Rules are rules

When I wake up early, like before 5.00 am, and can’t get back to sleep, I think “Oh, OK, coffee with breakfast!”.  It is a small but genuine consolation for a night that was a bit light on. 

The coffee rule which I am invoking is: I have to have two teas before I have a coffee. When I need to get up early, I will make a tea then, and another one when I bring my beloved her coffee at 5.45 am. (This waking time is only on her work days — I wake her at a later time on her days off.) So on the days when I wake up earlyI have therefore had my two teas before I have breakfast, making a coffee with that meal permissible.

Why do I have this rule? It’s complicated. I really prefer coffee to tea. So if I had it all the time, I would have four or five cups of coffee a day, which seems undesirable. Limiting my coffee intake is a hangover from the days when my insomnia was really bad. Then, I used religiously to have only one coffee each day, at 10.30 am. I have since concluded that this doesn’t noticeably improve my sleep, and have thus relaxed the rule somewhat to have two or three coffees each day. Once I have had coffee, I don’t want to go back to having tea. 

This may not be very earth-shattering in itself, but it strikes me as a neat example of the little rules that we like to construct for ourselves. They go by several names: maxims, rules of thumb, heuristics. Many are relics from more leisurely ages: one for each person, and one for the pot. (Does anyone still make leaf tea any more?) Many old saws contain practical advice, like eating shellfish only in months containing the letter “R”, and planting your tomato seeds after Melbourne Cup Day. My beloved said her father put his in earlier, raising another rule: there are exceptions to every rule.

Then there are the proverbs that everyone knows: a stitch in time saves nine; look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves. I remember a few bridge-related ones from Dad; always lead with the third highest of your longest and strongest suit: never trump your partner’s ace. And one, from a bygone era, that he loved to quote: there’s many a man walking the streets of London for not having played out his trumps.

There is a range of these sayings based on superstition: if you give someone a knife, they have to give you a coin, or else you’re symbolically cutting the friendship. Other sayings use rhyme as a mnemonic. In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Thirty days hath September (etc. — I could never remember the bit about the leap year). Everyone will have their own examples — please add as a comment.

I find this plethora of little guideposts to daily life intriguing. How have they come to be so ubiquitous? As usual, I think there are several reasons. One is to do with efficiency. Practical rules do distill some useful experience. If you can’t remember when you changed the battery in your smoke detectors, you may as well do it every Easter. Shellfish apparently can taste different when they are spawning. In the Northern Hemisphere, the months-with-an-R-in-them rule is a handy mnemonic to avoid this season. (In Australia, according to Richard Cornish’s column, this doesn’t apply.) The same with planting your tomato seeds. Rules of this type give a handy mental hook on which to hang a fact that would otherwise swim away. (This, of course, was from a pre-Wikipedia era, when everyone was expected to have “general knowledge”, whatever that was.)

Food is something that is both rule-ridden, and reflective of social change. Mustard with mutton is the sign of a glutton — guilty as charged! Red wine goes with meat, white with chicken or fish. A meal isn’t complete without bread. Mealtimes now are vastly different to when most of us were growing up. There is obviously a much greater range of foods consumed in Australia and New Zealand, and much less of that food is made in-house. It is also consumed in a much more hedonistic way; food is now seen as something interesting and pleasurable. Back in the day, some households operated an immutable seven-day menu. Saturday was roast day. Sunday lunch was leftovers from the roast with salad; dinner was scrambled eggs. Monday was a casserole, and so on. 

These kinds of arrangements reflect the good and bad aspects of rules. Having a rule is reassuring in the same way that habits are. Rules can provide not only useful guidance, but also a sense of continuity in a world that can feel hostile and overwhelming. They can also be boring and constraining. In this way they are a bit like the Queen’s Christmas message. One might like the fact that HMQ is still pegging along and giving us her take on things, but her comments are often so anodyne as to be pretty dull. (Just the thing after a day’s epic consumption!)

Having just finished reading Willpower, by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, I have a another explanation for rules. The main function of rules is to simplify the decision making process. Having to make a lot of decisions leads to a state known as decision fatigue(I think this is similar to cognitive overload.) Anyone renovating a house, or who has looked at a number of properties, will have experienced this state. Decision fatigue leads to impulsive decision-making: you just want to get it all over with. This in turn makes bad decisions more likely.

Back to my tea and coffee rule. The obvious question is: why don’t you just have what you feel like? That actually involves more work in that I have to make this decision several times a day. If I do that all day, I’ll spend all my decision-making energy on this little stuff. I’ll have nothing left in the tank when I get to the big decisions.

Sounds fanciful? Baumeister and Tierney’s main contentions are:

  1. You have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as you use it.
  2. You use the same stock of willpower for all manner of tasks.

A large number of experiments have confirmed these statements. One early piece of research is known as the radish experiment. Students, who had been fasting, were assigned to one of two groups. Each group was put into a lab with freshly-baked chocolate biscuits, chocolate, and raw radishes on the table. One group was told they could eat anything, the other group told only to eat the radishes. Both groups were then given a large number of difficult geometry problems to solve. The chocolate biscuit group persevered longer than the radish group. This confirmed the hypothesis that the willpower of the radish group would be eroded by refraining from eating the biscuits and chocolate.

Ever tried to compare phone plans or health insurance? The tasks are so difficult one soon hits decision fatigue. Given that this results in most people staying put, it’s not hard to see how this state of affairs is in the interest of the telco or health insurer. There have recently been reactions against all this complexity. Health insurers have been forced to offer bronze, silver and gold plans. Some telcos offer basic plans, as well as ones with the lot. And in fashion, there is talk of the capsule wardrobe; a collection of garments in a restricted colour palette, all of which go with each other.  One may not take Mark Zuckerberg’s advice in many facets of life, but he has a relevant sartorial rule. He only has T-shirts in one colour: grey marle. This way he gets to leave the house with his decision-making mojo intact. Your time starts now: tea or coffee?

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