plush buildings and shrubs. But in education, it really is all about the people. I’d rather be educated or have my child educated in a tenement with inspiring teachers and smart, kind kids than in a palace filled with the mediocre.


Is there a better use of my time? I believe that is the most beneficial rule of thumb. Using it before making even minor decisions can make the difference between being productive, worthy, and in control of your life versus feeling ineffectual and overwhelmed.

Force yourself, yes force yourself to do that task. Some procrastination experts insist that you must treat procrastination as a symptom and dig deep to work through a root cause, usually fear of failure. But often, the problem is simply hedonism: a desire to do something more pleasurable even if that’s not in your interest. Successful, contented people get comfortable being uncomfortable, for example, doing that ugly work project, your taxes, and yes, completing that honey-do list.

Be judgmental. The more acceptable term is “discerning” but “judgmental” is probably more accurate. Even if you loathe yourself, you don't deserve the punishment of accepting badness in people or products. Make judgments and inferences based on reasonable current and past experience. You’ll be happier and more successful.

Have an experimental mindset. Instead of excess rumination, take low-risk actions and monitor their success, for example, in your search for a better job or in dealing with coworkers, friends, and family members.

What would your wise self do? Think twice before doing or believing something because it’s the norm, whether marrying, hating or loving President Trump, whatever. Take a deep breath and think: What would your wise self do?

Eat mainly fruits and veggies and small amounts of the rest. I believe that advice, compliments of Michael Pollan, distills the mountains of diet advice into one wise sentence. I’d add: And forgive your screw-ups. An occasional one isn't fatal.

In conclusion

Again, all of these are not rules but rules of thumb, to be used or rejected depending on your situation.

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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