Habits, inputs and outcomes
Personal development whether in health, fitness or anything else comes down to the interplay between desired outcomes and required inputs. If fitness is your desired outcome then training is a required input. If speaking Spanish is your desired outcome then studying the Spanish language is a required input, and so on. You can think of the amount of an input as the dose of that input. Today I’m going to dig into the idea of dose and how you can use the concept to maximise your progress in fitness, health or anything other area of personal development. Some of you will have heard of the Minimum Effective Dose (MED). I’m going to introduce the idea of the MAD dose, the Maximum Assured Dose as an equally powerful tool for deciding how much time you should invest in a particular habit or behaviour.
The idea of dose is derived from medical language. It’s a useful term because it’s suggestive of the non-linear relationship between inputs and outcomes. More is not always better when it comes to pharmacological doses. Indeed, too much can actually be harmful. Paracetamol is an effective pain-killer but it will kill you if you take too much. There is normally a sweet spot when it comes to dose and benefits are rapidly outweighed by costs beyond this point.
A similar relationship holds between inputs and outcomes in fitness and health. Training is generally good, but too much can lead to overtraining and elevated chronic inflammation. What you tend to observe is that inputs to desired lifestyle and fitness outcomes have diminishing returns to scale. The higher your dose, the less any additional dose will benefit you (see graph below). That’s good news, really. Because it means that you can enjoy most of the benefits of certain outcomes with limited commitment to inputs. You can get most of the benefits of training with relatively short and infrequent gym sessions, for example.
What’s the correct dose? The Maximum Assured Dose
With that in mind, how do you decide what the correct dose is for your goals? How do you decide how much time to invest in a beneficial habit? Often people refer to the minimum effective dose. The idea is similar to the 80-20 Pareto Principle. Do the 20% that garners 80% of the benefits. Do the smallest amount possible that delivers most of the benefit. This is a powerful idea. And what you tend to find is that the minimum effective dose is a lot smaller than you might think. But the minimum effective dose is independent of you and your time commitments and priorities. So I suggest you think in terms of the Maximum Assured Dose instead.
When deciding how much of a certain activity you can commit to, ask yourself, “how much of this would I definitely be able to commit to?”. Figure out what dose you could guarantee beyond reasonable doubt. This is the maximum assured dose. Start with an absolute maximal dose and work down. You want to get fit? Ok. What would the maximum (reasonable) dose be? Let’s say 6 90-minute sessions a week. Now ask yourself, is there any doubt that you can do that? Do you have any inkling that that habit might break down under the normal stresses and time-scarcity of life? If the answer is yes, scale down a bit. How about 5 60-minute sessions? Still feel a hesitation? No problem. Keep working your way down until you arrive at a dose which seems entirely un-intimidating. It might be just 2 45-minute classes per week and that is FINE. It might seem that the dose is pitifully small. But by virtue of the Pareto principle it is probably much more effective than you think. It is almost certainly above the minimum effective dose. And, more importantly, a conservative habit that you maintain is infinitely more powerful than an aggressive habit that falls by the way-side.
To give a personal example, I have been wanting to learn some maths (group theory for those that want to know) for a while now and I had been struggling to make time for it. My original target was 1 hour per week. That’s hardly a lot, but that hour long slot seemed to compromise other necessary work just a bit too much (obviously an hour doesn’t really affect anything, but that is the way it felt!). So recently I switched it up and started aiming for 15 minutes a day. Since then I have been making huge progress. I only need to hit this target 4 times in a week to equal the previous goal of 1 hour, and 15 minutes fits into a day easily. Even if you’re super busy, you can put 15 minutes aside. If I’m on a roll, I will often carry on working. If I’m not, I pack up show at 15 minutes. Don’t be afraid to chop and change things until the dose looks totally manageable. There are similarities between this and the 5-12 Solution. If you’re really busy but you want to create a new habit, don’t be discouraged if you can’t manage a full hour or if the ‘standard’ recommended commitment is too much for you. Aim for 15 minutes and you will often get much of the benefit.
Avoid aggressive habit targets
Aggressive habits have a tendency to fall apart. They are set up for failure because the human psyche does very poorly when realities fall short of expectations. That’s why companies always encourage stock brokers to project lower earnings. That’s why your boss always tells you to ‘manage expectations’. If you’re going to be late, say you’ll be 30 minutes late. When you show up only 10 minutes after the scheduled time, you’re greeted like a hero. If you aim for 6 gym sessions, eventually you will miss one. Now, you have still made 5 training sessions for the week which is great, but you fell short of your target and so you naturally become dejected. On the other hand, a trainee aiming for 2 sessions may one week get to the gym 3 times and he’s riding on cloud 9!
To go a little further, in many respects I think the natural tendency to over-reach is the result of a sub-conscious self-sabotaging psyche that many of us struggle with. In essence, we don’t really believe in our capacity to change our lives, so we set the bar too high. Then when we inevitably fall short, we have a convenient excuse to pack up shop entirely.
Don’t be victim to this kind of thinking. The power of conservative habits, exercised over long periods of time is startling. As you gain experience with a habit, your MAD will increase over time and you will gradually increase your commitment to that activity to match. Starting too big is the single biggest mistake you can make when it comes to creating new habits and you know this, even if this knowledge is buried deep beneath self-defeating mechanisms. Whether you want to start meditating, become more flexible, learn Russian or get fit, calculate your maximum assured dose and you’ll have taken the most important step towards a transformative habit. There is no ‘correct’ amount of time you should be spending on something. The only relevant metric is the maximal amount of time you can definitely set aside. Trust me, start with a commitment which seems almost laughable and you’ll soon enough be laughing at just how easy it is to make enormous changes in your life. Go MAD.
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