Let the Minimum Be the Maximum

I have a bad fitness habit. I will get into working out, go hammer and tongs at it, pushing to improve performance till I get tired of it or obsessed with something else (knitting cables, learning to do a French manicure, learning Klingon – it really varies) and quit with working out as my main obsession.

If I were training for a specific event or competition, this pattern would make sense.

That’s not what I’m doing, or what I need to do. What I need to do is just to have a habit of working out on weekdays. That’s pretty simple, isn’t it?

I choose swimming as my activity for several reasons. It’s easy on painful joints, it really is good cardio, and it does provide for a full-body workout in terms of muscle use. ‘Course the major advantage of swimming is the simplest. I’ll do it. There’s a great deal to be said for the exercise that you’ll do for all the cheesy adverts about Ultimate Workout Secrets that Top Athletes Don’t Want You to Know. The real secret is simple.

Do you do it?

Reinhard Engels of Everyday Systems fame has an interesting point of view about habit and self-discipline. Paraphrased, it’s that when you want to develop a long term habit, don’t clutter habit and progress. Track number of days you exercised v. how well you did during the exercises. Days on habit are ultimately more powerful, and oddly enough generate more long term progress, than the training mentality.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with training for a sports event. But if you’re not thinking of yourself in terms of being an athlete, and just want to work out for good body maintenance, being able to be faster and stronger in intervals of less than a year aren’t even all that useful. When you’re going for that life-long habit, high-velocity momentum just isn’t where it’s at.

Engels has a phrase for this. “Let the minimum be the maximum.” Choose a specific amount of time you want to work out. Work out that much1. Don’t do more when you’re feeling macho and don’t do less when you’re feeling like a slacker. Go for consistency. Think in terms of years. What can you put up with for ten years?

For me, the idea of swimming half an hour a day for ten years doesn’t make me freak out. It even seems a little small. But in ten years’ time, I’ll be in considerably better shape than if I did the stop and go thing of pushing myself to increase my pace, then losing the obsession, rather than just accepting that this isn’t worthy of obsession, but is just something I need to do without throwing in a lot of emotion or intensity.


1He choose 14 minutes a day for intense work, and then does his best to walk everywhere he can otherwise. His pictures over the long term support his theory that this works.

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