Life's Little (But Important) Rules

Here's my list:

1. Put Things Where You'll Look For Them

This turns out to be very useful advice. If you just put things down—willy-nilly—at some later date you'll likely stand and ponder where the hell they went. But if you train yourself to first ask "Where will I look for this?" you'll have fewer problems locating them. It also helps to have specific places in your house/office for different items: tools, boxes, toiletries, paper files, miscellaneous junk, etc.

2. Measure Twice, Cut Once

This old carpenter's law applies to much of our lives. Plan the task, then think it through and ask if the first decision was the best one or can yet be improved. This question, again, is a matter of habit. Particularly with physical tasks is it easy to just jump in and make a dog's breakfast of the whole affair. I'm myself bad at remembering my own advice here, witness "The Many Faults of Douglas Whaley" (see Related Posts below).

But this isn't restricted to mere mechanics, but also applies to all major choices. The bigger the issue, the more thought it needs, and then even more thought on top of that. "It seemed like a good idea at the time" rarely rescues you when someone asks "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" The answer is that you didn't think enough. And especially when you're in a rage must you remember this advice. "Revenge is a dish best served cold" is an old saying. When in a passion, calm yourself. During the Civil War, Lincoln, faced with generals who wouldn't advance even when victorious, and idiots giving him misinformation that killed his men, often wrote angry letters to the malefactors, but then put them in a desk drawer overnight. In the morning he routinely pitched them (though, had I been he, a couple of them I'd have sent at first posting).

3. Tell Your Right Brain What To Do

I've written at length about the left-brain/right brain difference (see "The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life"), but adding this directive to your future much will change dramatically for the better. The left side of the brain deals with words, numbers, and logic, while the right side is in charge of physical activities and imagination. Reading a book is left-brain activity. Kissing is right-brained.

But the right brain, while very creative, doesn't ever think things through. Left to itself it will drop objects in the wrong place (see above), and it's a robot when it comes to routine activities. Alas, it will do the same things in the same way, over and over, unless challenged to do something different, or told to try new prospects. Want to improve your dancing, golf swing, love life, or other things physical? Then, ahead of time, tell your right brain what you'd like to accomplish, and let it think it through (which it will enjoy doing). This also applies to little tasks: for example, let gravity help you. Trying to put something into something else? It'll be easier if you take a moment to let the earth's pull move things in an efficient way. The same is true of all of physics and physical difficulties encountered (wind, temperature, light, etc.).

I do recommend reading the cited blog post about the brain for a more detailed explanation of this amazing phenomenon. It's one of the most-read posts on my blog.

4. Solving Hard Problems

When it comes to the big decisions, I have two things to proffer:

a. Get help. What resources haven't' you tapped? The internet is a wondrous tool. Google is (more or less) a mechanized version of God. Within seconds it will find the answer to almost any question if you can reduce it down to two or three key search words, and be willing to explore beyond the advertising sites and the first page listing of the most popular choices. You can also join experts who are talking about your very dilemma on listserves or blogs. Just type into Google those same key words along with the word  "listserve" (a group of people who share emails and endlessly debate whatever someone asks, often mind-numbingly) or "blog."

You're not alone on this planet. Find a friend. People—and by that I mean most everyone—are delighted to tell you what they know—we're a very cooperative species, we humans. Even if the expert is a complete stranger, you can find this person online and then send an email. Who knows what great things he/she will suggest? Or, in your local community, who might be helpful? Your pastor, your neighbor, someone you just now learned about? It never hurts to ask—most people are quite flattered to be sought out as a font of wisdom.

b. Am I Asking the Right Question? Another thought that helps is: what's the bright side of the dark side I worry is coming? Every problem suggests alternate possibilities if you but allow yourself to explore them. So consider what you haven't considered. I learned a lot back in 1968 (when still in law school) from the novels by C. S. Forester about the fictional 18/19th century British naval officer, Horatio Hornblower, who much annoyed Napoleon. In these wonderful books, Hornblower is faced over and over with a situation that's apparently hopeless, and then—primarily by going back and rethinking the premises that make it seem hopeless—comes to a happy solution. If you want an example of this, my father was a genius at it (see "Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule").

5. Be Willing To Change Your Mind.

Oh, we do get set in our beliefs and we rarely change them. But in my world that's bad. Many of our beliefs were made before age five, and were—frankly—ill-thought through (or presented to us on a plate by our parents or society). Then we live with them all our lives, even if they're wrong, expensive, and/or time-consuming.

Human beings are pattern-forming animals ("apophenia" is the technical term). Often this is a good thing: all of science is based on recognizing patterns that lead to a true understanding of how things work. However, as a species, we overdo it and see connections that are merely chance or misinterpretation of data. Perhaps I've written about this too much ("Superstitions"), but it annoys me when very intelligent people allow demonstrably false things to rule their lives. A statement such as "I don't believe in coincidences" causes me to bite down hard on my tongue rather than speak. Or, recently, I was taken to task when rehearsing to play King Claudius in a local production of "Hamlet" next month (I'll send emails to those who might want to see me play this villain and post something on this blog) when I violated one the many superstitions that theater folk worship (you must wish actors "break a leg" rather than "good luck," don't whistle in the dressing room, you can't say "Macbeth" but must instead call it "The Scottish Play"—these go tediously on and on). All theaters have ghosts except the one I'm rehearsing in, which is too new for a resident poltergeist. But the owners are sure hoping for one, and I'd bet big bucks the apparition will show up soon.

Changing your mind is dangerous. All decisions are a gamble that sometimes come with costs, major ones should the switch prove to be wrong. And when an issue is one on which we've already made up our minds, it's counterintuitive to rethink it. Whatever your current position on the subject (gun control, global warming, homosexuality) you'll engage in what's called "bias confirmation," meaning that vague data will be interpreted on your side. It takes work and investigation and serious thought to try and find what's objectively true.

But, me? I'm a lawyer. I believe in evidence before I act. Don't you? We all have a limited amount of time on earth. Do you want to spend it doing or believing in something demonstrably false or with no evidence to support it? What a waste! Life's hard enough without having to deal with superstitions, fortune telling, astrology, ghosts, alien abductions, homeopathy, and (for me) concepts such as angels, demons, hell, and gods. I've harped a lot on this blog about believing in what's true and what's not. I'd change any opinion I have if new facts showed it wrong. Can you say that?


Look, we all make choices. Mine are just the opinions of one 67 year-old man. I wish you all the best for the decisions you make in your own life.
Related Posts:
"Superstitions," March 21, 2010
"The Many Faults of Douglas Whaley," March 31, 2010
"How To Take a (or Many) Pills Easily," May 16, 2010
"Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun," May 29, 2010
"Bob Whaley and the Best Evidence Rule," June 26, 2010
"I Don't Do Science," July 2, 2010
"The Deathbed Test," July 27, 2010
"How To Impress People In a Conversation," October 1, 2010
"I Hate 'You Know,' You Know," November 28, 2010
"How To Make Ethical Decisions," December 1, 2010
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
"The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life," January 17, 2011
"Another Opening, Another Show: Doug is in 'Hamlet'," April 29, 2011
"Gephyrophobia: My Phobia of Crossing Bridges," September 28, 2011
"Good Sex/Bad Sex: Advice on Making Love," November 9, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


  1. Great list.

    I'll add to your first rule. It would be helpful if you're not organize enough, try to list down the things you find on a calendar and where you placed them. After a day or two, you might be needing those and you'll be surprised to trace where you put them as a calendar note.


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