Set the bar low

Designing habits are hard. We understand their value. Unfortunately, few people have habits they consciously designed. Habits just seem to happen and usually not the ones we want.

New Years resolutions are the sad attempt at making habits every year, but why don’t they stick? Why isn’t everyone walking around with 6 pack abs by March? But that’s exactly the problem. Everyone wants their habit to be building 6 pack abs.

This year, I started running. My first run was on January 4th, with the goal of running every day. It sure sounds a lot like a New Years Resolution, and pretty lofty, but I certainly didn’t think of it that way. The key difference as to why this worked and my other attempts didn’t, isn’t because I put it in a different mental bucket than ‘New Years Resolution’. It’s all about the parameters of the habit. The trick is, I set the bar low.

Too often, we think life has to be difficult. That if you aren’t killing yourself in the pursuit of something, someone else will. That may be true for some things. But not everything is a zero sum game. Personal health is exactly that. Personal. There is no first, second or third place prize. There’s only first, or last. So why not set the bar low?

This year, as of February 7th I’ve gone to the gym 35 days in a row. Sounds impressive right? Well, it really wasn’t all that hard. The hardest part in fact was just putting my shoes on, just taking that first step. (No pun intended). Setting the bar low allowed me to focus, not on the grueling aspects of the run, but on creating the habit. By design, the parameters of the habit are set up for easy success. At first, the habit was to just walk into the gym, every morning. That’s it. Once I was there I ended up walking for 5 minutes and then jogging for 15 on the treadmill. The running bit was easy, because you know, might as well, it’d be awkward to just stand there, or have everyone see me walk into the gym, throw my hands up in triumph and walk out. After a few days of jogging, I increased my habit to breaking a sweat. After two weeks I felt compelled to go to the gym each morning, the routine was automatic, and now just the thought of missing a day gives me anxiety. The same exact anxiety feeling I used to have thinking about going to the gym.

And it’s not just physical health that setting the bar low works for. Habit building is addictive and I’ve used newly found confidence and willpower to easily start other habits this year as well, like mediating, sketching, and watching less YouTube. So why not now? Get that easy victory by just doing the minimum effort it takes to start that habit you’ve always wanted. All that minimum effort eventually sounds impressive.