Tell me if this sounds familiar:
You have a slow week at work, so you start thinking about how you should really cut carbs, go to the gym more, and start decluttering your whole house.
You make an elaborate set of plans with to-dos and goals for every day and week.
You write it all down in your calendar and feel very satisfied.
For the first three days, everything is great. You’re doing what you planned, you feel on top of the world. You are winning at life!
And then, reality hits. You get six new assignments in a day. The partner sends your brief back with so many track changes you can’t see the text. Your case doesn’t settle like everyone expected.
Suddenly all your plans are out the window. Six weeks later you resurface in a messy office, surrounded by take-out containers, and can barely remember where your gym is.
You tell yourself you have no willpower and no discipline, feel shitty about yourself, and vow to do better next time. But you never do.
Here’s the bad news: You’re not alone, and it’s not going to change on its own.
But here’s the good news: You’re wrong about why you keep doing this, and I’m going to teach you how to stop quitting on yourself and your dreams.
The problem with going through this cycle over and over is that you get used to making unrealistic plans, and then abandoning them at the first obstacle. And the more you make unrealistic plans and don’t keep them, the more “making plans” becomes a totally theoretical activity. Most of the time you know you’re not going to keep them long-term, but just making them gives you a brief respite from your self-critical talk about not doing enough.
And that’s the real rub: When you put your self-esteem on your eating plan, exercise plan, your work calendar, or whatever else, you’re making it impossible to succeed. It’s too much weight. Because when your self-esteem hangs on it, you think it must be perfect for you to feel ok about yourself.
And then because humans aren’t perfect, you can’t keep to your perfect plan, and then you say mean things to yourself and feel terrible. Then you need a new plan to try to feel better about yourself, so you make another perfect plan and assure yourself that starting tomorrow you’ll be perfect.
Sounds familiar, right?
The antidote to this is the Minimum Baseline. It’s a simple concept, but if you really internalize it, it will change everything for you.
The minimum baseline is basically the cure for perfectionistic tendencies. Perfectionism tells you that you need to do everything, all at once, and perfectly. The minimum baseline tells you that you need to choose one thing at a time and do it consistently.
Perfectionism is: I should go to barre twice a week, yoga twice a week, lift weights, and run a marathon, no matter how busy it is at work.
Minimum baseline is: I’m going to go to one yoga class a week until that becomes utterly effortless, and then I’ll add a second class to the week and repeat the process.
Whatever area it’s in, your minimum baseline should be the smallest commitment you can make that you know you can follow through on. This will involve managing your mind, but it should feel doable when you set it. You shouldn’t have that secret knowledge that you’ll never actually do it.
For example, your minimum baseline might be taking a walk 3x a week. Your perfectionist brain doesn’t like that—it seems boring and pointless. But it’s not. If you really go for your walk 3x a week consistently, you’re doing way more for your body than making elaborate plans, buying gym memberships, going every day for a week, then not going for 4 months, and then starting the cycle all over again.
At first you won’t like the minimum baseline, because it won’t give you this big dopamine rush of imagining your pretend perfect self who keeps the perfect diet, exercise, and work calendar. The minimum baseline is going to seem boring and pointless.
But it’s the exact opposite. The minimum baseline is how you build an actual lasting habit and develop that integrity with yourself. It’s how you develop the kind of relationship with yourself where if you say you’ll do something, you know you’ll do it. You do not get there with ambitious perfect plans. You get there little by little.
I recommend you use it on one area of your life at once. Perfectionist brain tends to want to be on all the wagons or off them all, but that’s overwhelming and makes things harder.
Pick one thing to work on. Writing your novel, creating a movement routine, eating more vegetables, whatever it is, pick ONE thing to work on. You can easily spend a year trying to change everything all at once, but I promise that will fail.
If you have an unpredictable law practice, I also recommend that you actually create TWO minimum baseline plans. One for when things are slow, one for when things are busy. That way when things get busy, you don’t just stop doing EVERYTHING. Instead you have an achievable plan that you’ve made ahead of time so it takes no effort to think and create a new one – you’re already good to go.
Follow these guidelines and in a year you’ll actually have the habits and practices of your dreams – and you’ll be able to keep them even no matter what is happening at work.
Kara Loewentheil, J.D., C.M.C., is a former litigator and academic who now runs a boutique confidence coaching practice, with a focus on high-achieving feminist women who struggle with anxiety and self-doubt. As a former lawyer and Certified Master Coach, Kara is intimately acquainted with the unique challenges women lawyers face in their professional careers and personal lives. Kara teaches her clients cognitive-based techniques for dealing with stress, anxiety, and lawyer brain so that they can create confidence to build the lives and careers they want. She is also the host of the only podcast that teaches lawyers and other high-achieving women how to actually rewire their brains so that they can feel confident and get what they want in life. The UnF*ck Your Brain Podcast is available on iTunes or wherever else you get your podcasts. To download a free guide to creating more confidence and believing in your own abilities, go to www.unfckyourbrain.com/guide.