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Simple Rules:

How to Thrive in a Complex World

Donald Sull and Kathy Eisenhardt

The American tax code is so confusing that even IRS own experts give wrong answer 1/3 of time. Americans employ 1.2 million tax preparers, nmore than all the police and firefighters combined. A study of 45 countries showed that the single best predictor of whether people would pay their taxes, was the complexity of the rules - mattered much more than how fair the system was, or how high the rates were.

Michael Pollan's diet rules - "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." By food means non-processed, with ingredients a third grader can pronounce.

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Simple rules work because force you to think about what matters most - usually just a few factors matter hugely, and the long tail of peripheral ones can be ignored.

Simple rules work best when flexibility matters more than complexity. Detailed rules are for when you want to avoid catastrophe, such as piloting a plane, or a surgical operation. Or, at a McDonald's, to make sure that get predictable outcome every time.

Zipcar has no drop-off center, or staff to maintain cars. Instead, simple rules to make sure car ready for next user. 1) Report damage 2) keep it clean 3) no smoking 4) fill 'er up 5) return on time 6) pets in containers. These simple rules covered most of the issues. The company had a far more detailed member agreement, but they only came into play in rare situations that simple rules didn't cover.

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Depression can be difficult to diagnose bc has so many manifestations. As an alternative to exhaustive interviews, 4 simple questions - In the last week, have you cried more than usual, have you hated yourself, have you felt discouraged about your future, have you felt you have failed your life? People who answered yes to all 4 questions are likely to be clinically depressed, and the rules were accurate 97% of the time.

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One of the simplest investment methods was documented in the Talmud 1500 years ago. "Put your money one third in land, one third in merchandise and one third in cash." It outperforms just about every complex system devised.

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Sports commentary should:
1) set the scene
2) describe the action
3) give the score, regularly and succinctly
4) explain, without interrupting the game, the stadium's reactions
5) share 'background' details
6) assess significance of result

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Google has simple rules to guide first choices in new hires - look for eccentricity (bc often has a high correlation with creativity), value strong referrals from existing staff (bc top people want to work with other top people), and avoid anyone with even the slightest inaccuracy on their resume.

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For many years, ornithologists could not work out how huge flocks of birds could co-ordinate their flight and avoid collisions. (Check Youtube for 'starling murmuration' for visuals). For a long time the accepted wisdom was that some form of telepathy controlled. Then a guy studying computer animation created 'boids' which followed 3 simple rules: 1) avoid collisions 2) head in same direction as your nearest neighbours 3) stay close to your nearest neighbours. And it turns out that these explain movement of many species - birds, fish, and even pedestrians.

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Locusts are normally solitary, but when numbers reach a threshold, they start attacking other locusts from behind (best source of protein). So you get a swarm, following 2 basic rules - flee from the locust behind you, and try to eat the locust in front of you.

Get a good night's sleep:
1) get up at same time every morning
2) don't go to bed until you feel sleepy
3) don't stay in bed if not sleepy
4) reduce the time spend in bed

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London Business School classes had a problem - the top 10 provided 94% of all revenue; the rest either lost money or just broke even. And most of these had few pupils, and earned mediocre evaluations. Obvious solution was to prune classes but of course, every one was somebody's prize baby. The key to moving past this political impasse was to shift the debate from "Which classes should we run?" to "What simple rules should we use to decide which classes to run?"

After a lot of argument, the professors converged on a set of criteria that would work across most situations:
1) had to meet annual profit threshold
2) had to provide a certain number of weeks education
3) had to meet a target level of student satisfaction
4) didn't overlap with other classes

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Want to lose weight? Want a decent night's sleep? Want to write a brilliant novel or be successful at internet dating? Well, whatever you're hoping to achieve, the best way to succeed is to establish a set of simple rules, says Donald Sull, a global expert on business strategy in turbulent markets and a senior lecturer at MIT.

Having spent the past decade helping blue-chip businesses around the world to address their problems, Sull has just co-authored a fascinating new book, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World. It analyses how individually tailored 'short-cut strategies' are used to negotiate life successfully. From frontline medics who use the triage system to decide who gets medical care first in a disaster to birds which obey simple rules to fly in unison without colliding, they are ubiquitous across nature, business, medicine, and sport, he says. Consciously or not, we all develop a private code or mission statement to live by.

In the book, Sull and his fellow academic Kathleen M. Eisenhardt bring together a diverse collection of case histories from Tina Fey's rules of comedy producing ('never tell a crazy person they're crazy') to the thriller writer Elmore Leonard's code for writing a bestseller ('no prologues' and 'try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip'). 'The best rules provide guidance, while leaving scope for flexibility and creativity,' Sull says.

Sheepishly, Sull, a 52-year-old father of four, admits to using simple rules to lose weight. Once he'd established his 'bottleneck' - after-dinner snacking - he drew on the latest nutritional research and came up with a brief bullet-pointed plan to impose limits on his behaviour, including 'eat snack from a small bowl, not the bag' and 'no dessert in the week'. Not only do his handmade shirts now fit again, he discovered that for him the 'stopping eating rules' are decisive, not the rules about what to eat.

It also taught him another valuable lesson. Make the rules as succinct as possible to ensure you follow them. As he puts it: 'You're the detective about yourself, so what's going to work best for you?'

Rules for saving lives in the emergency room

In the Second World War, the US surgeon general introduced a formal process for prioritising care in order to reduce deaths. The system is known as triage. Those with stable vital signs are tagged with the colour green - their treatment can be safely delayed. At the other extreme, patients who are unlikely to survive are tagged with black and provided with palliative care. The remaining patients are first in line for care with the more badly injured given a red priority tag and the others a yellow denoting 'urgent'.

1. Are they breathing? Is the rate above or below 30 breaths per minute?
2. Do they have a pulse? Is it irregular?
3. Are they conscious? Can they follow simple commands?

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Rules for running a football team by Alex Ferguson

When Ferguson became manager of Manchester United in 1986 the team hadn't won the football league in 20 years. By the time he retired in 2013, they had won 13 league titles and the team was worth £1.9 billion. He did it using 'Ferguson's formula', eight core concepts that made him the most successful manager in the history of British football.

1. Start with the foundation. Bring in young players and build a youth system that will sustain the club for years rather than signing veterans for short-gain success.
2. Dare to rebuild your team. Don't be afraid of being fired, make decisions based on what the team will look like in four years.
3. Set high standards and hold everyone to them.
4. Never, ever cede control. Get rid of an employee if he's creating discord, even if he is the best player in the world. Don't worry about whether employees like you.
5. Match the message to the moment. When to criticise players and encourage players depends on the context of a situation.
6. Prepare to win. If you're down 2-1, you might as well put on an extra offensive player and lose 3-1 rather than play conservatively and lose 2-1 anyway.
7. Rely on the power of observation. Delegate managing practices to assistant coaches so you can simply watch and observe each player.
8. Never stop adapting. I believe that you control change by accepting it.

Fashion rules by Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel was born in a poorhouse to an unmarried French mother, but rose to become one of the most iconic fashion designers of the 20th century. Her unsurpassable sense of style, credited with liberating women from the constraints of the 'corseted silhouette', led her to worldwide fame.
1. Once you've dressed and before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.
2. A woman with good shoes is never ugly
3. Always dress as if you're going to see your worst enemy
4. Dress shabbily and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably, and they remember the woman
5. Always act like you are wearing an invisible crown

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Rules for shooting a Dogme 95 movie

Dogme 95 was an avant-garde filmmaking movement started by the Danish directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, committed to purifying filmmaking by refusing expensive technical gimmicks and concentrating on the story and the actors' performances. They wrote ten rules known as the 'vow of chastity' to which any Dogme film must conform.

1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in.
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa.
3. The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted.
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable.
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
6. The film must not contain superficial action. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden.
7. Genre movies are not acceptable.
8. The film format must be Academy 35mm.
9. The director must not be credited.

Catwalk rules by Michael Kors

Backstage at fashion shows, designers often display an 'inspiration board' for the models to read as they walk out on to the runway to create the right persona for the catwalk. The ones below reveal what it takes to be a Michael Kors girl.

1. You stay out all night and lounge in the sun all day.
2. Show off your gorgeous bodies and your fabulous smiles.
3. And remember ... the paparazzi is always close behind.
4. You kill them on the courts, slay them poolside and are the envy of everyone in the room.
5. Be strong, beautiful and molto sexy.
6. Remember to flirt.
7. You are champions.

Rules for living a long and healthy life by Dr David Agus

America's most high-profile cancer specialist - the one who helped to keep Steve Jobs alive for seven years - devised a list of rules, all grounded in empirical research, to living longer.
1. Drink coffee. Caffeine may have protective, anti-cancer properties. But moderation is key.
2. Smile. It triggers the release of pain-killing, brain-happy endorphins and serotonin.
3. Wear flat shoes. Uncomfortable shoes cause unnecessary inflammation that can have an impact on your entire system, which has been linked to everything from heart disease to Alzheimer's.
4. Get a Fitbit. Develop a daily personal activity target. Being sedentary is about as bad for you as smoking.
5. Cleanliness counts. Wash your hands regularly, especially after exposure to germy things such as bathrooms and raw chicken.
6. Get married. When you live with someone else, you have a reason to pay more attention to your health and hygiene. You've got another person to hold you accountable for your actions and lifestyle habits.
7. Raise your heart-rate for 15 minutes a day. Reap the benefits of exercise and all those biochemical reactions that take place to lower your risk of illness.
8. Get a dog. It demands that you maintain a relatively constant timetable, tending to its ritualistic feedings, walks and naps, forcing set patterns that foster health.
9. Drink red wine. Moderate alcohol intake, especially from red wine, can reduce one's risk for heart disease.
10. Eat fish. Cold-water fish, such as salmon, sardines, tuna, trout, anchovies, herring, halibut, cod, black cod, mackerel and mahi-mahi, are excellent sources of high-quality protein, healthy fats and naturally occurring vitamins and minerals.
11. Take statins. They don't just target cholesterol, but have the power to lower inflammation.
12. Take aspirin. A daily low-dose aspirin (75mg) has been shown to reduce the risk of developing common malignant cancers in the lungs, colon and prostate by 46 per cent.

Comedy show rules by Tina Fey

American actress, comedian and writer Tina Fey made her name as a writer, producer and performer on the variety show Saturday Night Live. Created by Lorne Michaels, it's widely regarded as one of the best shows in TV history — these are the rules Fey learnt in her time under him.

1. Producing is discouraging creativity. You would think that in your capacity as a producer your job would be to churn up creativity, but mostly your job is to police enthusiasm.
2. Figure out if there is something you're asking the actor to do that's making him or her uncomfortable.
3. The show doesn't go on because it's ready; it goes on because it's 11.30.
4. When hiring, mix Harvard nerds with Chicago improvisers and stir. The Harvard guys check the logic and grammatical construction of every joke and the improvisers teach them how to be human.
5. Television is a visual medium. You may want to be diligent and stay up with the writers all night, but if you're going to be on the show you can't.
6. Don't make any big decisions right after the season ends. This is the same advice they give people who've just come out of rehab.
7. Never cut to a closed door.
8. Don't hire anyone you wouldn't want to run into in the hallway at three in the morning.
9. Never tell a crazy person he's crazy.

Rules for carrying out a drone strike by Barack Obama

In a 2013 speech at the National Defence University, Obama spelled out the rules governing drone strikes, which he codified in a 'presidential policy guidance' directive. Only if the answer to all three of these questions was yes would a drone strike be authorised.

1. Does the target pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people?
2. Are there no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat?
3. Is there near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured?

Rules of writing by Elmore Leonard

The prolific American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard revealed his rules for helping himself remain invisible when writing a book in 2001.

1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue.
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said' . . .
5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
6. Never use the words 'suddenly' or 'all hell broke loose.'
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

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Rules for running an Airbnb

When setting up their global B&B service, the founders decided to forget trying to grow their business and instead to focus on creating the perfect Airbnb experience. They devised a set of hospitality principles that they share with every host.

1. Communication: Respond to all enquiries and reservation requests within 24 hours.
2. Cleanliness: Ensure that your listing's bedrooms and common areas are cleaned before each guest's arrival. This includes changing linens and cleaning surfaces in the bathroom and kitchen.
3. Amenities: Provide fresh bedding and towels, soap, and toilet paper upon your guest's arrival.
4. Welcome: Make sure that your listing is available to guests at the predetermined check-in time.
5. Support: During reservations, stay available to remedy any issues that may arise. Alternatively, provide guests with a designated and reliable point-of-contact.
6. Personality: Airbnb is made up of magical moments, and hosts like you create them. Let the personality of you and your listing transform the trip experience. No one knows your space, your neighbourhood or your city like you do. Share your favourite places with them and introduce them to your closest pals.

Rules for being on radio

In the early days of radio, commentating was a mess. Then, Seymour Joly de Lotbiniere, the 6ft 8in BBC pioneer dubbed 'the Lenin of the commentary revolution', wrote this handful of rules. These rules, still influential today, can be used to commentate on everything from a football derby to a Royal coronation.

1. Set the scene
2. Describe the action
3. Give the score or results, regularly and succinctly
4. Explain, without interrupting, the stadium's reaction to the game's events
5. Share 'homework', such as historic facts and figures or personal information
6. Assess the greater significance of the occasion and key moments.

Rules for recording a pop classic

In 2001, the White Stripes were on the brink of something huge, but they needed a way to structure and focus their creativity. They decided to adopt a handful of limiting rules throughout the recording process. The result? White Blood Cells, the album that brought red, white and black to the world stage.

1. No blues
2. No guitar solos
3. No slide guitar
4. No covers
5. No bass

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Snooze rules

Insomnia affects a third of all adults and can severely reduce quality of life. Recent research shows that relief can be provided with the use of simple guidelines that even the most exhausted brains can follow. Two thirds of chronic insomnia sufferers who followed these rules in a recent study experienced an improvement in sleep quality and more than half experienced no symptoms of insomnia at all. These results were found to be enduring.

1. Get up at the same time every day
2. Don't go to bed until you feel sleepy
3. Don't stay in bed if you're not sleeping
4. Reduce the time spent in bed

The rules of eating

Eating healthily is a bewildering task, since it seems that every day a new study tells you to do something different. But a recent Yale meta-study of all of those studies confirms that the following simple rules, first suggested by nutritional expert Michael Pollan, will lead to long-term health.

1. Eat food (real food, with ingredients your grandma would recognise)
2. Mostly plants
3. Not too much
Rules for recruiting staff by Richard Branson

Richard Branson believes that finding and keeping remarkable people for senior roles is key to his company's success and won't delegate this to human resources, instead being involved with all new appointments (even when it means flying those candidates out to Necker Island for an interview.)

1. Don't delegate - do it yourself.
2. Prioritise character over the resume.
3. Beware of candidates who want to be 'set free'. It's tempting to favour former executives who say they are ready for a position in a start-up with less structure, but many actually depend on structure and can't handle the responsibility that comes with having freedom at work.

Rules for working at Netflix

Many companies rely on thick policy manuals to control people who might abuse their discretion. Executives at Netflix determined that 97 per cent of employees were trustworthy, yet nearly all of the company's time spent monitoring and enforcing detailed policies were directed at the remaining 3 per cent. Instead they devised four simple rules for expenses, travel, gifts and conducting personal business at work.

1. Expense what you would not otherwise spend.
2. Travel as if it were your own money.
3. Disclose non-trivial gifts from vendors.
4. Do personal stuff at work when it is inefficient not to.

The iPod rules

Back when Apple was the underdog, Steve Jobs had a plan to turn everything around with a groundbreaking new Mp3 player. He was adamant that his team followed four simple rules about the device.

1. Small enough to fit inside your pocket.
2. Simple enough your mother could use it.
3. 1,000-songs capacity.
4. On the shelves by Christmas 2001.

Forest fire rules

In 1949, in the Mann Gulch tragedy 12 young forest service smokejumpers died when an out-of-control fire jumped a ravine and grew into a 100ft wall of flames burning at more than 260C, moving at 12mph. The smokejumpers panicked and fled in all directions, apart from three who knew the following US forest rules for how to deal with out-of-control fires.

1. Start an escape fire in the path of the advancing fire if possible
2. Go to where the fuel is thinner
3. Turn towards the fire and try to work through it.
4. Don't let the fire choose the spot where it hits you.

10 Google rules

Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to 'organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful', while holding true to their unofficial slogan 'don't be evil'. They wrote this list of 'ten things we know to be true' when Google was just a few years old.

1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
2. It's best to do one thing really, really well.
3. Fast is better than slow.
4. Democracy on the web works.
5. You don't need to be at your desk to need an answer.
6. You can make money without doing evil.
7. There's always more information out there.
8. The need for information crosses all borders.
9. You can be serious without a suit.
10. Great just isn't good enough.

Good life rules by Leo Tolstoy

The Russian writer wrote these guidelines for himself at the age of 18, such was his ambition to live a life of virtue and industry. The strict boundaries led to him becoming known as one of the greatest novelists in history.

1. Get up early (5 o'clock).
2. Go to bed early (9 to 10 o'clock).
3. Eat little and avoid sweets.
4. Try to do everything by yourself.
5. Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for every minute and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater.
6. Keep away from women.
7. Kill desire by work.
8. Be good, but try to let no one know it.
9. Always live less expensively than you might.
10. Change nothing in your style of living even if you become 10 times richer.

The only rule for climbing Mount Everest

1. If you haven't reached the summit by 2 o'clock, turn back.

Expedition leader Scott Fischer made this rule for his group of climbers to ensure that they would avoid descending at nightfall. Having spent roughly $65,000 for the privilege and having got so close to the summit after months of training, many broke the rule, resulting in one of the deadliest days in the mountain's history (May 10, 1996), with eight climbers dead.

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