Set an Unbreakable Standard

Lets say we have a person who is holding several people hostage and they will only give up the people if the police grant him immunity against the incident. Why might those police officers reject his offer, even though it is a relatively small price compared to the safety of the hostages?

The answer is in setting a standard. If other criminals learn that the police are willing to concede to demands made by hostage takers, they might start doing it themselves. In other words, the consequences of this act are less than the repercussions of breaking a standard.

On a smaller scale, this a dilemma people encounter a lot of times in their own life. While the consequences of taking a particular action are less, if you break a standard, then it can create far more damage along the line.

This is something that has happened to myself today. As some of you might know I set an 30 day exercise goal for myself, not too long ago. Today, however, I woke up late with a splitting headache and congestion 🙁 . The last time I was sick was over two years ago, so I’m not used to the feeling. While I am feeling a little bit better right now, I still feel far below what I would consider to be optimal.

The question that comes up in my mind from this incident is whether I should reset my exercise goal, or continue forward despite the illness. Physical exercise might make my condition worse, increasing the duration of my temporary illness.

If I take the day off, I might recover more quickly and be ready to try the challenge again relatively soon.

If I continue through the day, I might aggravate my condition and do damage to my health.

But the problem is, that if I take this day off, it will open the door for future excuses. If I take this day off, I might allow myself to take time off when I’ve had a lousy day or am really busy. In other words, this one action could create significant repercussions along the line.

So my choice is clear. The short term repercussions of aggravating an illness are far less than opening the door to future excuses.

This, I believe is one of the fundamental reasons most people fail to achieve their goals or change their habits. As soon as a minor difficulty arises, the person rationalizes in the short term but forgets the damage that an excuse can cause to all future goals.

Every goal is going to have unexpected obstacles and difficulties. In almost all cases the damage caused by breaking a standard is far worse than the damage caused by not using the excuse.

By taking an excuse you cause massive damage to your self-discipline. You make it far easier to take that excuse in the future. However, there is an upside.

By avoiding the excuse and pushing through those conditions, you greatly increase your self-discipline. I mean, how could I quit on my exercise program just because I was busy, if I could push through it when I was sick?

Goals only have power if you allow them too. By setting a near unbreakable standard with your goals, you significantly increase the power they have to change your life. But if you are wishy-washy in their application, quitting whenever an obstacle comes up, they will be useless.

Most people when they decide to quit their goal ask this question:

“Is my excuse reasonable?”

Basically, they are asking whether or not they are justified in quitting. It doesn’t matter whether you are justified in quitting. The question you need to ask yourself is:

“What consequences would quitting have to my discipline and standards I set? How would quitting damage all the future goals I set?”

It is easy to justify just about any failed goal, but it is very rare that the justification makes up for the incredible damage it does to your self-discipline and goals.

The damage by a failed goal doesn’t just repair itself with a succeeding a difficult goal. It might take dozens of succeeded goals before you repair the damage. The damage will leave scars on your identity as well. One excuse can make you start to see yourself as someone who makes excuses. One excuse can make you believe that you are a person who will only succeed when things are easy.

My point isn’t to make you feel guilty if you have made excuses in the past and quit. My purpose is to get you to set that unbreakable standard for your life right now. Set that standard that means that you don’t give up when things get hard. If you haven’t been living by that standard until now, you can change that today. Realize that, from now on, you are going to live by that unbreakable standard.

When another difficult situation comes up that makes you want to turn back, look at it in a different way. This is a perfect opportunity to vastly improve your self-discipline.

If you are on a new diet and you go to a wedding where they are serving cake, take this as an opportunity to reaffirm your commitment.

If you are starting a new business or blog, don’t abandon it just because you don’t get much attention for six months.

As for me, I am going to exercise today. Will I feel like crap? You bet. Would it likely cause more damage than help in improving my health? Probably. But will I make an excuse for the next goal I set? I doubt it.

The worst case scenario for my exercising will likely be extenuating my illness. But the benefit to my discipline and other goals is priceless. If you don’t feel you are all that disciplined right now, you can start by setting this standard. This standard will make you more disciplined.

Set an unbreakable standard for yourself. Don’t let yourself quit even when you are justified in doing so. Don’t let yourself quit just when things get hard.

Set an unbreakable standard so you don’t settle for a sub-optimal life!

Edit – I just finished exercising. I tried doing some light jogging but I switched to power-walking instead when I nearly coughed up a lung. I rounded it off with a lot of stretches. The thing that surprised me is that I actually feel a little better than before I did my exercise. I guess it shows how it is so easy to exaggerate the short term pain. When I look at it now I can’t even see how I could have even considered restarting my goal!

  • Paul Eres

    I wrote about a similar topic once, on why not to break promises to yourself:

    “yesterday i was reading the ‘the dark is rising series’, as previously noted, and i made an agreement w/ myself that i would read 1 chapter for every 50 lines of zfrt [a game i’m working on] plotscript written — and then after 2 times where i did this, i broke the promise and then read another chapter — then another, and, it was terrible. after that i tried to get back on to the switching, but because i had broken the promise once it made it harder to keep to it the second time. so i want to record this as a case study, the ‘just one exception’ is never just one, there’s a reason for making no exceptions.”

    This is a good topic but let me offer a little criticism of the writing style: the paragraphs are a bit too short, several of them could easily have been combined. I know short paragraphs are a style taught in journalism classes, but I find they get in the way of comprehensibility (even more than paragraphs which are too long do). The longest paragraph in this entry is only 3 sentences, most are two or one, and there are dozens of paragraphs.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments, Paul.

    The whole point of the article is that we often find reasons to justify quitting to ourselves. But we have to remember that it doesn’t matter whether we are justified or not, the damage is still done.

    As for the note about the short paragraphs I think that it can go both ways. Too short of paragraphs and you can lose comprehension, but I think that too long paragraphs is very dangerous in internet writing. Unlike books and magazines it seems like a large block of text is likely to just be skimmed when it is displayed on the moniter. But I probably should have extended several of those paragraphs to make them a little larger. I’ll blame it on my illness 😉


  • Logan Leger

    Great article… I like the insight and forethought put into this and your other articles. As for you feeling better, I wanted to point out that yes, you do feel better when you work out. Your body uses the opportunity of physical extertion to purge itself of the particular ailment. In your case I sense that it was just a seasonal cough with mild congestion, if this was the case, your body used the jogging you did to kill the germs with some elevated body temperatures, excelleration in metabolism and your sweat. This works quite well. I often try to give excuses when I don’t feel like working out simply because the heavier weights simply do not move when I am feeling under, but the persistance and encouragment of my coach has always made me want to stay longer and finish what I had already begun; I sure am glad that I have…

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments, Logan.

  • SelpHelpSkeptic

    I love your site. Well written overviews along with some good advice! I am a huge skeptic of the ‘self-help’ industry, but I like your site.

    A few words on this post. Even top level performers “break” standards . Athletes, movie stars, business executives all are flexible enough to recognize that it is okay to retreat when needed. I think you are being slightly anal on the topic. As long as one is moving forward on the planned goals everything should be okay.

    I understand why you say what you say, because even for simple activities, people find every rationalization why something can’t be done ‘today’. However, you need to separate (for your readers), ‘excuses’ from ‘tactical retreats’. The former is common and self-defeating, the latter is strategic and requires some analysis (as opposed to self-rationalization) before it is accepted.

    For example, my knee was sore for a couple days, I felt like I should overcome the pain and go train in the sport I was doing. I modified my activity and was going to do the same the next day. After some brief ‘research’, I specualted that perhapos it could possibly turn into something serious so I tactically retreated. Lucky I did as I had damaged my ACL.

    Form reading your opinion, I might have set an ‘unbreakable’ standard without realizing it, and then been off training for 1 year. An ‘unbreakable standard’ can be as narrow as not doing anything. Careful thought and analysis are wha’s required in these situations, not just rationalizations.

    Keep up the good work.

  • SelpHelpSkeptic

    Sorry for the typos. That is one unbreakable standard I should set for myself!

  • Caster

    Found your website while breaking off on tangent’s from reading my usual “pick up” and social dynamic related sites. Awesome stuff, this article really makes me want to be unrelenting in my persuits.

    I have a feeling that this challenging high standard of thinking and doing is an important piece that i have been missing and causing my potential to squander.


  • Tebogo Leshabane

    Hi Scott been following your blog for the past year now, and I’ve noticed how your writing has improved greatly. But whats funny is I keep coming back to this particular article which you wrote back in 2006, if you were a musician i think this article would be regarded as a classic album. This article just resonates with me so much, I love that idea of being relentless and setting a standard of quality and sticking with it regardless of how you feel. I always think of this quote when i read this article. “If you are going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill

  • Viraj

    Hey Scott,

    After reading this blog post of yours, I was reminded of a quote by one of my favorite authors, historian David Halberstam, who said of anyone trying to approach his or her working life with thorough professionalism: “Being a professional means doing your job on the days you don’t feel like doing it.” I really connected with that quote (and your blog post) because a lot of times if we don’t treat our goals in a professional manner, then we won’t stick around to see them come to fruition. This matters because achieving goals is about the daily grind and not some grand gesture that occurs every now and again. So if you stick to your goals even (and especially) on the days you don’t feel like sticking to them, then your determination will pay off in the long run.