Know Your Personal Baseline

Several of my extended family members are doctors and nurses, and every now and then they’ll use a medical expression that catches my attention, such as the term baseline. In medicine, a baseline is the initial known state which is used for comparison with later data. The concept of a baseline recognizes that much data in medicine is relative, not absolute, and it makes caring for the individual needs and differences of patients possible. 

For an example, an 86-year-old man with a bad case of the flu and an eight-year-old girl with appendicitis don’t have the same baseline, so “healthy,” which is actually a relative term, is going to look very different for the two of them. Medical professionals have to judge when either patient is able to go home based on their personal baselines and not some abstract definition of “healthy.”   

This term intrigues me because of its relevance to ordinary, non-medical, situations. We all have various baselines throughout our everyday lives, including how much we exercise, how clean we keep our houses and the amount of social stimulation we need to feel happy. 

My personal baseline of exercise is going on several long walks and attending four or five fitness classes each week. I use this baseline — rather than comparing myself to a marathon runner or a total couch potato— to measure if I’m doing what will make me feel my best physically. 

My personal baseline for house hygiene is doing the dishes and general tidying daily, vacuuming and laundering weekly and dusting every other week. There’s no use to comparing myself to my friends who never clean or to those who regularly wash the outsides of their windows, because we have very different baselines. I know the amount that I need to clean to feel comfortable in my home; that’s my baseline. 

As far as social stimulation goes, if I have more than two or three social obligations a week, I begin to feel frazzled, but if I don’t have any, I get lonely. I have a lower social baseline than most people I know, whether due to my extreme introversion or the fact that I live with my spouse, a baby and an attention hungry dog.

Knowing our personal baselines is important for a couple of reasons. First of all, it helps us manage our time. We can know how much time we need to invest in various areas of our lives — physical activity, housekeeping and social lives, to name a few — to maintain a sense of health and wellbeing. 

Secondly, it’s a reminder that everyone is different and that it’s generally more useful to measure our functioning by our personal standards rather than by comparing ourselves to friends and family members. We aren’t failing at life just because our eating habits are less healthy than our cousin’s, or because we’ve been promoted fewer times than our neighbor. In this way, knowing our baseline promotes self-acceptance. 

At the same time, baseline knowledge can also push us towards growth. Our baselines are generally static (that’s the point, after all; they’re the yardstick by which we measure the variables in our lives), but in theory, they can shift a little in one direction or another. I can lower my standards and decide that vacuuming every other week is satisfactory, and I can give up fitness classes and decide that walking is enough physical exercise to make me feel good. Or, I can shift my baseline in the opposite direction and decide that instead of walking four times a week, I’ll run twice and power-walk twice, and that actually, adding window washing to my cleaning routine isn’t the worst idea. In other words, knowing our personal baselines can move us to expect more from ourselves.

Like so many things, each person’s baseline is unique. Knowing yours can help you on the path to self-knowledge, acceptance and growth. 

Teresa lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church and dabbles in hospital chaplaincy. She has a BA in English, a Master’s in Divinity, and a passion for thinking about the intersection of spirituality, self-improvement, and well-being. Her perfect day includes slowly savoring a morning cup of coffee, reading for work and for fun, and receiving snail mail.