Are you really good at making ambitious plans to change your eating, exercise, sleep, and work routines, and then never following through?
Do you assume that means you have no willpower or discipline?
If so, you’re not alone.
The good news is you’re wrong about why you keep doing this, and I’m going to teach you how to stop quitting on yourself and your dreams.
I wanted to teach this tool this week because last week I cautioned you that perfectionists like to make unrealistic plans and never keep them. When you do that, you lose the ability to rely on yourself—not because you’re a terrible person, but just because your brain is driving you to make unrealistic plans you can’t possibly keep. And then of course, since you don’t keep them, they just become more and more abstract.
The more you make unrealistic plans and don’t keep them, the more “making plans” becomes a totally theoretical activity. Most of the time you know you’re not going to keep them, but just making them gives you a brief respite from your self-critical talk about not doing enough.
And that’s the real rub: When you put your self-esteem on your eating plan, exercise plan, your work calendar, or whatever else, you’re making it impossible to succeed. It’s too much weight. Because when your self-esteem hangs on it, you think it must be perfect for you to feel ok about yourself.
And then because humans aren’t perfect, you can’t keep to your perfect plan, and then you say mean things to yourself and feel terrible. Then you need a new plan to try to feel better about yourself, so you make another perfect plan and assure yourself that starting tomorrow you’ll be perfect.
Sounds familiar, right?
So the cycle continues on and on and on, and every time you make a perfect plan and don’t follow it, you get farther away from your own relationship with yourself and your own ability to make and keep commitments to yourself. And then you use that as even more evidence that you’re a bad person lacking in discipline.
But you’re not. Your problem is that you are staking your self-worth on the plan.
So the first thing to do is separate your self-worth from the plan—from any plan. It doesn’t depend on how much you work out, what you eat, how fast you get your work done, or anything else.
Second, you must practice the minimum baseline. It’s a simple concept, but if you really internalize it, it will change everything for you.
The minimum baseline is basically the cure for perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionism tells you that you need to do everything, all at once, and perfectly. The minimum baseline tells you that you need to choose one thing at a time and do it consistently.
Perfectionism is: I should go to barre twice a week, yoga twice a week, lift weights, and run a marathon.
Minimum baseline is: I’m going to go to one yoga class a week until that becomes utterly effortless, and then I’ll add a second class to the week and repeat the process.
Whatever area it’s in, your minimum baseline should be the smallest commitment you can make that you know you can follow through on. This will involve managing your mind, but it should feel doable when you set it. You shouldn’t have that secret knowledge that you’ll never actually do it.
For example, your minimum baseline might be taking a walk 3x a week. Your perfectionist brain doesn’t like that—it seems boring and pointless, but it’s not. If you really go for your walk 3x a week consistently, you’re doing way more for your body than making elaborate plans, buying gym memberships, going every day for a week, then not going for 4 months, and then starting the cycle all over again.
At first you won’t like the minimum baseline, because it won’t give you this big dopamine rush of imagining your pretend perfect self who keeps the perfect diet, exercise, and work calendar. The minimum baseline is going to seem boring and pointless.
But it’s the exact opposite. The minimum baseline is how you build an actual lasting habit and develop that integrity with yourself. It’s how you develop the kind of relationship with yourself where if you say you’ll do something, you know you’ll do it. You do not get there with ambitious perfect plans. You get there little by little.
The point of the minimum baseline is not even to get results so much as it is to build consistent habits and trust with yourself. You’ll get results over time in whatever you’re working on, too, whether it’s writing a novel or increasing your cardiovascular fitness. But you can’t focus on the results, because then your brain will say “but it would be so much better if we did this perfect, aggressive plan instead.” Don’t focus on the goal, focus on the relationship you’re building with yourself.
The last thing I want to say about the minimum baseline is that I recommend you use it on one area of your life at once. Perfectionist brain tends to want to be on all the wagons or off them all, but that’s overwhelming and makes things harder.
Pick one thing to work on. Writing your novel, creating a movement routine, eating more vegetables, whatever it is, pick ONE thing to work on. You can easily spend a year trying to change everything all at once, but I promise that will fail.
So, one minimum baseline at a time. Make it achievable, make it far less than perfect, and commit to showing up for yourself. Apply massive action to that minimum baseline, and your life will change.