Productivity and GTD

Principles vs. Rules

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
“There are three constants in life... change, choice and principles.” ~ Stephen Covey

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Principles and rules can be understood in different ways, so in this article I will refer to principles as “fundamental ideas that govern someone’s thought or behavior”, and to rules as “that which must be complied with because it has been agreed within a community.”

Although both things determine the way you act and take decisions, rules are imposed from the outside and must be obeyed to avoid incurring some kind of penalty (a punishment, a fine, a layoff, a season in jail, etc.) whereas principles are internal, and force you to do what you think it is right or correct.

The world is plenty of rules. Society, family, the workplace… Rules exist everywhere, not necessarily in written or official form, but as a series of appropriate behaviors that establish where the limits are.

When members of a community—a business, a family, a group—have firmly established trusted principles, then it’s not necessary to create rules. People can act with total freedom, because you know that their behavior and their decisions will always meet certain standards.

Rules appear when the principles are not very clear. Many companies prefer to regulate all aspects of work rather than creating a culture based on certain values. Rules are easy to impose (“start at 9 a.m., leave at 5 p.m.”), but the costs of managing them are high. Principles must be built (“always keep customer satisfaction in mind”) and setting by example.

Working under rules is a source of stress. Working under principles is natural, and requires no effort.

When do you work best? When you have enough confidence and autonomy to do your best, or when you have someone telling you how you should be doing things all the time?

What are your best relationships based on? On the confidence generated by the sharing of appropriate values, or on complying a set of rules that make you worthy of that relationship?

Take some time to become aware of the principles, values and standards that govern your life and work. And share them with whom it may concern—your team, your partner, your family, your friends. If you want to create something worthwhile, base it on principles and forget the rules.

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