The lean startup community likes to talk about the minimum viable product. While I’m not very interested in “startups”, I still really like this idea. The can be applied to all kinds of things in life, not just building a product.
Life often gives us freedom to do things in our own way. This is great, but sometimes the range of choices makes solving the problem more difficult. So, I have started to apply the minimum viable product principle to everyday life, and I find it works really well. When trying to figure out how to solve some problem I have, I look for the minimum viable solution that does what I need. If I’m thinking about starting a project, I try to think of the minimum viable project which still solves my problem.
Lets consider some examples. Often, when I write a script to help me with something, the amazing array of available possibilities is somewhat bewildering. When this happens, I try simplify and think of a minimum viable program: what is the least work that I need to do which will solve this problem? What can I create which I can then integrate into my life, and see if it really does what I need? Once I have this decided, I code it. Often, it only ends up being 5-10 lines of bash, ruby, or Elisp. At that point, I either keep using it, expanding it, or end up replacing it with something else. In any case, so far I have always been glad to have had that early, simple version.
If I am thinking about writing something, I have a tendency to think big. However, I have been learning to apply method to writing. If I am blogging, I try to think of the minimum viable post. Take, for instance, this blog post. When I was first thinking about it, I thought about the nature of problems, the nature of solutions, and their relationship. While I guess I find this kind of thing really interesting and compelling, it is almost impossible to write a discreet essay about it. In other words, it is way out of scope. So, what is the minimum viable blog post? In this case, it is explaining the essence of the idea I want to share, and including a few pointed examples.
Are you interested in trying something new, but aren’t sure where to start? Most hobbies or pursuits have some variable level effort that needs to be expended when starting out. Applying the minimum viable strategy to new hobbies lets you try out something with the minimum investment. Do you think you might like painting? Buy a really cheap paint set and try! Do you think you might like to bike? Go buy a $10 bike from a thrift store and do it for a while. This was actually the method I used to try biking as my primary means of transportation some years ago, and it worked out really well. Of course, once I learned that I really liked biking, I bought a better bike.
I’ve long had a problem keeping up with a regular exercise program. There are lots of reasons why. Sometimes, I simply lack the motivation. Other times, I exercise too much and injure myself. When I get sick, which is sadly too often, I get need to stop, and find it really hard to get started again once I am feeling better. Sometimes, a mixture of tracking my progress and not having the time to exercise ends up overwhelming me and depressing me. So, currently I am trying something extremely simple: do ten pushups per day, every day. I know I won’t make any real physical progress at this intensity, but that isn’t the point. The point is to establish a minimum viable habit, and then iterate. I also know that I wont hurt myself, and there isn’t any progress to track. I also am pretty sure I’ll be able to keep it up, even if I get sick.
Obviously, what you thought at first would be the minimum viable solution might not actually be enough. Just like in the startup world, though, you can alter your strategy, improving it however you think will help. Plus, you are making some progress, instead of just spinning your wheels.