High-Level Thoughts

Absolutely essential concept, and one that I’ve been a fan of for a while. The book is useful in exploring simple rules and giving examples, but I get the sense they padded it a bit because it could be much shorter. You can get most of it from my notes, but I’d recommend picking up a copy to go deeper on the concepts.

Summary Notes

This concept reminds me of commander’s intent in the military. In a changing environment you can’t have too rigid of a plan, so some basic goal with the existing rules and training can allow for success and rough coordination despite chaos.

“Simple rules work, it turns out, because they do three things very well. First, they confer the flexibility to pursue new opportunities while maintaining some consistency. Second, they can produce better decisions. When information is limited and time is short, simple rules make it fast and easy for people, organizations, and governments to make sound choices. They can even outperform complicated decision-making approaches in some situations. Finally, simple rules allow the members of a community to synchronize their activities with one another on the fly.”

Common traits of effective simple rules:

  1. They’re limited in quantity, there can’t be too many or it’s no longer simple (3 rules for bird flocking)
  2. They are tailored to the person or organization using them, they’re not necessarily universal
  3. They apply to a well defined activity or decision, they’re not overly broad
  4. They give clear guidance while also allowing for freedom to improvise within them. Not overly rigid.

Avoiding decision paralysis:

  • People tend to overweigh less significant variables when they try to take everything into account. limiting your data can lead to better decisions (see, Infomania )
  • Simple rules help by limiting the impact of peripheral data that could lead to bad decisions, they give better guidance
  • They also help make action more likely by making it easy to act, instead of following some cumbersome plan

Types of rules:

  • Boundary rules, which help decide between two mutually exclusive decisions (get or don’t get bail)
  • Prioritizing rules help rank available options (medical triage, startup cash)
  • Stopping rules tell you when to reverse a decision (sell a stock, end a relationship)
  • How To rules help you do something
  • Coordination rules help groups function together
  • Timing rules tell you when to do something

Examples & Notes:

Boundary Rules:

  • DARPA Projects: “First, the project must further the quest for fundamental scientific understanding, and second, it must have a practical use.”
  • Drone strikes: “Does the target pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people? Are there no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat? Is there near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured? Only if the answer to all three of these questions was yes would a drone strike be authorized.”

Prioritizing Rules:

  • Hiring: “One Silicon Valley tech giant uses a simple prioritizing rule in deciding between two equally qualified candidates: all else equal, hire recruits referred by a current employee.”
  • Company projects: “The team came up with a handful of prioritizing rules, ranking projects according to whether they (1) removed bottlenecks to growing revenues, (2) provided benefits immediately (rather than paying off in the long term), (3) minimized up-front expenditures, and (4) reused existing resources.”

Stopping Rules:

  • Investing: “The secret weapon of Loeb’s investing strategy was a simple but powerful stopping rule: “If an investment loses 10 percent of its initial value, sell it.””

How To Rules:

  • Constraints: “She argues that truly original artists work by imposing constraints on themselves, in terms of the subjects they paint, materials they use, and artists they draw upon for inspiration. Monet, for example, purposefully limited his subjects, repeatedly painting pictures, by the dozens, of subjects like grain stacks and water lilies. This self-imposed constraint allowed him to focus on exploring how light changes, and his exploration helped spark a transition in the art world from representation to impressionism, setting the stage for twentieth-century artists such as Picasso.”
  • Constraints: “Their breakout album, 2001’ s White Blood Cells, which is featured on many lists of the decade’s best albums, follows five simple rules: (1) no blues; (2) no guitar solos; (3) no slide guitar; (4) no covers; and (5) no bass. These rules constrained the band to a box— but it was their box, and staying in that box helped enable their rapid-fire creativity.”
  • “At the prodding of the New York Times, Leonard published his simple rules of writing, which include “Avoid prologues,” “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue,” and “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.””

Coordination Rules:

  • Bird flocking: “The three rules are: (1) avoid collisions, (2) head in the same direction as your nearest neighbors, and (3) stay close to your nearest neighbors.”

Timing Rules:

  • Insomnia: “Insomniacs can get a good night’s rest by following four simple rules for when to sleep. The first is “Get up at the same time every morning,” which turns out to be more crucial than a regular bedtime for establishing a restful sleep pattern. The second is “Avoid going to bed until you feel sleepy,” even if this means hitting the hay later than you would ideally like. The third rule is “Do not stay in bed if you are not sleeping,” and the final rule, which follows from the others, is “Reduce the time spent in bed.”

Creating Simple Rules for yourself:

“The process of developing personal rules, like its professional counterpart, consists of three steps: (1) decide what will move your personal needles and increase the gap between what energizes you and what stresses you out, (2) identify a bottleneck that keeps you from creating personal value, and (3) develop simple rules that work for you.”

Questions to ask to find what will move the needle:

  • “What aspect of your life do you most want to improve? What are the first three things that come to mind?
  • What activities bring you the greatest happiness and sense of well-being? How could you spend more time on these?
  • Which aspects of your life cause you the most fear, stress, or anxiety? How could you decrease these?
  • If you look back in five years, what will you regret not changing? What will you regret if you look back from your deathbed?
  • How might a trusted friend, spouse, or loved one answer these questions for you? (It would be useful to ask them.)”

Identifying bottlenecks

  • “To help you identify promising candidates, ask yourself the following questions: Which activities or decisions keep you from achieving your objective? Where will rules have the greatest impact?”

Crafting Rules

  • Look at everything you’ve done in this area and see what has moved the needle, what’s been neutral, and what’s been detrimental
  • Can you create rules to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t?
  • Or if you don’t have data yourself, what does your research say you should focus on?
  • “By drawing on research, advice from friends, past data, and your own experience, you can make better choices of the bottleneck and first-cut rules. You want to make the rules as simple as possible to increase the odds that you will follow them. You can also limit your rules to two or three, as we have seen elsewhere in the book, to increase the odds that you will remember and follow them.”


  • Snacking: ““Eat snacks from a small bowl, not the bag” (from Brian Wansink’s book), “Don’t stockpile snacks in the cupboard” (his wife), and “No dessert during the week” (his experience).”
  • Dating: “Send feelers before essays, only pursue her if you’d like to see her tonight, avoid photographic red flags, use an unusual greeting or ask her how it’s going.”
  • Charisma: “Daniel settled on three rules to develop the charisma that comes from focusing intensely on other people. First, “Imagine the person you are talking to is the sympathetic star in a film you are watching.” Second, “Carry yourself like a king”— calm, comfortable, and without excessive nodding, “uh-huh”-ing, and fidgeting. Regal posture reduces the physical restlessness that can keep people from fully engaging in conversation. Finally, “Make and maintain soft eye contact,” which means relaxing your eyes and face when you look at someone.”

Rules for Improvement:

  • These are rules specifically for getting better at something
  • Poker: “Avoiding the tilt led Raghu to a couple of how-to rules. One was “Never use a credit card for gambling,” and another was to bring to the casino only the cash that he could afford to lose. Raghu kept this money in his pocket, and when he lost that money, he was done. He also started focusing on the process— playing each hand well with regard to the odds— rather than worrying about the results of whether he won or not. To stay focused on the process, he made it a rule to write an analysis of his play (regardless of the outcome) in a journal after every casino trip”

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