Don’t Underestimate the Bare Minimum

I, like most people, struggle with balance in my life. And it really is a rather difficult subject, especially if you are the ambitious kind: You want to make progress with your chosen career or your studies. You want to start your own business on the side. You want to workout and look good. You want to eat healthy and lose weight. You want to sleep more and get sick less often. You want to network and meet interesting new people. You want to practice an instrument, learn a language, make a habit of reading more or whatever else strikes your fancy.

How are you supposed to fit all of that into one day? It seems a very stressful, if not hopeless endeavor.

Most people react to this dilemma in either one of two ways: They either slowly but surely let go of their ambitions and start to coast; or they pick one thing and focus on that exclusively, neglecting all other important areas of their life.

I’m not a fan of either solution. Giving up is certainly not the answer, but becoming a narrow-minded specialist is not much better either, as I have explained before. There is certain number of key areas in your life that you simply cannot neglect, at least not without paying a dramatic price. Health (eating right, sleeping well, working out) is not optional: it’s a must. Cultivating rewarding social relationships is a must. Financial stability and entrepreneurships are a must. Experiencing yourself as human by exposing yourself to great art is a must. Following your particular interests and passions and getting to know yourself better is a must.

It is your DUTY to become the most complete human being you can be, and I’m certainly not the first one to have pointed that out: Think Aristotle’s theory of self-realization, think the medieval septem artes or think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Throughout the ages, being truly human has been defined as being many things at once. In practical terms, that means working on several key areas simultaneously – there is simply no way around it, as much as we crave linear simplicity.

So again, how to go about it? After all, the day only has 24 hours and we only have a limited amount of personal energy. Once we are done, we are done. There is no changing that either.

Holding the ideal of the multi-facetted renaissance man next to the practical restrictions of resources, there is really only one solution: You need to work on several things at once at any point in your life, but you have to make do by giving most of the key areas in your life the bare minimum of attention. So in case of working out, you simply do a pressing, a pulling and a squat motion each day. In case of reading, you read 5 pages a day. You study your Russian vocab for 10 minutes on the commute to work. You write your 300 words for a new blog post. And so forth, you get the idea.

This is almost everything you do. Maybe in 1-2 areas, that are especially dear to you, you can allow yourself to dig a little bit deeper. But that’s the exception, not the rule: Your default mode is doing the bare minimum that is necessary to make some progress; then right away you move on to the next key area.

This approach is doable, but takes some solid practice to implement. In fact, at first, it will drive most people mad. The idea of just doing the bare minimum seems virtually unbearable to us – once we take something up, we want to move it forward, we want to see significant progress; hence the attractiveness of the One Thing philosophy. You want to throw yourself at one task and give it 100%, because you can’t stand the notion of microscopic daily progress. What’s the point of that?! You want results NOW.

What these progress addicts tend to overlook: Microscopic progress over TIME will always get the job done. Time is the magic ingredient that will eventually turn these microscopic daily efforts into something rather huge. Reading just 5 pages a day will result in several major books getting finished each year. 10 minutes of daily language practice will result in you speaking that language after just 2-3 years. 20 minutes of focused working out a day will result in a very athletic body after just 3-5 years. That’s the formula that works: By keeping your efforts to the bare minimum, you will be able to tackle all the important areas in your life. And by adding the magic ingredient of time, all of these things will come to fruit after just a few years.

Still feeling impatient? Get over it. Our tendency to give the task at hand everything we got may be culturally enforced on us, but it is plain dangerous. So you now earn 6 figures, but your wife just filed a divorce and took the kids. So you now tour the world as a guitar hero, but the drugs are slowly killing you. So you now made the NFL, but can hardly articulate.

I repeat: You need to cover all the different grounds; otherwise you will pay for it. But you only have limited time and energy each day. The only logical solution: Stick with the bare minimum for each area – it WILL get you there, not this year, not next year, but probably in 3-5 years. 3-5 years is nothing, we live many times longer. But you end up complete and content, instead of specialized and broken up.

The bare minimum is more than enough.