Rule-Governed Behavior

This month we’re continuing our theme on habit and behavior change with a brief discussion about “rule-governed behavior”. Rule-governed behavior is pretty much just what it sounds like: things we do because there is some sort of rule that says we should do it that way. This can certainly be helpful – especially on a systemic level. Businesses, schools, corporations and governments all create codes of conduct regarding how things are expected to go, which brings a sense of stability and predictability necessary to functioning.

While this process can at times be helpful, other times it can really get in the way of meaningful action – especially when we apply it on an individual level. For one, rule-based behavior tends to be rigid (after all, we’re talking about rules). When establishing a new habit, such as a meditation practice, flexibility is critical. When I first began my practice, without even realizing it, my mind set down all sorts of rules about how my practice should go. “I should meditate every morning for 30 minutes” “I should meditate when the house is quiet, in a very peaceful corner” “I should read one book about mindfulness per month”….and so forth and so on. What these rules robbed me of, was my ability to flexibly adjust my practice based on the ever-changing circumstances of my moments. So what happened when I missed my 30-minute morning meditation session? I wouldn’t meditate that day! What happened when my house wasn’t quiet? No meditation! Before I knew it, I had pretty much abandoned my practice entirely because I just couldn’t get it “right”, according to my rules.

Not only did these rules ultimately sabotage my consistency, but they created a sense of burden around my practice. Rather than really noticing the impact my practice was having on my life, and allowing myself to really connect with all the joy that my practice was creating, I was bogged down by a bunch of rigid rules. This is another big downfall of rule-based behavior; we lose touch with the actual rewards of what we’re doing. Instead of allowing the rewards that my practice was bringing to my life fuel my motivation to keep practicing (like yelling less at my kids), I was only focused on this sense that practicing was something “I should do”. Which made it a drag!

Can you sense the difference between doing something because you should, versus doing something because it really matters to you? This is where we can pivot away from rule-based behavior, and towards values-based behavior. This pivot brings with it sticking power, and the ability to pick up habits that really, actually matter.

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