Knowledge Worker: Using the Rules to Your Advantage

By Fred Nickols

My boot camp company commander impressed upon me that the Navy--that most hidebound of the military services--was, in fact, a system of rules and it was to my advantage to (a) learn those rules and; (b) use them to my advantage. Some people would call that “gaming” or “playing” the system. I do not think so. What he was talking about and what I am talking about is playing by the rules and using them to your advantage-- not bending or breaking them or going around them.

Knowing the rules of the systems in which they find themselves and with which they interact, and being able to use them to their advantage, is something all knowledge workers should know how to do. Here is a little example related to credit cards and interest rates to illustrate what I mean. I think most readers will be able to relate to it and maybe even put it to good use.

Reducing Credit Card Interest and Payoff Period

Let’s say you have a credit card balance of $12,000. The interest rate is 8.6 percent APR and you are going to pay down the balance at a rate of $500 per month. It will take you 27 months and you will pay $1,214 in interest.

Now let’s suppose you get one of those introductory credit card offers asking you to transfer a balance from somewhere else and offering you a 0 percent interest rate for 15 months. The balance transfer rate is 3 percent or $360.
You transfer the $12,000 to the new card and pay the transfer fee. Fifteen months later, you have paid no interest and your balance is $4,500. At this point, the introductory rate of 0 percent expires and the interest rate on the credit card jumps to 13.26 percent.

Continuing your $500 per month payment schedule means it will take you 10 months to pay off the balance and you will pay $265 in interest. So you take advantage of another of those 15-month, zero-interest credit card offers. The balance transfer fee is again 3 percent or $135, which you pay.

Nine months later your balance is zero. Had you left the $12,000 where it was originally you would have paid $1,214 in interest and it would have taken 27 months to eliminate the debt. Taking advantage of those interest-free introductory offers cost you a total of $495 in transfer fees and your debt was reduced to zero in 24 months. You saved $719 in interest charges and shaved three months off the time it took to eliminate your debt.

Another way of looking at it is to say you reduced your interest rate from 8.6 percent to 3.76 percent--which is the rate you'd have to pay on $12,000 with payments of $500 per month to wind up with $495 interest and a zero balance (and it would take 25 months).

As I said earlier, some people would call this “gaming” or “playing” the system. I do not think so. Those two terms apply to situations in which the rules are bent, broken, or circumvented. I am talking about playing by the rules and using them to your advantage.

As the previous example illustrates, playing by the rules and using them to your advantage can be quite beneficial. Here is another example, this time from my Navy days.

Legitimate Double-Dipping

During my time in the Navy, leave was accumulated on the books at the rate of 2.5 days per month or 30 days each year. You were not required to take it, and it would continue to accumulate throughout the year. At the end of the year, if you had not taken any leave, the 30 days you accumulated would carry over into the following year. The same thing applied there. At the end of the second year you could have 60 days “on the books.” Going into the third year you had 60 days on the books, which carried forward, and additional leave again started accruing at the rate of 2.5 days per month. However, the most you could carry over into any subsequent year was 60 days. So, at the end of the third year in which you had taken no leave you could have accumulated 90 days on the books. But, when the fourth year actually arrived, you lost 30 of those 90 days.

It was also one of the rules that the most leave you could take at any one time was 30 days. A lot of people would take 30 days at the end of their third year of accumulating leave so as to avoid losing it. I did something different.

In keeping with what my boot camp company commander taught me, I made it my business to be aware of relevant rules. To the 30-days-at-one-time rule there was an exception. At the time, the Bureau of Naval Personnel Transfer Manual - contained an exception to the 30-day limit. It said that if you were being transferred to your final duty station as part of being separated from the service you could take all the leave you had on the books as delay in reporting to your final duty station.

When I requested my transfer to the Fleet Reserve (i.e., to retire), my orders sent me to the Naval Station in San Diego. In my case I had almost 90 days on the books, and I took all of them as delay in reporting. I spent more than two months in Evanston, Illinois, working as a consultant for the fellow who had offered me a job upon leaving the service. I spent those two months drawing Navy pay and getting paid for my civilian work as well. To my way of thinking, that is not bending, breaking, or circumventing the rules, it is an example of leveraging or capitalizing on them.

It has been truly said that “organizations are playgrounds for adults.” As knowledge workers, it behooves us to learn the system of rules that governs the organizations in which we find ourselves and learn how to use those rules to our advantage.

Fred Nickols, CPT, is a performance improvement professional and the managing partner of Distance Consulting LLC. He is a longtime member of ISPI and a frequent contributor to its various publications. He can be contacted at or on his website at