Years ago I read about a doctor who was frustrated by his patient’s lack of physical activity. Regardless of the shape or ailments of the patient he stressed the importance of getting 30 minutes of exercise every other day.
But when those patients came back to see him weeks or months later, such a small number had taken his advice that he grew frustrated. He decided to change his approach. Instead of 30 minutes every other day, he simply said to do 60 seconds (1 minute) of exercise every single day.
Most patients after hearing this had 2 reactions. First they were confused. They would look at the doctor with a confused look, waiting for the doctor to correct himself. When that didn’t happen, they thought about doing it and realized it seemed easy.
Because it seemed easy the doctor noticed that when patients returned they often kept their commitment. There was a positive energy because they accomplished what the doctor told them to do.
Then he would challenge them to add more time. He would increase the amount slightly after each visit. But instead of using amounts that were the ultimate goal amount, he kept it to very small incremental increases. This kept the patient willing to try and eager to keep going.
On the surface level this might not seem important. But if we break this down systematically we realize what the doctor was doing.
Before talking about results or talking about where the patient should be with their exercise, he focused on where they were. And where they were was in a place where they didn’t have the right habits in place. So he started with the habits.
By doing something over and over every day we start to automate the process mentally. If we drive the same route to work, soon we are driving to work without even thinking about the turns we make and the direction we go.
Building habits focuses on trying to get something in our routines that become automatic, just like driving to work. Then, once we have a solid habit formed, we can then start to add more and more to it until we are seeing the results we desire.
There is a process that I have used for years whenever I want to start a new habit and reach new levels of success. I call it setting the minimum.
Setting the minimum entails setting a very, very small process goal. Just like the doctor said to do 60 seconds of exercise every day, we set an easy goal to do something over and over again. We make sure it is so easy that we stick with it.
Then, once we start to do the minimum we allow ourselves to determine, after the minimum is met, to do more or stop. So after 60 seconds we can keep going and exercise more or we can stop. But we don’t change the minimum.
But this is where many people stumble. They feel good after 60 seconds and keep going and going. They want instant results and think that they should just keep outdoing yesterday’s effort so they keep increasing the minimum.
But this is problematic. The goal is to keep going and keep doing it. By significantly increasing the minimum we make it more likely we will struggle because we don’t want to have to outdo yesterday’s difficult workout.
So to get around this we leave the minimum set for a very long time. We keep the 60-second minimum and don’t change it right away.
We allow ourselves each day after the 60 seconds is met to keep going or to stop. If we feel good and do 2 hours of working out then the next day we still only have to do 60 seconds.
This makes it much more likely that we will stick to our new routine enough for it to become habit but we also allow extra effort when we feel motivated.
The truth is that most days we will outdo the minimum. Because it is easy we will finish and realize we have warmed up and want to keep going. But the hardest part of starting a new exercise routine it to keep going, day after day, when we feel more and more tired. So we make that as easy as we possibly can.
Setting the minimum is a great way to change your habits and routines to see improvement. It works great for exercise but can also be used in a lot of scenarios. If we want to read more, write more, learn a musical instrument, improve personal relationships, being more grateful etc. we can use a version of setting the minimum.
Changing ingrained habits is difficult but if we understand the systems and habits that impact our lives we can start to rely on systematic principles that will help us better understand how to leverage systems and habits for our gain instead of continuing to be held back by them.