Feeling Overwhelmed? Set Smart Rules.

I have to be honest for a minute: I started my blog 3 months ago, and it still overwhelms me.

The problem is easily summarized – there is too much to do, and not enough time.

Writing content, getting traffic, networking with other bloggers, working on my blog design, participating in social media, just to name a few.

With all these different activities in mind, it’s hard to get things done. It seems that I enter a circle without getting actual results. Often times, my typical daily blog routine would look like this:

I start my day by checking my Google Analytics account. The analysis of my blog metrics reveal the weak spots of my marketing strategy. For example, I find out that my blog traffic from Quora is low. So I log in into my Quora Account, take a look at my stats, and figure out that I don’t get many views & upvotes. Consequently, I start to google „how to get more upvotes on Quora“. While I’m browsing through the web for a solution,  suddenly I remember this – „I didn’t create anything today“. Immediately I jump to action and start to write a new blog post. But at this moment of time, my creative energy is pretty much gone after all of my earlier work. After 2 hours, I feel as If I didn’t get anything done at all.

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work

I think many people can relate to this phenomenon. People experience it on many occasions, be it on work, personal projects or in their daily lives. It’s the disease of our generation. We are overwhelmed by the variety of information, possibilities and to-dos.

But to return to my blog – I was not satisfied with the results of my daily blogging routine. I wanted to achieve these things:

  • Make daily progress
  • Avoid information overload and decision fatigue
  • Design an organization method to avoid jumping from one task to another

Of course, one imaginable solution would be a plain old to-do-list. With all due respect to to-do-lists, I think they are overrated. On one hand, to-do-lists are stressful and exhausting. It’s hard to break down every detail of your action plan. On the other hand, to-do lists focus mainly on the details of your organization. But they don’t serve you well with juggling all your activities in a simple and connected way.

No, I needed a more sustainable solution. I wanted a simple but powerful concept which helps me to get things going without too much planning.

So I came up with a concept which I call „Smart Rules.”

The Hidden Power Of Smart Rules

To explain this solution, you have to go back to our childhood. As a kid, there was one thing that affected your whole childhood – You had to follow rules. Rules like:

  • Don’t eat candy before dinner
  • Don’t run around while holding scissors
  • Put your stuff back when you are done playing

I know what you think – What’s the point? C’mon, rules are boring, and nobody likes them. Yes, but they work astonishingly well, and they have a large range of application.

Rules raise children, hold societies together, and keep religions alive. So maybe they could help me to manage my „10-visitors-per-day” blog?

I gave this simple idea a try. I proceeded as follows: I wrote down the top 3 problems of my daily blogging routine, and in each case, I came up with a rule to counter that problem.

Problem 1 – Multi-Tasing: I constantly switch between promoting (marketing) and writing blog posts (content creation). This is exhausting and unproductive.
Smart Rule 1: On weekdays, I focus on marketing and brainstorming blog post ideas. On the weekend, I solely write blog posts. The reason for this is easily explained: Writing blog posts needs more creative energy, concentrated work and a quiet environment. These conditions are given on the weekend. In contrast to that, I find it easier to spread out my marketing tasks over my hectic working week.

Problem 2 – Information Overload: I consume too much information. When I dive into a new topic (like „Quora Marketing“), I want to know everything about it before I put my knowledge into practice. As a result, I suffer from information paralysis and delay implementing my learned lessons.
Smart Rule 2: I only look for new information when I experience an actual problem (i.e. “not enough views and upvotes on Quora”). Then I read a maximum of three web resources and put this knowledge into practice for at least one week. If my strategy doesn’t get me results, I read the next three web resources.

Problem 3 – Work-Life-Balance: I work on my blog almost every day. This increases the chance of losing passion and burning out.
Smart Rule 3: I only work 5 days a week on my blog. On the other 2 days, I relax or work on other fun projects.

On first sight, these rules seemed trivial. But I stuck to them. Now I don’t want to promise too much, but for me, the concept „smart rules“ clearly worked. I experienced the following improvements:

  • Improved Productivity: By following these three simple rules, I started to get things done. I finished blog posts and started to implement my marketing strategy more thoroughly. I knew what to do, and when to do it.
  • More Motivation: I was less overwhelmed and more decisive, which in turn led to more energy and motivation. It was a great feeling to know that I had a method to manage my daily blogging routine.
  • Clearer Vision: My smart rules provide a basic organization framework on which I can build my longterm vision.

So far, so good. But why did these three simple rules work?

The Science Behind Smart Rules

Put simply: Rules reduce complexity. Rules automate your thinking patterns. You have to make less decisions. As a result, the main memory of your brain will be increased. You are more able to focus on your actual task instead of juggling all your activities.

This can be illustrated with the following example: Let’s say you have to complete 4 different activities („A“, „B“, „C“ and „D“), but their order does not matter (see figure below). How many possibilities do you have? 24.

But now, let’s add two simple rules:

  1. Activity C follows directly after activity B
  2. D is the last activity

What do you think how many possibilities are left? Well, 2! More precisely, „ABCD“ and „BCAD“.

2 simple rules reduced the solution space by more than 90%.

The power of simple rules is well researched. Scientists call it „Swarm Intelligence“. It means “emergent behavior arising from simple rules that are followed by individuals and does not involve any central coordination” [1].

You can experience this phenomenon every autumn in the skies around the world. It is when thousands of birds come together in swarms. Every single bird complies to a few simple rules. But as a whole, the flock of birds forms an intelligent and resilient organism. The same is the case for the organization of ants and fish.

A great explanation of emergence can be found in this video:

 

How To Design Your Own Smart Rules

All theory aside – How do you come up with your own smart rules?

First of all, you should know in which cases they can be used. Smart rules are especially suited for hectic and complex environments. Such environments are characterized by juggling many different activities as well as the non-existence of a perfect and straightforward solution.

One good application area for smart rules is daily working life. You have to analyze problems, design solutions, talk to customers and colleagues, respond to email and keep yourself up-to-date. There is no straightforward solution to achieve all of this. Rather, you try to stay afloat by going with the flow.

Ok, once you identified an application area for smart rules, you need to define your concrete problems. As you have already seen in this blog post, I did this for my blogging routine. Typical problems of a 9-to-5 worker could be these:

  • Managing several projects at the same time
  • Overwhelmed by daily email
  • Unproductive meetings

When the problems are defined, it’s time to come up with smart rules which counter them. But what makes a good rule? From my own experience, a smart must comply with these 3 aspects:

  • Easy: If your rule isn’t easy, you won’t stick to it. Thus, your rule must be easy to formulate and easy to remember. Generally speaking, it shouldn’t make you think too much.
  • Embeddable: Your rule has to match its environment. You won’t follow your smart rule if it deviates too much from your typical behavior. For example, don’t create an extensive morning routine if you know that you are not a morning person.
  • Smart: In simple terms, your smart rule has to work. If you analyze my own smart rules, you will notice that they „hack” my own psychological weaknesses like forgetfulness, inconsistency, or overestimation of my own abilities.

A great way to come up with smart rules is to think in templates. Smart rules generally are based on one of these 3 types.

Type 1) Sequential Constraint

  • This week I focus on Project A, next week I focus on Project B.
  • I do marketing on weekdays, and write blog posts on the weekend.

Type 2) Time Constraint

  • I check my emails only twice a day.
  • I work only 5 days a week on my blog.

Type 3) Conditional Constraint

  • Whenever I attend a meeting, I take notes.
  • I only look for new information when I experience an actual problem.

It should be noted that smart rules don’t replace a detailed strategy. Rather, they serve as a foundation to handle chaotic environments in a quick and effective way. If you jump into a complex and overwhelming project, smart rules are a perfect starting point to get things going. Once your projects take off, you can combine your smart rules with goal-oriented approaches like to-do lists or Gantt charts.