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First-year student Rohan Rajiv is blogging once a week about important lessons he is learning at Kellogg. Read more of his posts here.

One of the more powerful ideas I’ve learned in my ‘Values Based Leadership’ class is understanding the power of using rules vs. guidelines in setting culture.

Culture is by far the most powerful change tool that exists. If you really want to change behavior, it is the culture you should turn to. The culture is the mixture of norms and rituals that act as the default behavior in every group or organization. There are rule-based cultures and guideline-based cultures. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. And, to analyze the difference, I thought I’d examine how I’ve approached designing my own culture.

There are many ways to think about designing culture. I think of culture as a set of habits that we incentivize, one way or another. The basic habits I’ve been working to develop have been as simple as:

  • Sleep eight hours
  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise five times a week,
  • And meditate

This journey alone has taken the best part of the last four years, and I am still not done.

The first habit I sought to fix was sleeping eight hours. And my first instinct was to design a rule-based system. When the eight-hour rule didn’t work, I mandated a 5:30 a.m. compulsory wake up as a way to encourage myself to go to sleep at 9:30 p.m. This didn’t work well either; I ended up sleeping late and going into work sleep deprived.

I had a few similar experiences with attempting to exercise and meditate. These experiences taught me a couple of valuable lessons about rule-based systems. There is no doubt they are great when you just get started as they make you feel like you accomplished something. But they work on the carrot-and-stick idea of motivation. And, as modern research has demonstrated, ideas of autonomy, mastery and purpose motivate us a lot more than the carrot-and-stick model.

So, my next series of attempts were using guidelines. No punishments involved here. The first guideline was to attempt to sleep eight hours every day. One year into that, I did that most of the time.

Eating healthy was much easier and I didn’t have to try hard. Exercise was a real beast and I started in earnest in January 2013. Since then, I have averaged exercising about five times a week (typically a mix of three to four times in the gym and football [soccer] in good weather).

Meditation was much harder. After a rules-based attempt in mid 2013, I gave meditation up. However, when I worked on my “tracking my purpose” last year, meditation was an important part of what I considered my ideal personal culture. But, as I swear by guidelines these days, I didn’t attempt to force it. As I tracked my progress every week, I just resigned myself to putting in a 0 as my meditation count for the week. And, after six straight months of putting in zeros, I abruptly decided to start meditating as soon as I woke up on Monday last week. I logged into my Headspace app and got started again. I’ve been meditating every weekday since.

What changed? I think the fact that I expected meditation to be a part of my personal culture meant I had a subconscious reminder every week. Next, the fact that I didn’t force it meant that it happened out of intrinsic motivation. And, now that it is there, I have no intention of letting it slip. And, even if it does, that’s OK.

I’m sleeping, eating, exercising and meditating because I want to.

That’s just how I like leading my life (“This is how we do things here” is the all powerful statement of culture).

It is that realization that makes a guideline-based culture incredibly powerful. In some ways, the guiding principle of a guideline-based culture is: “I trust you to do the right thing in the long term. And if you don’t, be kind to yourself and come back and fix it tomorrow.”

It is as empowering as it gets.

PS: The MBA Learnings series is an example of a guideline. There is one per week. I aim to do it on a certain day each week. But the one-per-week guideline is much more important than the same-day rule idea.

Rohan Rajiv is a first-year student in Kellogg’s Full-Time Two-Year Program. Prior to Kellogg he worked at a-connect serving clients on consulting projects across 14 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He blogs a learning every day, including his MBA Learnings series, on