When It's Okay to Break the Rules



Sometimes I eat dessert before dinner. Should I?

Growing up, my family lived by the standard “no desserts before dinner” rule that every child under 15 knows all too well.

Now that I’m 23 and living on my own, when I decide to skip the veggies and sink my teeth into a deliciously moist bite of double chocolate cake with fudge frosting, should I be rebuked? Should my mother fly to Texas from her cozy Florida home and put me in Time Out?

Of course not, and for one simple reason: being 23 and living exactly 984 miles away from my parents is a pretty good indicator that I’m not a child anymore.

But what does that mean for all the childhood rules I grew up with?

Why Do We Have Rules?

Life is a series of choices. Facing adulthood means facing a lot of deep questions that you don’t know how to answer. For the first time, it’s actually up to you to answer them. Mom and Dad aren’t here to take away your cake.

That’s why we have rules.

Traditions and rules are a necessary part of a productive life. Having solid routines in place can help free a lot of brain space when deciding what’s for lunch or what time you should get up in the morning.

And they’re not just for simple routines, either. Society even gives us a general “life template” to follow: go to school, go to college, graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, repeat.

This is often what people refer to as “the status quo.” And let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with following it.

But following a rule just because it’s there is not only silly, it’s downright absurd.

Each rule is made for a reason. Each is crafted to fit a specific situation. That means not every rule will apply to every situation, and not every rule will apply to you. In fact, many rules contradict each other!

Things change. Times change. People change. You change. And if your rules don’t change too, you run the risk of holding yourself back from fulfilling your unique purpose.

How to Break the Rules (Wisely)

So what exactly am I proposing? Throwing everything out and making up your own rules as you go along?

I guess that’s one way to do it, but it doesn’t seem much healthier than blindly following rules without question. You want to forge your own path, not get lost in the woods.

What I’m actually suggesting is this:

As you grow and change, as you’re faced with hard choices and possible new paths to walk, carefully revisit the old rules you feel are “holding you back.” Examine them, but don’t throw them out just yet.

Instead, use wisdom and prudence to carefully craft a new, revised set of rules that will help you reach your goal and become the person you want to be.

Here’s how:

1. Understand Why a Rule Exists

As I mentioned before, rules are created for a reason. And no, that reason usually isn’t “wanting to ruin your fun.”

Most rules are put in place either to:

  1. Protect you from something harmful

  2. Push you toward something good

It’s likely that, as you grow and mature, specific rules themselves will no longer apply. Why? Because you have the wisdom and resources to either avoid a particular harm or partake in a particular good without needing a reminder.

Adults are allowed to eat dessert first.

But before you do, it’s wise to understand exactly what you’re giving up (or gaining) in the process. The dessert rule was set for a reason. In this case, to protect you from something that could hurt you.

Your parents didn’t want you losing your appetite, refusing to eat nutritious food, and becoming malnourished.

That’s easy deduction.

However, we can still dig a little further. Rules are often much more complex than we think, and they serve many different purposes at once. There are more benefits to giving dessert its proper place.

Prioritizing healthy food will improve your self image. It will also make your dessert taste better. And the small act of delaying gratification can build character and help you become a generally balanced and generous person.

There’s a surprising amount of depth and character development to be found in such a simple rule! And it’s these motivations that comprise the spirit of the rule.

What fundamental parts of your character is the rule shaping?

2. Examine your needs

Now that you understand the motivations behind the rules you’re questioning, ask yourself: what do you want or need?

It’s tempting to throw rules out because they’re inconvenient, or don’t give you what you want now. Beware of this tendency—it lurks within all of us. If you’re taking on the responsibility of writing your own rule book, you’re also taking on the responsibility to do so… well… responsibly.

You may have a very good reason to nix the no-cake-before-dinner rule.

“I’ve realized I have an unhealthy fascination with diet strictness. My perspective on food has taken the enjoyment out of eating, and limiting my food choices is encouraging me to under eat. I need to feel free to eat anything I want for a while.”

That’s a good reason for change!

“I’m an adult, gosh darn it. I can do what I want, and what I want to do is eat cake.”

That’s an excuse.

Take time to understand what you want and need for your life. Evaluate which of your desires are legitimate and which are excuses.

3. Create new rules

Now put it all together.

Creating new rules haphazardly is a surefire way to wind up unhealthy and unproductive. You have no basis to know whether that rule will actually help you achieve your goals!

Don’t just throw out your old rules. Update them. The best way to create rules that work for you is to reconcile the wisdom of the past with your desires for the future.

For example, I find that when I eat my chocolate cake is irrelevant. But I know myself and my tendency to go back for just another bite (or ten). So I made my new rule: I am allowed to eat my cake before dinner if I want, but I’ve limited myself to eating only one “treat” per day.

This keeps me generally healthy (following the spirit of the original rule) while allowing me the freedom I desire to eat cake before dinner on a bad day.

How can you create something that solves your needs without throwing out the wisdom of the rule in the first place? Get creative!

This may mean admitting an old rule really is the best way to go and keeping it in your life. It may look like chucking the old rule out entirely. Or it may mean updating an old rule in a way that better serves your personality and your life.

Knowing why you’re following a tradition, trend, or rule is important. Not only does this line of thinking challenge you to truly understand your values and goals, but it will also give you an extra dose of confidence when the naysayers inevitably call you out.

You didn’t make your choice arbitrarily. You’re not blindly following in someone else’s footsteps.

You’re using their footsteps as a guide to help you forge your own path—one you believe in and that will help you reach your fullest potential.

This philosophy is at the core of how we here at Pearson approach education...we're always learning better ways to do things! If you’d like to find out how forge your own path and do college differently, check out our Accelerated Pathways program.

A former student counselor and Accelerated Pathways student, Abigail is now a writer and Accelerated Pathways Content Manger who's passionate about empowering others to achieve their goals. When she’s not hard at work, you can find her reading, baking cupcakes, or singing Broadway songs. Loudly.