The Epictetus quote that I have recited the past several mornings is,
“Whatever rules you have adopted, abide by them as laws, and as if you would be impious to transgress them; and do not regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is none of your concern.”
What does it mean? First, it implies that you should adopt rules for yourself, and that you should do so very carefully. You wouldn’t pass laws that you didn’t think that you could follow. You wouldn’t enter into a religion the gods of which set impossible standards. So think your rules through.
It implies, also, that you should have a process for adopting rules. Use a process of experimentation on any rule before adopting it. You should also have a process for eliminating a rule that, because of changing circumstances, is no longer serving its intended purpose. Only remove a rule from your list when you are calm, and not at the precise time that you are supposed to be following it. You never want to set yourself up for failure by having the option of abolishing the rule on the spot.
What does it imply that you should do when you transgress a rule? Should you flagellate yourself, or put yourself behind bars? No, but you should think hard and make serious plans to ensure that you don’t transgress it again. Ask yourself what you should do. Transgression should be a prompt for reflection. What was your intention when you adopted the rule? What outcome does it assist you in achieving or avoiding? Why did you transgress it? What, mentally, was going on at the time? What externally? What, done differently leading up to the event, would have prevented it? What about precisely when it occurred? Were there negative practical repercussions? What did you do about those? What should you have done?
I use the mental technique of going back and visualizing myself not transgressing the rule. I play the scene leading up to it just as I remember it, but when it comes to the critical moment, I make the right decision. If I transgressed any rules that led to this one, then I correct those in the memory, too.
If there are behaviors that I engaged in that made me more likely to transgress the rule, I run another visualization in which I engage in safer behaviors.
How do I know when a rule applies? As always, practice. When I lie down at night, and when I hear the alarm in the morning, I perform a simple exercise. I have a rule for going to bed and for getting up, and its primary purpose is to remind me to identify situations in which a standard applies, and to apply it:
- I put my thumb to my first finger, and ask questions like: what’s the standard (rule) for this behavior? (Or, when I’m trying to achieve such and result, what’s the process? Or, when such and such occurs, how do I respond? What’s the output standard? Are there input standards?)
- thumb to second: do it.
- thumb to third: what was the result? Did my performance (process) match the standard? Did my product (output) match the standard? Did the inputs meet their standards? If they didn’t, what did I do about it?
- thumb to fourth: do the standards need updated, or are they still correct?
This takes less than 10 seconds. By practicing it before going to bed, and right when I wake up, I ingrain it.
When I’m performing an action for which I can’t think of a standard, but suspect that I should develop one, I perform the hand mnemonic in reverse:
- thumb to fourth (finger): what am I trying to achieve? What don’t I understand? What question is most relevant? What experiment can I perform? What is my mental model of this situation? Can I make a prediction based on it? What do I predict will happen if I perform such and such?
- thumb to third: do it.
- thumb to second: what did I see? What is the data? What did I predict would happen? What actually happened. (Obviously, this is an adaptation of Mike Rother’s language.)
- thumb to the first: what can I extrapolate from this? Can I create a standard (a rule) from what I learned? Do I need to do additional experiments? What else do I need to learn?
As an aside, in his new book Mike Rother observes that PDCA remains jargon, and we’re probably better off using common terms like prediction→ test → data → evaluation. Think about it. Shewhart developed the PDCA as a specific industrial application of the scientific approach. Over the years, we’ve expanded its use to include all kinds of empirical modalities. So why not just go back to the plain language of science and empiricism?
Also, when I break a rule, my primary technique for addressing it is asking myself questions about the situation. I’m not particularly hard on myself, because I know that if I make the process too unpleasant, I could lapse. Sustainability is the priority. I favor honest assessment over strict adherence. I seem to answer honestly when I ask questions about my adherence to my rules. And assertions are more impactful when they are framed by a question. 42.