What are good rules for success in life — the rules that motivated and focused students follow to do well in school and beyond?
Don’t get me wrong. Success isn’t mainly about achievement. It’s about purpose, meaning, and contribution.
Most people think the secret to success lies in setting goals.
At the beginning of every new year, we say we’ll study harder, exercise daily, read more, go to sleep by 9pm…
But then life happens.
School assignments. Chores. Responsibilities. Family commitments. Our well-meaning resolutions slip down our list of priorities until soon, they’ve disappeared.
After all, studies show that 80% of people experience this.
Sure, setting the right goals — whether they’re academic goals or other types of goals — is important. But what you really need for a meaningful and purpose-driven life is a list of rules to live by.
Let’s explore why it’s crucial to have fewer goals and more rules. I’ll also share my top 15 tips for success and explain how to create rules that work for you.
Me, the former compulsive goal-setter
Not long ago, I was a compulsive goal-setter.
Every year I would set more than 50 goals to cover all areas of my life: sleep, exercise, academics, career, personal finance, personal development, spirituality, relationships, community service, and leisure.
Pretty long list, I know.
I even set a goal for spontaneity: Do at least one random thing a week.
My friends thought I was hilarious (or, more likely, ridiculous) for turning spontaneity into a goal!
But here’s what I discovered:
Obsessing over goal-setting is counter-productive. I was stressed out and overextended trying to track and achieve all those goals.
Why you need more rules and fewer goals
Nowadays, I set far fewer goals for myself. Instead of goals, I set rules for success.
Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t have it all figured out. I’m still learning, and I always will be! But here’s what I have learned about success so far:
You’re more likely to keep to a rule than a goal.
What’s the difference between a rule and a goal?
A goal is a target. It’s something you hope to achieve, or to which you aspire.
On the other hand, a rule is a law to abide by, a standard to adhere to. It’s non-negotiable, so you do it no matter what.
Some might say the difference between a goal and a rule is a matter of semantics, but I say there’s more to it.
Goals inspire hope, while rules mandate action. Goals focus on the desired outcome, while rules focus on the process that will lead to that outcome.
Here’s an example: “My goal is to get straight A’s this year.” That’s a lofty target, but not much more.
Reframed as rules for success, this statement becomes: “I make time to study every day after school for at least two hours” and “I’m going to apply at least 10 test-taking strategies that will calm my anxiety about exams”.
When you take specific actions, you’re more likely to achieve your goals.
Rules are important in both sports and life
Hear me out…
We shouldn’t flood our lives with rules, either. I’d even say we should break many of the unhelpful “rules” we hear daily. The ones like:
“There’s always a right and a wrong answer.”
“Avoid failure at all costs.”
“Succeed in school, and you’ll succeed in life.”
Success is about more than making a certain amount of money or getting into a specific school.
That said, well-set rules play a vital role in life. Let’s look to sports for some excellent examples:
- In basketball, you must stand behind the line when you’re shooting free throws.
- In tennis, the ball must land within the box when you serve.
- In soccer, only the goalkeeper can use his or her hands.
Rules make these games orderly, fun, and exciting. There’d be too much chaos and confusion for the games to be enjoyable for players and spectators if not for the rules.
Similarly, setting rules for success in life will help you live more intentionally — and achieve what’s most important to you.
What you want now vs. what you want most
What do you want to do right now? Is it to watch TV, go on social media, or eat junk food?
Now, what do you want to do most? Probably do meaningful work, build strong relationships, volunteer, exercise, or expand your knowledge.
When we think of freedom, we usually think about having the flexibility to do what we want right now. But my definition of freedom is doing more of what you want to do most — those things that are truly important.
That’s easier said than done.
Most of us choose immediate gratification over long-term happiness. But by setting boundaries or rules, we create the freedom to focus on what we want most, even when it’s challenging.
Freedom means having the right kind of boundaries
Freedom, then, isn’t the absence of boundaries. Instead, it’s having the right boundaries.
Imagine if this fish didn’t have the “boundary” of the fishbowl. If someone smashed the fishbowl and let all the water out, the fish wouldn’t survive for more than a few minutes.
Rules and boundaries keep us on track by helping us do what we ought to and lead more abundant lives.
You need rules to lead a principles-centred life
We’ve distinguished between goals and rules for success, but we also need to differentiate between rules and principles.
Principles are guidelines, but they don’t outline specific actions that you can or cannot take.
Going back to the basketball example, the main principle of basketball is that you want to score more points than your opponent.
But this principle doesn’t specifically tell you what you are and are not allowed to do in your quest to outscore your opponent.
Should you launch shots from half-court? Should you focus more on defence or offence? Should you dribble or pass more?
Similarly, you might decide to live by certain principles, but that’s not enough to ensure your noble intentions lead to committed action and consistent results.
For instance, you might decide you want your life to focus on contribution rather than achievement.
That’s an admirable principle to live by, but what does it look like in your daily life? Like when you need to write a 10-page report by the end of tomorrow?
In theory, you only need principles. In practice, you need rules to live out those principles.
Another example: If you want to lead a life of kindness, generosity and courage, you won’t accomplish this by saying, “Today, I’m going to be kind, generous, and courageous.”
Instead, you’ll need to set specific rules that will enable you to live out those values daily. No one can build a great life in a day. We create successful and meaningful lives one day at a time, one decision at a time.
15 time-tested rules for success in life
So, what are some rules for success that might make your life — and the lives of those around you — better?
Before we start, remember that life is about more than getting good grades or making lots of money.
What does success look like to you? What brings meaning and purpose to your life?
When making a list of rules, they must work for you. We’ll explore this further in a moment.
First, take a look at these 15 time-tested rules I do my best to follow. I hope some will inspire you, too.
1. Spend time in quiet reflection
We live in a noisy world with lots of distractions. It’s easy to get caught up in our to-do lists and forget about what matters most. So, every day, I do my best to spend at least 10 minutes in quiet reflection. I relax, think about my day, and observe any feelings that arise.
Make time for quiet reflection to check in with your emotions and appreciate life’s gifts. You’ll gain clarity on what’s most important to you.
2. Exercise regularly
Your brain loves exercise. Twenty minutes of activity is all it takes to improve brain functions like memory, attention span, and thinking.
Plus, regular exercise helps manage stress and improves overall health and wellness. (Check out my time-management tips for students if you’re wondering how to fit exercise into your schedule.)
My rule is to exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Choose some exercise rules that work for you. Even a brisk walk will do the trick!
3. Read for at least 15 minutes a day
I know it’s challenging to find time to read when you’re busy with school assignments and other commitments.
But a regular reading habit improves memory, concentration, focus, vocabulary, and even sleep.
What you read is not that important (although tweets on Twitter don’t count), so have fun exploring topics that interest you!
4. Keep a gratitude journal
Want to feel happier and healthier?
Write down what you’re thankful for. Studies show that students who kept a gratitude journal experienced less depression, lower risk of heart disease, and reported eating more healthily too.
If you feel as if writing requires too much effort, at least take a minute each day to think about a couple of things you’re thankful for.
5. Compliment one person daily
When was the last time someone told you they admired your perseverance or appreciated your thoughtfulness? How did it make you feel?
It’s hardly a secret that receiving compliments makes our day a little better.
But what if I told you that dishing out compliments directly benefits you, too? It’s true. Say a few nice things to others, and you’ll build your confidence, improve your long-term positive thinking, and make better decisions.
6. Chatting face-to-face? Put your phone away
Did you know there’s a term for looking at your phone while someone is talking to you?
It’s called “phubbing”, or phone snubbing.
While it might seem harmless, “phubbing” can disrupt relationships and impact your mental health. When you’re chatting with someone face-to-face, show respect for the other person and make the conversation more enjoyable by putting your phone away.
7. Have dinner at home
You’re a busy student, so a sit-down dinner every night may not be possible. That’s okay. When you can, though, eat at home. Avoid watching TV or looking at your phone, and instead practise mindful eating.
If you can eat with a family member, great! Ask about their day, and chat about yours.
8. Be five minutes early
Want to avoid stress and show respect for your teachers and classmates? Arrive to class five minutes early. You’ll feel confident, relaxed, and prepared to learn.
Simple rules for success like this benefit all areas of your life, so make it a practice now.
9. Provide criticism in person
A group member didn’t do their part of the project, so now you’re staying up all night to finish it on time. You pull out your phone to write them a strongly worded text message.
For most people, it’s easier to send negative feedback via text message or email than to say it in person. But easier doesn’t always mean better.
Written messages can cause misunderstandings. There are no in-person social cues, so your words can come across harsher than intended.
In addition, it’s one-sided. Constructive criticism is important, but save it for face-to-face conversations.
10. Plan your day the night before
Have you heard of decision fatigue? It takes a lot of mental energy to make decisions, and when your brain gets tired, you start making flawed decisions.
If you’re overwhelmed with tasks, debating what to do first can sap productivity.
Instead, at the end of each day, take 5 or 10 minutes to plan out your next day. You’ll feel less stressed, sleep better, and have plenty of mental energy to dive into your to-do list.
11. Only check email and social media three times a day
How many times a day do you check social media? Ten times? Twenty?
Would you be surprised to learn that some teens check social media 100 times a day? Social media is addictive. Often we spend more time mindlessly scrolling than we realise; we waste valuable attention we could use elsewhere.
One of my top rules for success is to only check email and social media three times a day, as far as possible. Stick with it to become a more disciplined student.
12. Ask if others have time to talk (or text)
There’s a good chance you don’t remember the days of landlines and answering machines — a time when you couldn’t always expect an immediate response.
Thanks to the smartphones in our pockets, the story’s a little different today. But just because our friends can answer immediately doesn’t mean we should expect them to. Instead, be courteous. Ask if they can talk or text. Your friends will soon start to do the same to you, too.
13. Don’t gossip
At first, gossip seems harmless… maybe even a little fun. Until your friend discovers you’ve been talking bad about her. Now you’ve hurt a relationship that meant a lot to you.
Gossip is a waste of energy and a harmful habit. Build people up and spread positivity instead.
14. Ask your teachers for feedback
Once a month or once every two months, ask your teachers for feedback.
I know that sounds scary. No one enjoys receiving criticism!
Feedback will make you a better student and provide you with an opportunity to course-correct early on.
What’s more, learning to accept feedback gracefully is an excellent communication skill that will serve you long into the future.
15. Proofread assignments and emails
Take a few minutes to proofread your assignments and emails. It shows thoughtfulness and thoroughness and will keep silly mistakes at bay. Proofreading also displays professionalism, clarity, and accuracy.
How to make rules work for you
These rules for success in life work for me, and I hope they help you, too.
You don’t need to implement every rule here. Use what works for you, then brainstorm your own list of rules to live by.
Start by deciding what success means to you. Again, it’s not only about getting straight A’s or accumulating wealth. Those factors don’t define your self-worth.
Instead, ask these questions:
- What do I love?
- What’s important to me?
- What does the world need?
- How to not care what people think while doing what’s most meaningful?
- What does it mean to lead a good life?
- How can I make choices that benefit others?
It’s okay if you don’t know all of the answers. These prompts are tools you can use to start discovering what’s meaningful and important to you.
Then, choose one rule you’d like to incorporate. Write it down in a notebook or a note-taking app. Get specific about when and how you’ll put the rule into practice.
Spend one month focusing on the rule until it turns into a habit. Next month, add one new rule.
Remember, we’re writing rules for success in life — not creating a list of lofty goals.
But don’t worry. When you establish the right rules, you’ll inevitably achieve your goals, too.
Want more tips and systems to become an organised, focused, and disciplined student?
Check out the Straight-A Student Weekly Checklist. It’s a comprehensive system I’ve created for academic achievement, with easy rules for success that will improve all areas of your life!