Does making small health changes feel like it’s not worth the effort and won’t amount to a noticeable change? One barrier to creating healthy habits is the thought that unless you make huge changes in your habits all at once, anything smaller won’t make a difference. Trying to make massive changes in your behavior often does not last because it feels overwhelming or you quickly lose the motivation to exert the effort that massive change requires.
I want to introduce you to the concept of the minimum baseline. You will be able to use it to increase the likelihood that you’ll stick to the healthy changes you’ve committed to.
What Is a Minimum Baseline?
I first came across this concept listening to Brooke Castillo’s The Life Coach School podcast.
Basically, the minimum baseline is the smallest task that you are willing to do.
We all already have minimum baselines in our lives. You may have the minimum baseline that you are not willing to go more than 24 hours without brushing your teeth or taking a shower.
A minimum baseline can also be applied to exercise or food. The key is to create a minimum that is so ridiculously easy that you can start incorporating it into your life with minimal effort. That way you will do your minimum baseline even when you don’t feel like it.
For example, if you currently do not exercise, but want to start, you can create a minimum baseline of putting your workout clothes on and walking for 5 minutes 3 days per week. Although 15 minutes of walking will likely not result in weight loss, it will allow you to start thinking of yourself as someone who exercises on days that you do the minimum.
A minimum baseline also helps you to learn how to show up and be consistent in doing an activity that you’ve committed to even if there’s no short term reward. You won’t lose weight after one workout, but you can lose weight after consistently working out. Achieving and maintaining any major change in your health (e.g., weight loss, eating healthier) requires consistent long term action, even when you don’t feel like it. There will be many days when you don’t feel motivated to work out. If you have a minimum that you follow, you’re more likely to consistently exercise regardless of how you feel about it. Just like you may not feel excited about taking a shower every morning, you just do it because that’s what you do.
For exercise, I have a minimum baseline of taking one BodyPump class per week. When I take the class on a weeknight I almost always feel tired as I drive to the gym because I’ve been at work all day and would rather relax on the couch. However, I don’t even consider it an option to not take the class at least once per week. In fact, the only weeks that I’ve missed a class during the last 6 years was when I had the flu, the few times I’ve traveled for longer than a week, and the week when I moved from Florida to Maryland. Weekly strength training is just something that I do. If I didn’t have a minimum for exercise, there would be many weeks that I would never make it to the gym. If I’m really busy or struggling with motivation, I know that I will get at least one workout per week because that is my minimum.
If you’re not meeting your minimum baseline commitment, then you need to reduce it. For example, if you made your minimum working out for one hour 3 days per week, and you find that you’re not working out at all, reduce the time commitment. Try 15 minutes 3 days per week, and if you’re still not doing it reduce it to 5 minutes 3 days per week. You need to set the foundation of following through on your goals no matter how small they might be.
Once you consistently stick to your minimum you can build on it over time. Walking 5 minutes 3 times per week may turn into walking 45 minutes 3 days a week. However, the real benefit of the minimum baseline is learning how to trust yourself to follow through on your health goals even when your mind tells you the action is not worth doing because you won’t get an immediate result. To create a habit and make noticeable changes in your life you have to take action consistently, even when that action won’t produce an immediate result.
Pick a Minimum Baseline
If you are having a hard time creating a healthy habit, pick a minimum baseline to start consistently taking some kind of action. At this stage make sure that you are not doing it for the results that you think it will create (e.g., walking to lose weight). You’re really doing it to learn how to follow through on the health goal commitments that you make. This is a crucial step in creating a healthy habit.
Here are some ideas for minimum baselines that you can do to start developing healthy habits. Choose one and try it for one month. At the end of the month decide whether you want to increase your minimum baseline or continue with your current minimum.
Food Minimum Baseline
- Eat one serving of non-starchy vegetables 3 days per week. To start consistently eating vegetables, commit to eating just one serving several times per week. This would be the equivalent of two cups of raw leafy greens or 1 cup (cooked or raw) of another type of vegetable. Try one of the following:
- Eat a small side salad.
- Add a few handfuls of spinach to a smoothie.
- Eat one cup of raw veggies with hummus for a snack – bell pepper, sliced cucumber, or celery sticks.
- Sautee one cup of veggies to eat with your dinner.
- Don’t eat dessert or sugary snacks after dinner for one night per week. If you want to reduce your sugar consumption, start by skipping the sweets for just one night per week. This will help you feel confident that you can enjoy dessert as a treat you have a few times per week rather than every day.
- Cook a healthy dinner one night per week. If you want to cook more meals at home start with committing to making just one meal per week. This will help you start viewing yourself as someone who cooks healthy meals. You’ll also get more comfortable in the kitchen the more you cook.
Physical Activity Minimum Baseline
- Stretch or do gentle yoga for 10 minutes 3 days per week. A few short stretching sessions per week will start the habit of regular stretching and improve your flexibility.
- Do 10 push-ups 3 days per week for a minimum to start strength training. You don’t need to go to a gym to strength train. Body weight exercises are very effective for building muscle. Doing strength exercises at home is more convenient and therefore makes it easier for you to stick to it.