It was not a good day.

I woke up behind schedule. I had to finish writing an article. I was scheduled to give a presentation later that day, and that wasn't finished, either.

And then, things really went downhill.

I came out of the office to see my wife at her limit. Our three kids are all over the place, and she's on the brink of tears.

What would I do?

I did exactly the wrong thing. I got frustrated with the situation. Already feeling overwhelmed myself, I just gave into those feelings. The next thing you know, I was yelling at the kids, making everything worse. Of course, that just put me more behind on my work, and sent the entire day down the tubes.

Too late to save that day, but it led to a light bulb moment.

I can't do this again, I thought.

A few months later, I was in a similar situation. But this time, once I see my wife starting to reach her breaking point, I pause. I take a deep breath, and then I say two simple words:

Help first.

Suddenly, my perspective changes. Instead of focusing on me, I'm focused on my wife. I'm like a paramedic on the scene: My job is to get my wife to safety, before she breaks.

So, I set up the kids with something to do. I give them something to eat. I clean up a little bit, and give my wife a hug.

Then, I ask if I can do anything else.

This time, things are much different: My wife isn't crying, she's smiling. No longer overwhelmed, she remembers what a huge day I have, and she becomes super supportive. Feeling that support, I'm energized--and I get through my work with a smile on my face.

Much better, right?

That's the power of the help-first rule.

The help-first rule

The help-first rule is simple:

If you're in a difficult situation, and you notice someone else is too, try helping first. 

The help-first rule may seem counterintuitive. After all, when we're facing a difficult situation, our default tendency is to focus on ourselves. So when we encounter someone else who's struggling, we might just think:

Sorry. Wish I could help. But I've got my own dumpster fire over here.

In contrast, when you help first, you take advantage of the power of empathy.

When a home or workplace lacks empathy, the bad days usually multiply. Because if one person is having a bad day, everyone suffers. You end up with an environment that's (collectively) full of bad days.

But when one person follows the help-first rule, others usually follow. Now, you're building a culture based on trust and teamwork.

And when you have a team, you combine strengths. You pool resources. You create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, take a moment to look around.

Do you see:

A colleague who's struggling with a situation that seems to pale in comparison to yours?

Help first.

A client who thinks they've got it worse than you, when they don't know the half of it?

Help first.

A vendor who won't stop complaining about the same problem, even though it's really not a big deal?

Help first.

A service employee who's having a bad day, just like you?

Help first.

A family member who doesn't seem to get how tough your situation is?

Help first.

By helping first, you break the cycle of misunderstanding. You defy expectations, and overdeliver. You feel better about yourself, and you get others to feel better about themselves--and better about you. 

Finally, by helping first, you inspire others to help you, too--usually when you need it the most.