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Setting the minimum as a strategy

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.  

Setting the minimum as a strategy

Scott Miker

The concept of setting the minimum is a systems thinking strategy for doing something over and over to form a habit.  It involves setting a very small daily amount to do and then doing it over and over again.

The idea is that if we max out all the time and do something uncomfortable, we won’t continue to do it long enough to form a habit.  So we find a very small piece of that max-out amount and do that over and over again.

So if we want to exercise, we start with 10 minutes a day instead of 2 hours a day.  But most people have big goals of dropping a ton of weight and they know that 10 minutes a day won’t help lose 50 pounds in the next few weeks.  So they try to use willpower to push them to their max all the time.

I did this myself when I was younger.  I didn’t exercise at all in my early twenties.  Every few months I would be disgusted with myself physically and commit to getting in shape.  So I would push it and try to do too much.

Then the next day I would be sore and tired and it would deter me from doing it again.  If I did summon enough willpower to do it again I would eventually burn out and quit. 

It just seemed like it never worked.  I would always return to doing nothing.  So I finally got frustrated and said I was going to start to do something that I somewhat liked (biking) and I would just do a little each day.  Instead of doing something I hate and forcing myself to do as much as possible, I did something that I didn’t hate and didn’t too a lot each time, just enough to form the habit.

A surprising thing started to happen.  Because I did a small amount, the next day I was eager to get back on the bike.  Each completed day gave me more confidence and more of a push to keep going to keep the streak alive. 

Instead of feeling like I had to outdo yesterday’s workout, I would just tell myself that I just had to do the minimum.  This helped on days when I didn’t feel like doing it. 

But each time I would complete the minimum and feel good.  So sometimes I would keep going a little.  But the next day I went back to the same small amount that I set as my minimum. 

This eventually grew into a habit.  I started to do it without much thought or having to rely on willpower.  Then I started to increase the minimum and add layers of minimums.  I would do at least 10 minutes, no matter what.  Even if I were sick I would do 10 minutes.

But as long as I wasn’t sick or running late for work I would do at least 20 minutes plus 20 pushups and sit-ups.  If I was really pumped up and had plenty of time I would do 50 minutes and 100 sit-ups and pushups. 

It always kept exercising in a zone of enjoyment where it was really easy to keep going with it.  I didn’t need excessive amounts of willpower because it was habitual.

Then I applied the same setting the minimum technique to other areas of my life.  I set a minimum to write for 10 minutes a day and eventually completed 2 books and now shifted that to write 3-5 articles a week for the website. 

This isn’t a completely unique approach that I invented.  In fact, Jerry Seinfeld used a similar approach to become an icon of standup comedy.  Jennifer Aniston uses it to exercise on days when she doesn’t feel like doing it.

In Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, he profiles Chade-Meng “Meng” Tan whose work with mindfulness and meditation has been endorsed by the Dalai Lama and Google founder Eric Schmidt and even President Carter.

In the book, Meng says, “I learned this from Mingyur Rinpoche, whose book, The Joy of Living, I most highly recommend.  The idea is that to do less formal practice than you are capable of.  For example, if you can set in mindfulness for 5 minutes before it feels like a chore, then don’t sit for 5 minutes, just do 3 or 4 minutes, perhaps a few times a day.  The reason is to keep the practice from becoming a burden.  If mindfulness practice feels like a chore, it’s not sustainable.”

He then goes on to say, “I may be the laziest mindfulness instructor in the world because I tell my students that all they need to commit to is one mindful breath a day.  Just one.  Breathe in and breathe out mindfully, and your commitment for the day is fulfilled.  Everything else is a bonus.”

“There are two reasons why one breath is important.  The first is momentum.  If you commit to one breath a day, you can easily fulfill this commitment and preserve the momentum of your practice.  Later, when you feel ready for more, you can pick it back up easily.  You can say you don’t have 10 minutes today to meditate, but you cannot say you have no time for one breath, so making it a daily practice is extremely doable.”

Think about areas of your life that you want to improve.  How can you incorporate setting the minimum to help keep doing something long enough to become a beneficial habit in your life?  What small part can you start and do over and over to begin forming the habit?