Whenever you set a goal, create a new habit or make some plan for your life, there’s a few different ways you can go about it
The first way is to target the minimum output. The idea here is that you focus on always doing at least a little bit, so that overall, you’ll end up doing enough to make it count. Examples: meditating for ten minutes a day, taking the stairs at work to get in shape, learning a new word every day.
The second way is to target the average output. Here, you focus on setting a goal that you don’t always achieve, but if you reach it enough, you’ll end up making a big difference. Examples: write a new blog post every week, read two books a month, go to the gym 4x per week.
A final way is to focus on the maximum output. Invest your energy in surmounting a specific, intense threshold that will pull you to a new level. Examples: one-rep maximum, deliberate practice, aiming at setting a personal best.
A huge array of different suggestions from personal development flow into one of these three types, yet I’ve rarely seen them analyzed together. I’d like to do that, and try to see if there’s a way of thinking which can make sense of when you should expect each type to be more useful.
When Should You Focus on the Minimum?
To understand where each of these strategies succeeds (or underperforms) you need to compare them to the status-quo.
The status-quo in minimum-focused projects is zero. This is the default, and what will happen in the overwhelming majority of cases.
One habit I’ve focused on in this way was doing fifty push-ups every day. Some people critiqued this as not being ideal for fitness. But it ignores the alternative—usually I would do no push-ups in a day, so some is certainly better than none. Doing the push-ups hasn’t stopped me from going to the gym, but keeping the habit has made me stronger.
Another way I’ve used this was doing reading practice for Chinese. I set a goal to do ten minutes per day. Again, the default here was zero. Most days I did no practice, so a ten minute goal, even if I never do more than this, is going to be an improvement.
The other reason to focus on a minimum is that it assumes the difficulty is in starting. When initiating a behavior or effort is the hardest step in the process, you want to set lower thresholds for effort so that you can make starting as easy as possible.
Minimum-targeting works very well for establishing stable, long-term habits. It also works when the status-quo is very low or zero effort. Finally it makes sense when initiating effort is the hardest obstacle to overcome.
When Should You Target the Average?
In contrast to minimums, many goals are set by trying to provoke an average investment. The difference between this approach and a minimum isn’t, however, strictly about how much effort you put in. Rather it is how you frame the goal.
Consider my Year Without English project. That goal used, as a minimum, not speaking any English. This was intense, but the focus was on not breaking the habit ever—thus focusing on the minimum output—rather than on a goal of reaching a certain average amount of practice per day.
Compare that to a goal to learn a language by putting in about ten hours per week. Some weeks you’ll do less, others you may do more. The emphasis isn’t on never missing a session, but on trying to reach some general threshold of effort into language learning.
Focusing on the average, can make sense when input isn’t a problem. If you’re already going to do some work towards your goal, or it is always in your field of consciousness, then the benefits of minimal habits are lower. If the status quo is non-negligible, then you may want to push at it, rather than set a minimum you’re already reaching.
Targeting the average, however, is long-term in mind. You’re hoping to sustain something, even if it not always a perfectly easy and consistent output. I have a current goal now of writing five new articles per week. Some weeks, this may be impossible and I’ll fail. But the goal is to try to reach this as much as possible, and hopefully, the average will bear this out.
Average-targeting works well when you were already putting in a fair bit of effort, you want to improve that effort, and yet your focus is suitably long-term.
When Should You Focus on the Maximum?
Focusing on the maximum, has the advantage that it can expand your potential. Many areas of growth exhibit some elements of friction, that barring some kind of intense effort, planning and potential frustration, they won’t be realized.
Deliberate practice epitomizes this strategy. By putting in an uncomfortably high focus on quality, narrowing onto specific aspects of performance with clear feedback, you can get better. Such a peak learning state is less likely to occur if you don’t aim for this effort deliberately.
Aiming at one-rep maximums, or reaching personal bests in fitness, learning or life are also attempts to focus on a maximum. They too, are less likely to spontaneously come about without some conscious effort.
The downside of focusing on reaching a maximum is that it often isn’t sustainable. Bursts of high intensity rarely make for long-term, stable habits. Therefore, those who engage in routine exercises of maximum-targeting efforts often require continued obsession with performance. Maximum-targeting efforts require all your attention and energy, they can’t be engaged lightly in the background.
Maximum-targeting works well when there is an efficiency gain for reaching higher levels of intensity, or when other barriers impede progress without such intensity. They work well either with sustained obsession, or careful transition to average or minimum-tageted goals, once the burst has finished.
Minimum-targeting is the art of patience, endurance and small efforts accumulating into large gains. Average-targeting is the strategy of continuing what you have been doing, but expecting more from yourself and continuing it for longer. Maximum-targeting is a sprint, which can climb over mountains, but can’t be sustained perpetually.