How to Declutter Your Mind and Unleash Your Willpower by Using "Bright-Line" Rules, by James Clear
A bright line rule refers to a clearly defined rule or standard.
It is a rule with clear interpretation and very little wiggle room. It establishes a bright line for what the rule is saying and what it is not saying.
The Miranda ruling is one example. If a police officer fails to inform the suspect of their rights, then the suspect’s statements are not admissible in court. Plain and simple. Clear and bright.
It can be easy to make promises like this to yourself, but they do not create bright lines. Fuzzy statements make progress hard to measure, and the things we measure are the things we improve.
Using Bright Lines to Break Bad Habits:
The examples I outlined above focused primarily on building new behaviors, but bright-line rules can be used just as effectively to break bad habits or eliminate old behaviors.
My friend Nir Eyal proposes a similar strategy that he calls “Progressive Extremism.” To explain the concept, Nir uses the example of being a vegetarian. If you were interested in becoming a vegetarian, you might start by saying, “I don’t eat red meat.” The goal is not to change everything at once, but to take a very clear and extreme stand in one small area. You are establishing a bright line on that topic.
Over time, you can progressively move your bright line forward and add other behaviors to the mix. (i.e. “I don’t eat red meat or fish.” And so on.)
If something is important to you, then you should establish a bright line for it.
- I only process email between 11AM and 6PM.
- I enjoy a maximum of 2 drinks per night.
- I save $500 per month for retirement.
- I eat at least two types of vegetables per day.
These statements establish bright lines. These statements make action steps precise and obvious. Vague promises will never lead to clear results.
How Bright Lines Unleash Your Hidden Willpower:
First, bright lines shift the conversation in your head from one of sacrifice to one of empowerment. When you don’t have a bright line established and you choose not to do something, the tendency is to say, “Oh, I can’t do it this time.” Conversely, when you do have a bright line clearly set, your response can simply be, “No thanks, I don’t do that.” Bright lines help you avoid making just-this-once exceptions. Instead, you are following a new identity that you have created for yourself.
Second, by establishing clear decisions in your life, you conserve willpower for other important choices. Here’s the problem with trying to make daily decisions in muddy water: Without bright lines, you must decide whether a situation fits your standards every time. With bright lines, the decision is made ahead of time. Because of this, you are less likely to suffer from decision fatigue and more likely to have willpower left over for work, relationships, and other health habits.