Now is the time for simple rules.

As we approach Easter, I have noticed the impact that Covid 19 has had on my home town of Torquay. At this time of the year the town is normally gearing up for the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, the longest continuously running elite surfing competition in the world. Every year it has attracted the best surfers in the world. I love being down here at this time of the year. The weather is usually gorgeous, the town is buzzing with surfers and tourists and it’s a great economy boost for the region. Locals talk about spotting a Kelly Slater, Mick Fanning, Stephanie Gilmore or a Carissa Moore.

Like many events this year’s competition won’t be happening, and the town is incredibly quiet. Easter is the time of the year where people travel, go camping and enjoy the 4 day break. Not this year. The clear rule from the government is don’t travel, stay home and isolate. In the past few days they have been repeating this message hoping it gets through. It reminds me how important simple rules are at times like this. When there is uncertainty, complexity, lots of information and confusion then finding ways to bring simplicity to this experience can be enormously helpful. They can be useful when we are feeling overwhelmed. They can help us stay disciplined. They help us bring simplicity to complexity.

Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt, in their book Simple Rules: How to Thrive In a Complex World, state that ‘simple rules are short-cut strategies to save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information’[i]. They go on to say that that these ‘rules provide a powerful weapon against the complexity that threatens to overwhelm individuals, organisations, and society as a whole’.

At this time, it’s the simple rules that define what you can do during the Covid 19 lock down. A simple rule that I find useful is ‘Does this activity meet the criteria of essential? If not, then don’t do it. People will always try and find loopholes and criticise but it’s the simple rules that allow us to understand what we can and can’t do in times of uncertainty and complexity. It seems to be working. In Victoria we have started to flatten the curve and the number of new cases per day are getting lower and lower.

I am reminded of the importance of simple rules when I did improv comedy last year. As you can imagine, there are no scripts in improv. There is a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty and you are encouraged not to plan at any time what you are going to do. What helps performers to manage this uncertainty is that everyone follows some basic rules or principles. One rule is ‘Yes, and . . .’ This rule is about responding positively to what the other performer is providing you with, and adding a statement that helps the scene progress. If I don’t react positively then the scene can’t go anywhere. For example, if one performer says, ‘It’s hot in here,’ and you respond, ‘It’s not too bad,’ then the scene dies. However, if you respond positively by saying ‘Yes, it is, but what did you expect when we’re in hell?’ then the scene has somewhere to go. ‘Yes, and’ is a simple rule that helps performers navigate the uncertainty of performing without a script.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, in a place of uncertainty and increased complexity then engage some simple rules to help you navigate this challenging time.

So what can you do to deploy simple rules?

1. Consistently collect data on previous experiences. One of the elements of learning from experience is to develop rules of thumb that can be used when the same or a similar experience comes up in the future. For example, every time I experience anxiety about stepping outside my comfort zone I meditate on it. I learnt this simple rule through my own coaching and allows myself to ground myself and see things from a growth mindset. It is much more effective if your rules are not based on opinions or hunches but on learning what works and what doesn’t from your own experiences. I found over and over again that meditation works for me when I am stepping into a zone of discomfort.

2. Your rules need to be practical and doable. There is no point having rules that you have to think about, are too theoretical or impossible to apply. For example, ‘Don’t be the smartest person in the room’ is not a practical simple rule. A doable, simple rule might be that when you find yourself disagreeing with someone in a meeting then ask more questions and practice deep listening. It might be simply, ‘tell me more about that’. When things are complex and overwhelming its important your simple rules is intuitive and doable.

3. Bounce your simple rules off others. When we identify our simple rules, we can be influenced by our own biases as to what works and what doesn’t. I encourage people to discuss their personal principles or guidelines with those who they trust. It might be a trusted colleague or a coach. Context is important and a trusted person can help identify whether the rules of thumb will apply in one context or across many contexts.

Have a wonderful Easter and please stay home. There will be plenty of time to enjoy this beautiful part of the world.

[i] Sull, D. & Eisenhardt, K. M. ((2015) Simple Rules: How To Thrive IN A Complex World Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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