When you explore something new, you’re exploring relative to a previous baseline.

When you explore a new diet, your baseline is your previous way of eating.

When you explore a new travel-rich lifestyle, your baseline is your previous stay-at-home lifestyle.

When you explore a new relationship and you weren’t in a relationship right before, your baseline is being single.

Your default baseline is your normal, usual, routine, or expected experience in that particular area of life. Your baseline is your status quo.

But does that have to be your baseline?

If exploration is relative to your baseline, what would happen if you changed your baseline first?

Moving Your Baseline

We can compare the year 2020 to the previous baseline of 2019. That comparison will surely make the COVID situation stand out. We could also compare 2020 to the baseline of 2015, and that may serve to further highlight the political differences. And if we used 1943 as our baseline, the year 2020 might seem like a relatively quiet and peaceful year.

It makes sense to interpret change relative to what came immediately before, but in the context of personal growth, you have the ability to change what comes before your explorations. You have the ability to redefine and establish new baselines.

You can use your current circumstances as your point of reference for further exploration. But you also have the power to establish very different baselines and to use those as your jumping-off points for further exploration. As it turns out, this can be immensely valuable.

For instance, if you want to travel throughout another country for an extended period, you could first establish a temporary “home base” in that country, such as by renting an apartment in one city there. Then you could use that base for further explorations, such as by taking excursions and trips to other parts of the country, always returning back to your new base each time. You base lets you live like a local for a while, giving you a different point of reference when exploring, so you aren’t in perpetual tourist mode.

Practical Explorations

Sometimes it’s easier, more useful, or more meaningful to explore from a different baseline instead of your usual default.

Here are some examples to get your mind churning on some possibilities:

Suppose you want to find your ideal wake-up time. You could start experimenting from your current baseline. Or you could become an early riser first, such as by getting up at 5am consistently. Make that your new baseline. See how that feels for a month or two. Then explore with different wake-up times to see how they perturb your results.

If your usual wake-up time is 9am, and you experiment with earlier wake-up times like 5am, 5:30am, or 6am, you may not notice much difference between them. But if you first establish 5am as your new baseline, you’re very likely to notice how different it feels in your body to get up at 5:30 or 6am. You’ll also have a new perspective on how it feels to stay up late.

Getting up at 5am consistently is my baseline. If I do any further sleep experiments, that’s my starting point. If I get up at 6am one morning, I’m sleeping in late because 5am is normal. If I experiment with doing anything “first thing in the morning,” it means I’ll be doing it before the sun comes up.

Suppose you want to improve your diet. You could experiment from your current diet, but that may not be nearly as useful as establishing a healthier baseline first. If your current diet is so-so, and you add in some healthier foods or subtract some unhealthy ones, you may not notice much difference. Add some celery and blueberries, and it may not even matter.

But suppose you establish your baseline to be a vegan, whole foods diet – no animal products and no processed foods. Then you experiment around that, such as by adding back some of the items you were having before, one at a time to see how each one affects you. See how some crackers affect you. See how your body responds to caffeine. See how some cheese affects you (if you even find it appealing anymore). This will give you much more clarity about which foods are helping you and which are hurting you.

The cleaner, simpler, and purer your dietary baseline is, the easier it is to discern how different foods affect you and whether those affects are positive or negative.

I went wheat-free for many weeks and then had some wheat pasta this week. I noticed the difference in my body shortly afterwards, experiencing minor cold-like symptoms, mild congestion, and some brain fog for a few hours. I also felt extra calm and peaceful shortly after I ate it. If I eat wheat regularly, I don’t usually notice any reactions, but if I experiment against a wheat-free baseline, I can see how it affects me more easily.

What’s your baseline for cleanliness and order in your home? If you live in a cluttered environment, you may not even notice the results of some modest organization improvements. But if your baseline is to keep your place neat and tidy by default, then some minor tweaks may have noticeable affects.

Declutter Your Baseline

One nice improvement you can make is to declutter your baseline. You’ll often learn more by simplifying and cleaning up your baseline first, and then see what happens when you add complexity.

If, however, you start with a complex situation and shift from one form of complexity to another, or from complexity to relative simplicity, it’s hard to identify clear and crisp lessons. You won’t be able to tell which specific changes are having the biggest impact. You won’t know where the key leverage points are.

It’s hard to tell what’s dragging you down or holding you back when your entire baseline is filled with issues that could be contributing to those affects. It could take a long time to isolate and identify problems when you have a dozen overlapping problems interacting with each other. But if you could first establish a relatively problem-free baseline, then you could selectively add back some complexity and immediately see when you cross back into problem space.

Upgrade Your Baseline

Another empowering way to use baselines is leverage them to elevate your routine experience, so you’re always returning to a pretty good default situation.

How happy are you with your current baselines in these areas?

  • Relationship situation
  • Social life
  • Diet
  • Exercise habits
  • Cleanliness
  • Productivity
  • Workspace
  • Income generation
  • Hobbies
  • Entertainment
  • Hygiene
  • Reading and education
  • Living situation
  • Travel
  • Creative expression

Raising your baseline takes time, but it’s a worthwhile investment. While it’s wonderful to have peak experiences now and then, you’ll spend a lot of your life living at your default baseline. So even if it takes a huge amount of effort to raise that baseline, it’s well worth it.

When I think back about some of the best decisions I’ve ever made, they often involved changes to my baseline in some area of life. They involved significant lifestyle adjustments, and some took years to reach, but they continue to provide ample rewards.

It’s especially wise to raise your baselines to the point where your everyday experience includes appreciation. A good question to ask yourself is: Do I appreciate my baseline in this area of life?

For instance, my income generation baseline is that I make money from fun, creative, inspiring, growth-oriented projects that improve people’s lives. Many years ago my old baseline included stress, scarcity thinking, acts of desperation, and focusing way too much on money instead of happiness, flow, caring, and trust. Notice that my current baseline is simpler and cleaner than the old one, especially without the clutter of stress, worry, and desperation – so much wasted energy. Note that trust, caring, and fun are much simpler – they do take more courage to implement, but they do not require more complexity.

Consider how much we complicate our lives just to avoid the simplicity of courage. What if courage was your baseline?

If you don’t like your baseline that much, why are you still there? Maybe it’s time to stop framing it as your current default. Be willing to drop a baseline that isn’t serving you well. A good baseline is a jumping-off point for further exploration, but it’s also a decent place to hang out between experiments.