In a recent episode of her podcast, Hurry Slowly, Jocelyn K. Glei examines the difference between rules and principles. She sees rules as “a narrowly circumscribed set of actions for how you can accomplish a certain thing,” whereas “principles are broadly defined values or ideas that you believe in that govern your behaviour and actions.” She regards rules as “externally motivated” and principles as “internally motivated.”
Using the example of exercise, Glei shows how the rules can quickly break down when faced with change. If you commit to going to the gym a certain number of times per week in order to lose a set amount of weight—establishing a rule for yourself—and then life intervenes (illness, injury, work), have you broken the rule and thus failed your exercise goal? A guiding conviction to move more in order to “be in your body” and feel healthier would be more of a principle. So what if you don’t make it to the gym? Go for a walk instead, or dance in your kitchen.
I really like Glei’s idea, as it feels less stressful and easier to adhere to principles. But I disagree that rules are “externally motivated,” for when I set a rule it feels like it’s coming from my very core and fires me up…before burning me out. When I’m trying to finish a project or work through a problem, I drop into rule-setting mode. I must be up at 5 am to work. I cannot buy a latte until I pay off my debt. But rules present only an illusion of control, they feel too constraining, and they really do collapse when circumstances change—say, I’m experiencing insomnia and need the extra sleep, or my mom is in town and we’re going out for coffee. Plus, I spend my days resisting rules, so it seems illogical to invite them into my life in order to “improve” it.
I’m curious about applying this idea of rules vs. principles to writing and the creative process.
Continue reading “Principles for writers”