Creating and Using a Personal Code of Conduct to Enhance Decision-Making

The one decision that makes 1,000+ decisions.

Mike Sturm
Nov 20, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

We’re all pressed for time and low on energy these days. We all have important decisions to make-things that require us to weigh pros and cons, think though possibilities, and strategize. But we often find ourselves pushing off that work because we’ve spent a lot of our mental energy on other decisions throughout the day.

Enter the idea of a strategic intent. Greg McKeown sums up the power of strategic intent in his classic book Essentialism:

“Done right, a strategic intent is really one decision that makes 1,000 decisions.”

There’s no better strategic decision than establishing a personal code of conduct. It is that one decision that makes a thousand (or more) decisions. When you decide upfront what kinds of things you will and won’t do in general, you limit the mental energy you spend later.

Put simply, a code of conduct is a rule or set of rules that govern what you will and won’t do in certain situations. They tend to be general, but can cover specific situations-if those situations pop up somewhat frequently.

Decision Fatigue and Optimizing

A code of conduct is valuable for three main reasons:

  1. It helps you solidify and uphold your personal values.
  2. It minimizes decision fatigue, and all of the negative effects that come with it.
  3. It establishes a clear pattern of why you made the decisions you made-which is helpful when you explain your past behavior.

Decision fatigue happens when you are confronted with so many choices so frequently that your cognitive ability becomes sapped by them. The less those individual choices matter, the more important it is to avoid them. But you can’t avoid decisions, so you need to minimize the amount of time and energy you spend on the ones that shouldn’t require a lot of deliberation.

Once you have a code of conduct, you radically simplify your decision-making process. All you have to do is decide whether the specific decisions you face fall under the scope of the code of conduct.

The result is one decision that reduces the time and effort spent on many others. You gain time and energy that would have been used agonizing over small decisions, so you can use them on the bigger things that really deserve it.

Crafting Your Own Code

Coming up with a personal code of conduct may seem daunting, but it’s actually fairly simple. You don’t need to start high-level or lofty; simply start where you are.

Think back to a time when you had to make a difficult choice, and you were proud of how you handled it. It could be a time when you were put into a tough position by someone else. It could be a time when you chose not to pursue something. It could be a time when you took a risk that paid off.

Pull out the parts of that event that made you proud, and make those part of your code of conduct. What things did you think about as you made your decision? What process did you use? How did it make you feel afterward? Roll that into a long initial sentence that starts with something like “I shall-.”

Let’s examine both a professional and personal example.

Professional Example

Here’s an example for your work life:

I shall not do business with clients who counter my asking price with a lower one.

It’s simple and clear. It’s general enough to apply to many different cases, and yet specific enough to provide guidance for most instances of interactions with clients.

Will it always be easy to follow? No. There will be times when you think there are other things that override it. That’s fine. The point isn’t to establish a rule that guarantees a desirable outcome. Few rules like that exist.

The point is to stop agonizing over whether or not to take on a certain kind of client. It’s always possible that despite their initial behavior, they could be a good client. But hopefully, your code of conduct was created based on your previous experience to the contrary.

That’s the price of a strategic decision: you lose the small benefits of the few exceptions to the rule as a cost for the benefit of not having to waste time and energy on a million little decisions. But it’s a price worth paying. The benefits far outweigh the costs.

Personal Example

The example above is just a work-related example, but the same kind of format applies for examples in your personal life. Here’s an example:

I shall apologize immediately when I make a mistake, and ask who I’ve wronged how I can make it right.

As with the first example, there may be times when following this rule doesn’t get you the optimal result. But again, a code of conduct isn’t about every single result being optimized. It’s about getting the best long-term results and minimizing the time and energy you spend doing it.

The quest for certainty is what cripples us. There are no guaranteed results. But the results are not the point. The point is that you act intentionally, and act on your own terms.

Review, Revise, Repeat

A code of conduct should stand the test of time — but not an infinite amount of time. As you have more experiences, you’ll find some cracks in your code of conduct that might need repair. You might need to add an exception clause — a phrase usually preceded by the word “unless”. You may need to be more specific, so as to narrow what kind of situations your code applies to. That’s all up to you.

But whatever you do, you should review your codes of conduct on a regular basis. How often you do that is up to you. If you’re actually using your code of conduct — that is, if it’s guiding your decisions on a regular basis — this shouldn’t be too hard. In most cases, some situation will pull you to take a look at your code, and consider altering it. But the good news is, that will only make it more your own.

It bears repeating that code of conduct is not meant to guarantee results every time. Like any rule, there will seem to be exceptions here and there. But the point of the rule is to reduce how much you agonize over whether each case is an exception or not. You simply follow the rule, save your mind for the important stuff, and move on.

When you follow the code regularly, you also don’t need to wonder what you were thinking when you made a decision. You know what you were thinking; you were following the code of conduct you set for yourself.

Over time, a code of conduct solidifies a sense of self-assurance that’s hard to get in any other way. The steadiness of mind and the trust in yourself appear as you make more and more decisions. That trust will help you navigate through the hard decisions. The result will be a life that you built intentionally — because you spent the time on the right decisions, rather than on the wrong ones.

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Mind Cafe

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Mike Sturm

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Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Mike Sturm

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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