We make life hard for ourselves by making two common mistakes:

1. We make it complex when it could be simple.

2. We try to handle this perceived complexity with complex solutions.

We tend to see life as a chaotic mass of future plans, tasks, challenges, commitments, social norms, planned and unforeseen events, accidents, luck, the unpredictable actions of others, weather, genetics, and so on. It’s no wonder then that we can easily feel out of control, unsure, frustrated, and overwhelmed – and that’s just in the span of a single day.

In order to deal with this perceived complexity, we employ a set of somewhat random strategies and tools, applying different solutions, different focus, different rules, and different intensity, to a wide range of circumstances and challenges. And, not surprisingly, we get a wide range of results.

Making life easy with simple guidelines

The good news is that this can all be very easily improved, in one simple shift. The result is a life that feels much more enjoyable and within our control.

The simple mistake we’re making is revolting against adding even very basic structure and discipline in our lives. We do this because it feels too restricting and limiting, and we want to live freely. So, we attempt to live without any basic framework for actions and decisions, only to end up – ironically – restricted and limited by our results.

Take for example personal finance, specifically budgeting. Most people don’t have one, and if they do it’s not written down (which means they don’t have one). They want to spend or save freely as they wish. And so when they’re presented with spending and saving opportunities, they view them as complex and confusing decisions, influenced by – and affecting – all of their other finances, and perhaps even their happiness, health, and peace of mind. Wow!

So, they attempt to match this complexity with complex strategies like micromanaging monthly expenses, engaging in revolving credit, assuming and mismanaging debt, making poor assumptions, trading time for money by DIY’ing, couponing, bargain-hunting, and so forth. And those are just the choices they make on the up-and-up. In more desperate situations, things can get even more ‘creative’, which just creates more serious problems in the long-term.

They end up dealing with all of these compounding issues simply because they avoided taking an hour and putting together a budget.

But it’s actually even easier than that.

Ask simple questions

All we really need to do is to put some basic guidelines in place, in the form of a series of common questions.

So, staying with the money example, what if we asked the following questions before making a purchase?

  1. Will spending money on this make me more money?
  2. Will spending money on this be the only cost (opportunity cost, taxes, maintenance, repair, time)?
  3. Will spending money on this improve my health or happiness?
  4. Can I purchase it right now with cash?
  5. Did I save and/or plan to buy this?

With questions like that, you almost don’t need a budget. The answers will provide enough of a framework – and a simple one – that will guide you to good outcomes 99% of the time. Maybe your priorities differ, and therefore your questions will be different. Maybe you’ll use a single question, or 10. That’s up to each person to decide. That said, the more simple you keep it, the easier it will be to remember and use. Usually 2-5 questions is the right number.

Here’s a simple one for eating properly:

  1. Do I know what’s in this?
  2. Is it good for my body?

Those two questions could completely replace diets and dietary guidelines. You could add a third question “does it fit in the palm of my hand?”, and bingo, you’ve covered portion sizes. Eating healthy is really very simple.

Instead, people have made it totally complex – hemming and hawing over every bite, every meal, every pound – and then employing equally complex solutions – charts and calorie counting and scales and diet books – to try to figure it all out and get the results they want. There’s actually no need to introduce complexity on either side of it, and yet we add it in heavy doses to both ends.

We frame problems as complex, and then seek to solve the issues with complex solutions.

Instead, we should be doing the opposite. We should frame problems simply, and solve the problems using a simple lightweight framework of guidelines. That’s a proven way to get excellent results 99% of the time, across a wide range of situations.

Just follow the lines

We have learned to do this when we drive. We can’t possibly know every tiny bend in the road along the way, yet somehow we manage to drive effectively and get to our destination without banging along and hitting everything, including oncoming cars. We do this with two simple guidelines, literally. The road has ‘suggested lines of travel’. They’re not physically keeping us from crashing. They’re suggestions, they’re GUIDE-lines.

We just stay within the lines, and it gets us there smoothly 99% of the time. Simple.

Good guidelines work everywhere

The secret to good guidelines is thinking them through in advance, and then sticking to them. Lines on a road were well-planned, for a reason. So all we have to do is follow them.

The same goes for any set of guidelines in your life, whether it’s health, wealth, relationships, business, or anything that’s important to you. Of course each area will have its own guidelines, but if they’re well-thought-out, limited to just a few, and kept simple, they’ll be easy to remember and follow, especially with some practice.

And what happens is nothing less than amazing. You start to gain control over your life and your results, based on what’s important to you. It’s a simple shift, but it has amazing power to change your life for the better.