Thinking Small without Guilt: Setting Your Minimum Goal Standards


Have you ever – perhaps in January – come up with some grand plan for self-improvement? Perhaps you promised yourself that you’d jog daily. Maybe you resolved to cook every night instead of eating out. You might even have written down goals, drawn up timetables and charts, and pumped up your willpower as much as possible.

And yet, somewhere along the way, you stopped.

Going to the gym five times a week just wasn’t working.
You ended up impulse shopping. You never managed to get up on time. Whatever it was, you felt like you’d failed.

The problem is, we’re prone to all-or-nothing thinking. We set ourselves high standards, and give up completely when we can’t meet them.

There’s another way. Rather than aiming for some maximum level of perfection, think small instead. Decide on a minimum standard which you’ll have no excuses for not achieving.

I first came across this idea from Shauna Reid, also known as Diet Girl. Lamenting her own all-or-nothing thinking, she wrote:

2009 Minimum Standards Agreement!
  • Write down what I eat
  • Exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes
  • 10.30 PM Internet curfew! [...]

I know 20 minutes doesn’t sound like much to you hardcore dames out there, but last year I kept going from one extreme to another. I’d do a 16 miler for my Moonwalk training then do nowt for a week. Even if it’s just twenty minutes of Pilates or a quick jaunt around the village, I need to set a minimum.

(Shauna Reid, No Year’s Resolutions, The Amazing Adventures of Diet Girl)

Why a Minimum Standard Agreement Works
You’re probably still tempted to come up with grand, perfectionist goals. You’re thinking “I won’t get the same results if I just shoot for the minimum”. But is that really true?

How often have you set grand goals only to give up days later?

How often have you undone your hard work – by having an eating or spending binge after a period of too-harsh restriction?

When you set a Minimum Standard, you feel empowered, because you can easily achieve what you’ve promised yourself. Even on a really busy day, you can find time to write three sentences in your journal. Isn’t it better to do those three sentences daily, rather than aim for three pages and give up after a week?

Plus, when things are going well, your Minimum Standards Agreement doesn’t limit you at all. Let’s say you’ve promised yourself that you’ll walk for just 15 minutes each day. On a nice day, when you’ve got some extra time, you might decide to walk for 30 minutes – or even an hour. And the best part is, this will be a bonus achievement – above and beyond the minimum which you said you’d do.

You’ll feel great about hitting your targets, which means you’ll want to keep going. After all, if you manage to do your 15 minute walk for five weeks in a row, you won’t want to skip a day just because it’s raining.

Examples of Minimum Standards Agreements
So what does a minimum standards agreement look like? And which areas of your life should you focus on?

You’ll want to think about whether to make your targets:

  • Daily, weekly or monthly
  • Time-based or outcome-based
  • Focused on one key area, or split across several

I’d suggest that you pick one to three areas of your life where you’re struggling. Perhaps your two priorities are losing weight and saving money. You could set several simple targets like:

  • Have one day each week when I don’t spend anything (makes you more aware of your spending habits, should help you save money)
  • Take a packed lunch to work at least two days a week (good for money-saving and eating a healthier diet)
  • Spend at least 15 minutes exercising each day (walking, cycling, etc)

Start small: you can always up your commitments if you really feel that this is too easy. Of course, the most effective minimum standards agreements will be the ones which you come up with yourself – but if you’re stuck for ideas, you might want to try some of the below ones.

Remember, you can always do more. These are minimums that you’re supposed to be able to do without fail – even on bad days!

Health and Fitness ideas

  • Walk for 15 minutes a day
  • Eat one piece of fruit every day
  • Switch from whole milk to half-and-half
  • Have an hour-long walk on either Saturday or Sunday
  • Spend five minutes meditating or journaling every morning

Money ideas

  • Empty the spare change from your pockets or wallet into a jar every evening
  • Have a “no spend” day once a week (or once a month)
  • Ban yourself from online shopping in the evenings (or at particular points when you’re prone to impulse buy)
  • Start saving $5/week towards Christmas right now
  • Write down everything you spend on food/drinks out

Work ideas

  • Spend five minutes each day working on that dreaded report or presentation
  • Tidy your desk once a week (or once a month)
  • Take two minutes to plan your morning when you first get in to work
  • If you have a side business or personal project, spend fifteen minutes working on this each evening
  • Clear three emails from your backlog every day
  • Read one chapter of a relevant book each week (or a few pages each day)

Have you ever used a minimum standards agreement with yourself, in the past? How did it work out? If you’ve never tried it before, what could you put into practice today?

Written on 6/08/2010 by Ali Hale. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. Photo Credit: Evil Erin

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