May 16

I often see people who seek self improvement come up with a resolution that consists of a scary list of boundary pushing commitments. Something along the lines of "Starting tomorrow, every day I'll wake up every day at 5 am, jog 10 kms, study 2 hours and clean a room in my apartment". This is not even a hyperbole.

There are a bunch of things that will make this type of resolution an almost guaranteed fail. One of them I've already touched before, the concept of adopting one habit at a time.

This time I want to touch on another, which is committing to more than you can chew.

When someone decides to start a new commitment, for example, running a few times a week, they face the question of for how long or how far they should run each time. Googling or asking for suggestions may yield anything from, at least 5 kms, to at least 30 minutes in order to burn fat. But these suggestions don't take into account two important factors: The committer's personal ability, and the committer's need to invest energy in building a new commitment.

Therefore, my suggestion is to completely ignore external advice and follow your own gut feeling regarding what you're capable of. Then, do less than that.

Start by underdoing

Underdoing means committing to something easier than what you think you're capable of. Committing to something lesser than what you think you're capable of may not feel as good and not initially pump you as much as approaching a challenging goal, but it should be intuitive why it is more likely to lead a successful ongoing maintenance of the commitment.

  • You will find it easier to resist the temptation to skip a day when you're not feeling at your best
  • You usually overestimate what you're capable of, and undershooting will often bring you closer to your real capabilities
  • You will actually feel embarassed if you can't keep this commitment

Most people tend to either push themselves, or do nothing at all. I find that the middle ground provides the best long term consistent results. You just have to get over the feeling that you're being too easy on yourself, or not "doing it right". There will be plenty of time to do it right and push yourself when the commitment becomes an ingrained part of your daily life.

Then slowly increase

Your first priority should be to get used to your new commitment taking a place in your daily routine, rather than achieving whatever quantitative goal you initially dreamed up or was sold on.

But once you have a few weeks or months under your belt and find it less of a struggle to get going each time, you can start thinking of increasing your commitment. Life long habits are built slow and steady, so my suggestion is to increase gradually. This way you will eventually find an amount that is both achievable on a consistent basis and makes you feel accomplished for having done it.


Underdoing is more than enough

You've probably heard of the 80-20 rule. This "rule" is applicable to many things in life, and in my experience, to daily habits as well. Usually doing even a small bit of something will grant you nearly all the benefits it has to offer. Again we may feel we're slacking off and not doing enough, but we actually are. Let me give an example from my life:

For my first daily habit, I wanted to floss every day. But I was an incredibly impatient person, and also I had a psychological issue with the feeling of the floss going through my gums. Therefore, I decided that I can probably stand flossing a quarter of my mouth each morning. A quarter of the mouth is about 6-7 gaps to floss. I kept a schedule that made sure I flossed a different quarter each day (the schedule actually helped me stick to my commitment! Don't want to skip a quarter), and I've flossed like that for about a year.

about 6 months after I started this, I went to my dental hygenist, and she was amazed by the improvement of my gum health. She said I've been doing an amazing job. 6 months later, still in the quarters system, she said I am one of her best clients in terms of gum maintenance.

Since then I've upgraded to flossing half a mouth a day, then the entire mouth every day (it's such an ingrained part of my day now that I can barely remember why I could only do a quarter back then). But the praise from my dental hygenist hasn't scaled at all. In fact she could barely tell the difference.

I've had the same experience with running, gym and meditation. With all of those I've significantly underdone what professionals and friends thought I should do at a minimum, due to my impatience and busy schedule. Yet, I've achieved every goal I set out to achieve with them even before having increased all of them to the levels I was recommended.

In conclusion

Doing is better than not doing, and doing a bit is almost as good as doing.

Doing a bit consistently is life changing.

Therefore, don't be afraid to make small commitments. They may feel underwhelming, but they reap benefits, and they build habits.

One Response for "Don't overdo it: Underdo it!"

  1. Vivi says:

    Great insight and perspective.
    The 1 point I struggle with is "You usually overestimate what you're capable of, and undershooting will often bring you closer to your real capabilities".
    I would rather believe that people are very different in this regard. Some are overly confident, where others don't believe in their capabilities and might not dare setting high goals.
    Maybe quite an extensive topic, so won't think further at this point hehe

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