Raise the roof? How about raise the floor?

Forget lofty goals, increase what you’re minimally willing to accept

I had it down to a science. Another semester, another 3.0 grade point average—on the nose. No more, no less. 

As a college student in the late-90’s, I wish I could say that my primary focus was always academics. But that wasn’t exactly true. Really, whether it was a conscious decision or not, I was continuously trying to optimize for this equation: 

Maximize fun for a given level of acceptable grades. 

For me, what was minimally acceptable was being a “B” student. We can argue about whether or not that was too low a bogey (I’m pretty sure it was), but that’s where I landed.

In fact, I had an unofficial agreement with my parents that if I got B’s, they would keep sending me to school, loading up the meal card and generally supporting the 19-year old party animal that I was. 

I tested my limits often. I learned that I could not, in fact, skip every other statistics class and still get a B. 

But I also learned that it was “game on” for Thursday nights. I found that even if I skipped the only class I had on Fridays (Spanish), I could still avoid getting grades that were “no bueno.” (In my defense, it was an 8:30 am class. Remember when such an hour seemed obscene?).

So what was the result of all this? A whole lot of fun, and a 3.0 GPA. 

Basically, it worked. Maintaining the 3.0 was the guardrail that I needed to stay on track. 

Is there anything to be learned from the highly suspect life philosophy of a naive 19-year-old?  

Yes, I think there is. 

We all have “floors” that we set for ourselves:

  • I will not let myself weigh more than XXX pounds

  • I will not drink alcohol more than X nights per week

  • I will run at least X miles

  • I will earn a salary of at least X dollars

Whether these minimums are conscious or not, we have them. And they act as guardrails, keeping us from making bad decisions.

So if such “floors” are effective ways to keep us on a path that we want to be on, how can we use them to our advantage?

Here are a few strategies to consider

  • Start small but improve continuously — Setting lofty goals can be intimidating and if they seem unreachable we’re likely to give up before we even start. If I weigh 250 lbs and my goal is to be 185, I don’t know where to start... so I probably won’t. But if I weigh 250 lbs and I tell myself that my new acceptable weight limit is 240, now that seems like there are some realistic actions I can put in place to get there.

To illustrate this, a few months ago, I started a new weightlifting routine. I wasn’t lifting very heavy weights, but it was enough for me to feel it. I then started adding more weight every other week—in very small increments, so that I was constantly improving even if it was at a modest pace. The result (outside of some soreness) has been a slow but steady climb higher combined with a sense that the next level will continue to be achievable. 

This strategy isn’t just for fitness. If you want to earn more money in the workplace, perhaps a doubling of your salary right away isn’t realistic, but is there a path to a 10% increase? If so, what does it look like? Can you ask the “powers that be” what it will take and then set out to implement a plan to do just that? It may help to turn something negative (I’m underpaid) into something that you feel like you are making active progress towards. 

  • Declare your objective publicly — Given a full-time job and three kids, my efforts at establishing a writing habit have traditionally been sporadic at best. I’d pour my heart and soul into an article and then... crickets for six months. This has changed in the last several months and continues to change the more people that I tell about this very newsletter that you are reading right now. I have publicly committed to this project and such a commitment is as good as any other motivator I’ve found when it comes to spurring action. In effect, I’ve raised my floor for my acceptable writing cadence from “when I have time” to “weekly.” I’ve had similar experiences with such public declarations when I studied for the CFA exams and committed to writing a book. Once I told people I was embarking on those Herculean tasks, I certainly had a few “oh sh#t” moments, but then after that, I was going to get them done come hell or high water. 

  • Put yourself in an environment where your desired outcome is the norm — You want to write every day? Start associating with writers. You want to be physically fit? Start associating with people who are physically fit. You want to own a business? Associate with business owners. Whatever your goal, one way to get there is by finding and associating with people who already model the behaviors you aspire to. “But that’s not my friends,” you might say. Well, good news, our lives are all pretty virtual at the moment and I can guarantee you that for any behavior you wish to embody, there are Facebook groups, Instagram feeds, Twitter experts and others who are sharing (constantly and for free) the in’s and out’s of how they are doing what they are doing. So there is literally no barrier to find, associate with, and learn from people who are actually doing what you’d like to do.

  • Quantify and monitor your results — I was an early adopter to Peloton (the at-home spinning bike) and for the first several years I owned one, I just kind of leisurely did my rides and that was it. No one was monitoring my performance too closely, including me. It wasn’t until my friends started getting Peloton bikes and following me on its online platform that I realized “Hey, I’m kind of getting my butt kicked here.” Being in public view gave me the inspiration to step up my game. And while I did not necessarily make dramatic changes to my “output levels,” I did establish new minimum acceptable floors for what I expect to achieve every time I get on the bike. This attention to a specific, quantifiable result—paired with a small dose of fear of public humiliation—has proven to be a powerful combination that has resulted in more intense and effective workouts. 

Making improvements in our lives is difficult and rife with potential pitfalls. One way to tackle this problem is to put away the lofty goals for a minute and increase (even if just modestly) what you are minimally willing to accept from yourself. Try this out—I think you’ll find that it’s an effective way to make small, but meaningful (and hopefully lasting) changes. 

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@franckinjapan