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Set the Minimum

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Set the Minimum

Scott Miker

One aspect of self improvement is especially difficult for people, including myself.  Usually we know exactly what we want and set a goal to achieve it.  We also know what it will take to reach that goal.

If we want to lose weight we may set a specific goal for pounds lost and then say we need to go to the gym.  If we want to write a book we may say we want it done by summer and say we need to write every day.

In most cases this is a good start.  This gives you a direction to go and addresses the “how” part of getting there.  But there is a trap that, if unaccounted for, can lead you to disappointment.

The trap is that we are relying too much on willpower.  We will “will” ourselves each day to do the extreme workout plan from the new exercise fad (P90X, 21 Day Fix, Ab Roller, etc).  Or we will set out to run 10 miles a day.    

If we are writing then we will commit to writing at least 10,000 words a week or finish a chapter in 2 days.  We feel that we can accomplish this if we set our mind to it and rely on the internal motivation that we feel at this moment.   


But this is flawed in 2 major ways.

 The Hot-Cold Empathy Gap

The hot-cold empathy gap is a bias in our perspective based on our emotional state.  We tend to underestimate the influence of emotional drives and overestimate the influence of intellectual drives on our behavior.  In other words, if we are in a situation where our emotions are driving our behavior, we tend to assume our behavior is due to a conscious decision that we make and do not fully realize the effect emotion has on us.

As interesting as this theory is, there are some great lessons that we can take to help us in reaching our goals.  Let us first expand on the hot and cold analogy.  When we decide to get healthy we may decide to avoid cheeseburgers.  The cold aspect of this decision can be made after we just ate and are not feeling hungry.  The hot portion of this decision is in the moment we enter a burger restaurant when we are hungry.  In that instance, we will find it much more difficult to stay committed to that goal than when we set it because we are in the crucial moment when we have to make the decision and the decision is one that is partially driven by our emotions. 


Willpower is finite

Most people rely on willpower to reach their goals.  They set their goal and then hope they have the willpower to resist that cheeseburger or wake up early to exercise.  The problem is that studies have shown willpower to be a limited, finite resource.  In other words, if we use willpower to wake up early to exercise, it may be depleted by the time we get to lunch and crave that cheeseburger.  So how can we reach our goals if we only have so much willpower to use?


The answer is to set minimums.  Setting minimums is the way to make sure we consistently build the habit first and then use the new habit to accomplish our goal. 

To set a minimum what we do is to drastically reduce the amount of effort we will have to use to accomplish the minimum.  If we look at exercising we can reduce the goal of a 4 mile jog to 10 minutes on an exercise bike.  

Most people would respond that 10 minutes is too easy.  That is the point.  It has to be so easy that it reduces the hot emotional state where you are hoping to use willpower to start.  It makes it really easy to get started.  Once you start all you have to do is 10 minutes.  If, after the 10 minutes, you want to keep going you can, but only if you understand that tomorrow goes back to the 10 minute minimum.

We tend to do the opposite of this.  We work out for 2 hours but the next day it is even harder to work out.  We think “there is no way I want to do all of that again.”  There is a mental block that holds us back.

In order to overcome that block we have to shift from willpower to habit.  We can make it automatic that we do 10 minutes each day.  Once it is a habit and feels very automatic we can increase the minimum.  Maybe we add some sit-ups or pushups.  Or we can add a few more minutes to the exercise.  

This may seem incredibly slow and it is.  The point is to be effective not fast.  The reality is that we can really only choose between quick, effective, and easy.  But we can only have 2 at any one time.  All three don’t exist together.  We need to choose 2.  By choosing easy and effective you have to realize that results won’t be instant.  But our society puts too much emphasis on quick, which means that we lose either effective or easy.  

The minimum can be used in many other cases as well.  I used a similar strategy to quit smoking.  I said that I wasn’t going to quit forever, but today wasn’t going to be the day that I started smoking again.  I still don’t know if I have stopped for good, but it has been years and when I get the sensation to have a cigarette I instantly think, just pass this one time.  

If we want to write a book, the best way, in my opinion, is to set minimums.  Create a master outline and then say that every day you will write 500 words.  500 words is about a page.  Don’t shoot for 30 pages a day or 100 pages over the weekend.  Build the habit and you will be amazed at how soon you start to have a solid foundation for your book.  

If we look at our finances in this way we can quickly see that we can be effective and easy or effective and quick.  By playing the lottery we are choosing easy and quick but unfortunately that means it isn’t effective.  By slowly investing over our working lives we can have millions saved for retirement.  This represents effective and easy due to the time our money earns interest.  

Regardless of the goal you are pushing towards, see if there is a minimum that you can set.  The minimum isn’t supposed to get you there instantly, it is to start to build a new habit.  Once you have the new habit you can add more until you are doing the things that you need to in order to reach your goal.  Then you will have shifted from willpower to habit and will find it much easier to accomplish the things in life that you strive for!