Memorized Rules: How to give your life direction

Table of Contents

A funny lie of adulthood is pretending we’ll act on the life advice we save.

We don't revisit bookmarks. We don’t re-read Kindle highlights. We rarely re-open Google docs.

I recently overcame this self-sabotage. If I have a superpower, it’s that I now turn advice into action. This post breaks down how, and it shares the best advice I've been given.

Why we don't act on advice

The first cause of advice laziness is misclassifying what life advice is. We treat life advice the same way we learn someone’s name: briefly acknowledge it then assume we’ll remember it.

But a name is trivia—a single factoid. That's not what life advice is. Instead, it's a framework of instructions for how to behave—not unlike the instructions learned in school textbooks. To implement them, you had to drill them until they became second nature. Similarly, you contextualize and remember advice by thinking through its application to an upcoming problem.

The second cause of advice laziness is not knowing how to navigate advice overload. My solution is to treat life advice like I can only remember a few at a time and to only memorize that which I can frequently use.

Here's an example of advice I memorized from Sahil Lavingia: "You can be twice as rich by deciding you need half as much." Here's another example from Karen Lamb: "In a year from now, you will regret not having started today."

Both are actionable rules. I call this type of advice a Memorized Rule: a shortcode lodged in my brain for making decisions on a daily basis.

After playing around with this idea, my friends and I found a limit to the number of rules we could easily memorize and recall throughout the day: six. This aligns with Miller's Law: "The average person can only keep 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their working memory."

By committing six Memorized Rules to memory, something critical happens: You remove the friction that makes advice unlikely to be acted on. You no longer have to look at your notes. The most profound realization, however, is that adding a new Memorized Rule redefines your identity. These principles become your intuitions for what the right thing to do is. They influence how you treat others. What you work on. What you value.

Let's look at rules you may want to add to your own memorized list.

List of principles

Popular adages

Principles from me

Implementing Memorized Rules

There are three steps to the Memorized Rules framework:

What makes a rule good?

How do you know when to swap a new rule in for one of your six? When it meaningfully changes your behavior.

The more that a principle changes how you feel or behave (for the better), the more valuable it is. If it fails to do this, it was advice you were already following or it's not sufficiently relevant to your daily life. Don’t let it take one of your precious six slots.

For advice to truly change your behavior, I’ve found that it must resonate both emotionally and intellectually:

Let’s use the rule of “Honor your word. People remember.” This rings true logically because you can easily explain why it’s true: when you’re repeatedly reliable, you stand out because most people aren’t. This principle also rings true emotionally because you intuitively recall when being reliable for friends in the past strengthened friendships.

Advice only takes root if it resonates with your past—because there's no way in hell you're going to let that happen again.

Past behavior builds scar tissue around lessons learned, which thickens the emotional cement that future principles sink into. This gives you conviction, which makes you more likely to act on your rules.

In contrast, if you spend all day watching Netflix, fewer principles have an opportunity to emotionally resonate with you. Because you lack a foundation of experiences. You're an empty shell.

Perhaps this explains why children have a harder time following advice: they don’t have life experiences to latch advice onto. The advice they receive can only resonate logically and not emotionally. So it doesn't stick.

To avoid a childlike relationship with advice, Memorized Rules suggests living a varied life with unique experiences.

What's the difference between a rule and a value? I consider values to be a subtype of rule with a sense of how one ought to behave in order to be virtuous or emotionally fulfilled. For example, "Always be good to your neighbor." Why? It's a strategically beneficial rule, yes, but it's also "the right thing to do," so it's a value rule.

What to do now

There are many implications to Memorized Rules. These are my favorite two:

Again, the Memorized Rules process looks like this:

If all this feels like too much work, start with just three rules and add to them over time.

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—Julian Shapiro

July 22, 2021

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