A weak link problem is like a metal chain. A metal chain is only as strong as its weakest link. To make the chain stronger, you’re better off strengthening a weak link than a strong link. A strong link problem is the reverse. In the Revisionist History podcast, where I first heard about the concept of “weak link problems”, Malcolm Gladwell uses a sports analogy to explain the difference between a weak link problem and a strong link problem.
In soccer, the better team is the team with the best worst player. Therefore, in order to improve your team, you need to improve your weakest player. In basketball, however, adding one superstar can make the difference between winning the championship or not – as the Raptors showed in 2019 when they added Kawhi Leonard.
Well, health is a weak link problem.
The links in your chain of health
Imagine your health is a chain. Every facet of your genetics, lifestyle, history, and environment is a link in the chain of your health.
To strengthen your chain, you can either improve your chain – drink more water, exercise more often, get more sleep, etc. Or you can support a weak link by building around it – adapting your exercise routine when you are in a flare or avoiding allergens would be examples of that.
You can’t change the fact that you have arthritis, but you can build habits and routines that take your arthritis into account. You can take charge of your life rather than feeling pushed around. And you can still be healthy even though you have a chronic illness.
How to improve your health with the weak link approach:
Take a look at your habits and assess where you have the most room for improvement and start there. There are a few benefits to this process:
First and foremost, you’ll get the most “bang for your buck”. This is the definition of being a weak link problem. You’ll get a bigger boost to your health and energy by improving the weakest link than you would if you improved an area that you’re already doing pretty well at.
Second, you can see the benefits from a very little change. If you’re sleep deprived, a half hour more of sleep is incredible. But when you’re already getting enough (or nearly enough) it doesn’t really make a difference in your day. If you’re only eating highly processed foods, a simple salad feels so refreshing.
Third, because you can make a little change and actually feel the difference, you’re more motivated to continue and perhaps even expand your efforts. If you have more energy, of course you can do more.
Fourth, because the changes are small, you can do them even when you are struggling. This is the whole concept behind the Bare Minimum Health Plan!
But there are 2 traps we need to watch out for.
Trap 1: The Control Trap
It is tempting to believe that if you eat just right, if you destress enough, if you exercise just so, that you can avoid flares for good. But unfortunately that is not the case. Possibly we can reduce the number, severity, or length of a flare – but we can never know for sure if our habits actually made any difference in the flares. It sucks, but it’s true.
The only way we could know would be if we could tap into a parallel dimension identical to this one except for you chose not to work on your health habits and see what happened there.
We cannot control our arthritis. BUT – and this is how we avoid the control trap – by having positive habits in our mindset and how we move, rest, and eat, we feel better than when we don’t.
Let’s get specific:
Here’s how I think about it in my own life. I know that a major trigger for me is sleep deprivation. It makes me cranky, anxious, stiff, sore, and achy – basically miserable all around. So I do what I can to get enough sleep as often as I can. But I also have a toddler so sleep sometimes just doesn’t happen. I cannot control that. So I take advantage of the good days and when there is a challenging day, dress as cozy as I can, find ways to entertain the child that are less energy intensive for me, eat low-effort meals, you name it.
Yes, I complain about it – as I stated, I’m pretty miserable those days. But more often than not, I can also keep the context that this is just one day. Tomorrow will be different. There may be (almost certainly will be) parts that suck, but there is a decent chance that I’ll sleep better after one night of bad sleep. And that will make tomorrow a heck of a lot better.
Trap 2: The Perfection Trap
If you’re lucky enough to avoid flares and continue this incremental process, you’ll eventually get to a place where you are doing pretty well in terms of eating, moving, resting, and mindset. This is where you need to start to shift your mindset again.
Rather than focusing on trying to get “better” at our various habits, you need to double down on mindset. Specifically, on the perfectionism trap. Yes, striving for improvement is a good thing, especially when you are first starting to discover your Path to Wellness. But there is a fine line between striving for improvement and attempting to reach perfection.
Perfection cannot be reached and trying to get there ends up damaging your health and wellness.
Not only is perfection damaging in and of itself — by raising your stress levels when you cannot possibly meet your unreasonable expectations — but it also tends to lead us into quitting habits that we have so carefully built.
So how do we get out of perfectionism?
This is such a tricky thing to spot for those of us who have perfectionist tendencies. And it takes a long time to dismantle. The full story is much bigger than I can get into right here.
One example of perfectionism that I’ve worked to dismantle is with cleaning my house. I’ve often felt like if I couldn’t finish the job (dishes, cleaning the floors, tidying that junk pile that always accumulates somewhere), then there wasn’t much point in starting. Which is silly, of course; it’s easy to spot when you’ve written it down. And whenever I consciously thought about it, I could recognize the perfectionist thought and start the job anyway, even if I knew I only had 15 minutes.
But when those thoughts are just in your head, it can take a long time to root out. Being aware that it exists is the first step. Developing systems that work for you, that can take a little more time and experimentation. But that is what this whole thing is about!
Weak links are opportunities
Health is a weak link problem and when you are struggling, it is easy to spot all your weak links and get overwhelmed. When you are exhausted and in pain, it is hard to be active, to cook, and to sleep. It is easy to fall into a pit of despair.1Yes, this is an intentional Princess Bride reference 😉
But all those weak links are opportunities.
Each weak link you spot means that there is something small that you can do to feel better today. You might still be exhausted and in pain. But today will suck less than it otherwise would have. Some days, that is about as much as you feel you can manage.
When you stack up enough of these small changes or your body/life spontaneously decides to cooperate with your desires, you’ll have more energy to go deeper, if necessary. But there is a reason why my eBook is called the Bare Minimum Health Plan. In many cases, the Bare Minimum is all you need.