The Problem

Here is an all too common story... You look in the mirror one day and realize you are fat. You decide you are going to start exercising and eating right in order to reach your ideal weight in 6 months. You get off to a good start. You go to the gym. You buy healthy food at the market. You are going to make it this time! Then, after a few weeks you feel too tired to go to the gym. The healthy food you bought goes bad and you scarf down that pizza sitting in the back of your freezer. 6 months pass, you are the same weight, you feel fat, and you start this cycle all over again. In the end you are left wondering why this happens to you and if you'll ever be successful in achieving your goals.

Grilling (Bare With Me)

So, why does this happen? If you have ever grilled on a charcoal grill you know that 2 elements are needed: lighter fluid and charcoal. Charcoal doesn't like to catch flame easily. If you have ever tried to light a briquette with a match alone it is a near impossible feat. This is where lighter fluid comes in. Lighter fluid catches flame quickly and burns just long enough for flame to take hold in the charcoal. After the lighter fluid burns up you are left with great source of consistent heat that is just perfect for grilling a delicious burger.

That being said, it would be silly to try and grill a burger with lighter fluid alone. It lights quick, burns quickly, and without a large consistent supply of it you would get nowhere. As silly as this seems, this is exactly what happens every time we fail to accomplish our goals. Motivation is like lighter fluid. It lights quickly, it burns quickly,  rarely do we ever have enough of it to get anywhere, and without charcoal to keep the flame alive we inevitably end up as hungry as we started.

What is it that keeps the flame alive? Habit. There is no worthy goal that has ever come to fruition without first having the activities necessary to accomplish that goal committed into habit. Do marathon runners run regularly? Do successful writers write regularly? Do successful athletes train regularly? To great programmers code regularly? Of course they do, they have made these things habit and in doing so have found success.

Habit, much like a charcoal briquette, does not catch flame easily, and while the motivation we get on a whim is enough to cause us take some action towards achieving our goals it burns out before those actions can be committed into habit. This is because motivation is being burned in pursuit of the final goal, i.e. cooking the burger, and not in pursuit of creating the conditions necessary for the final goal to be achieved, i.e. lighting the charcoal. Paradoxically, to achieve your goal you must not expend motivation in pursuit of that goal. Instead you must expend that motivation in pursuit of the conditions that ultimately cause that goal to actualize. In other words, you must expend motivation in the pursuit of creating habits and not in pursuit of the end goal itself. Leaving us with the question, how can we create habits?


Here at last we have arrive at the topic of this blog post, micro-quotas. A micro-quota is an artificial habit that you impose upon yourself. Over time, if properly formed and carefully nursed a micro-quota will turn into a habit. They are a small, achievable tasks that must be done a certain number of times within a given period of time which require only small amounts of motivation to complete. For example, someone who wants to get to their ideal weight may set a quota for themselves to do a particular type of exercise for 40 minutes at least 4 times every week. The general form of this is "I must <activity> at least <n> time(s) every <period>".

To be effective, a micro-quota must be tuned so as to require a minimal amount of motivation to accomplish. To reduce the amount of motivation that is needed a micro-quota must have the following characteristics:

First, the activity described in the quota must be specific enough that it leaves no difficult decisions to be made on how to implement it. For example, "I must exercise at least 3 times every week" is not specific enough. What type of exercise? How long? These are questions you would have to ask yourself every time you try to fill your quota. Making a decision is difficult and expends considerable motivation, and deciding not to do anything is easy. Here is a better micro-quota: "I must do body weight exercises from the book You Are Your Own Gym for the exact amount of time specified by the author's program at least 4 times every week." There is no decision that must be made when implementing this micro-quota, only the decision to do it or not.

Second, true to the 'quota' name, a micro-quota must specify a minimum number of times it must be completed during the period. If you do not specify a minimum number of times you run into a few of problems. First, you allow yourself not do the activity, and this is counterproductive to turning a quota into a habit. Secondly, if there is no indication of when the quota has been filled then you will never feel the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing it. This is vital to the success of turning a quota into a habit as accomplishment boosts motivation, and these regular boosts are needed to ensure you have enough to motivation to continue the quota long enough to make it a habit.

Lastly, the micro-quota must be within a short enough period of time to ensure that the activity will be effective at helping you to achieving the end goal. For example, if your micro-quota is "I must exercise at least 1 time every year" you are not going to be effective at enacting weight loss (unless of course there are other mitigating micro-quotas). That is not to say everything must be a daily or weekly. For example, if my end goal is to visit every country in Europe, "I must visit 1 country in Europe at least 1 time every year" is reasonable micro-quota.

How Do I Come Up With Micro-Quotas?

Micro-quotas can be derived by following the following steps:

  1. Evaluate the end goal you want to achieve. What habits must I form for this to eventually become a reality? For example, if I want reach my ideal weight I know I need to exercise and eat healthy.
  2. Create high level statements for your micro-quotas using the template "I must at least time(s) every ". For example: "I must eat only healthy meals all day at least 6 times every week" and "I must exercise at least 4 times every week".
  3. Split and refine your micro-quotas until the activity of each micro-quota becomes specific enough that it requires no difficult decisions to be made to enact. For example: "I must eat less than 2000 calories a day at least 6 times every week" and "I must do 30 minutes of running at least 4 times every week".

I Have My Micro-Quotas, Now What?

Assign to each micro-quota 2 separate ratings each on a 10 point scale. The first should indicate how difficult you think it will be to implement with 1 being not difficult at all and 10 being extremely difficult. The second should indicate how important you think the habit will be to achieving your end goal with 1 being least important to achieving my end goal and 10 being the most important to achieving my end goal. Add the 2 numbers up and divide by 2 and then implement the highest value micro-quota first. This one should have a good split between difficulty and benefit. While it might be more intuitive to go with the highest value first, you want to ensure you are challenging yourself in some way. If you are able to make something more difficult into a habit then you will most likely have the will to make the simpler ones into habits.

If you can feel you can handle it, you can implement 2 or 3 to start. However, beware that the more change you try to introduce into your life at once the greater chance you have of losing motivation and never reaching your end goal.

Make sure you write down all your micro-quotas and spend a few minutes a day reading them out load and checking them off as you complete the activity. This should help to ensure you keep on track with things.

In Closing

I hope this system is useful to someone. I just recently starting developing this system in my mind and am happy I now finally have it written down. I am trying it out myself and will make corrections as I learn better ways to do things. Please let me know what you think.

Image Credit: Fire light 9489 by mliu92 (