Just One Thing: A Simple Way to Make Changes to Your Life

As part of my recent vow to do what I love, I’ve been spending a lot more time with friends. Lately, for example, my friend Castle and I have been meeting once per week to hike though Portland’s Forest Park.

One bond that Castle and I share is a desire to improve our lives. Just as I’ve lost fifty pounds over the past couple of years, she’s in the middle of a weight-loss journey. But it’s more than that. I’m constantly trying to become a better person, and so is she.

Last week on our walk, she shared the secret to her recent success.

Just One Thing
“For me,” she said, “the key is to continually try new things. Have I told you about my Just One Thing project?”

“No,” I said. “What is it?”

“Well,” she said, “it works like this. Nearly every day — not every day, but most days — I try to do one new thing, or I try to do one thing differently. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can big or it can be small. But the key is, I’m trying to do something different.”

“Like what?” I asked. “What sorts of things are you’re trying?”

“Well, take eye contact, for instance. I realized a few weeks ago that I wasn’t maintaining eye contact with people. It’s because I’m shy, but it might come across as if I don’t care about people. So, I decided one day to practice keeping eye contact.”

“How’d it work?” I asked.

“It was amazing,” Castle said. “People responded much more positively to me. Of course, some guys see the eye contact as flirting, but mostly this is a change I want to keep. See, I don’t keep all of the changes I make. The goal is just to try something new for one day. If I don’t like it, I don’t need to continue. But it doesn’t hurt me to try anything for just one day, right?”

“You know, I kind of like this idea,” I said. “What else have you done?”

“Well, some days I try a new exercise at the gym. Some days I try a new food. Some days I try something new with my art. But often it’s something simple, something that might even seem silly. Like I decided to wear lip gloss again. Don’t laugh. I used to wear lip gloss all the time, but I stopped for some reason. It’s a small thing, but I find it makes me feel more put together. I tried it for one day, and now it’s back to being part of my daily routine.”

“So, not all of the things you try need to be life changing?” I asked.

“Not at all!” said Castle. “In fact, most of them are silly little things that don’t make a huge difference, things like wearing lip gloss or making eye contact. But the thing is, even if no one change is earth-shattering, taken together these small changes make me feel better about myself. These little changes make life fun. They make it interesting.”

One Thing at a Time
Though Castle is using the Just One Thing approach to make small daily changes, I think the idea can be applied to larger parts of life.

For instance, what if instead of making one small change each day, you made one large change every month? What would that be like? Sure, it’s more difficult to commit to a change for thirty days, but that’s still a short enough time that most people could commit to make most changes. But it’s a long enough time that if the change is successful, it will have become a habit.

What sorts of changes could you try for just one month? How about taking your lunch to work instead of buying it? What about biking or taking public transportation instead of driving? You might try going to bed early and getting up early. Or committing to exercise for 30 minutes every day. Or not spending any money on impulse.

The beauty of doing Just One Thing for a day (or thirty days) is that you can focus your attention on that thing — and ignore everything else. You may recall that I’m a recent convert to the one-goal-at-a-time method of change. I used to try many things at once, but I found that doing so made me distracted. I couldn’t put my full attention into any one thing. Now when I want to change, I focus on just one thing — sort of the way Castle tries just one thing at a time. My success rate is much higher at making changes this way.

Self-improvement isn’t easy. Because it’s so easy to remain complacent, change can be tough. But sometimes there are ways to make change more effective. I think Castle’s Just One Thing method is one of them.

When you decide to make changes to your life, how do you go about it? Have you tried something like Castle’s method before? Do you find that it’s more effective focus on just one thing? Or do you have better luck when you attack multiple changes at once? What methods do you use to make sure changes stick?

46 comments

  1. I have been doing a form of the “one new thing” for years. It has brought me surprising opportunities (like becoming a college professor) which I value and as Castle pointed out if you don’t like it, don’t do it again (I wasn’t as thrilled about fishing). I have this posted in my work room:
    “Do one thing each day that scares you.”- Eleanor Roosevelt

      1. Maybe using illegal drugs and partnering with prejudiced people could get you into prison and allow you to experience HIV. It’s all good….

  2. I’m a believer in one goal at a time as well. I used this method to kick start my changes when I decided to get out of debt. Throughout that process, I was a follower of Dave Ramsey and learned that he’s a big proponent of focused intensity. After successfully changing the way I handle money, I’m more confident in my ability to change other areas of my life, with focus. I quit smoking last fall and have been cooking and eating in/bringing a lunch to work more and have been trying to get into running. I’m only running 1 mile once or twice a week right now but it’s more than I’ve ever ran in my life. One thing at a time has definitely been my way of doing things and it has worked.

  3. I agree. Self improvement is never easy, why? Because we are fighting man’s default response to everyday life, seeking the path of least resistance. With this, if we want to continue to improve, we simply choose to take the path of most resistance. I have always had a bad relationship with food, and money. BEFORE. But whenever I tried to achieve so many things at once in these areas, i simply failed. stop and just give up. Focus is a powerful tool. A lot of people would agree. (or disagree).

  4. After listening to the new Van Halen album repeatedly, there’s one line in “The Trouble With Never” that sticks with me:

    “When was the last time you did something for the first time?”

    I’ve been thinking about it when making little decisions throughout my day. Like Castle, it’s usually little things, (“Hmm, maybe I’d like lattes better than cappuccinos? I always get the latter.” Answer: no), but getting used to thinking about it comes up in bigger things to.

    Question the default choices in your life. It makes life a little richer, and it can have huge rewards for your work.

    1. That’s a great way to think of it, “question the default choices in your life.” For so many things, that’s exactly what it is. I always go to this one particular 7-11, and I always get my gas at this one station; I always mow my lawn one way…they’re little things, but they’re my default. I like the idea of questioning my default choices. Very well said!

  5. I try to make changes over a month. Like drink more water and actually cut back on my diet coke habit. After a month of no diet coke at all, I find that I don’t even like the taste any more!

    Or take long(er) hikes with my dog as opposed to only walking her around the block. Tried it for a month and BAM! Loving it and doing it 4 times a week now.

    My personal secret to sticking with something like those longer walks is that all I have to do is start. Just start. If I don’t want to go on, I don’t have too and I can stop.
    Just put on my hiking boots and start walking. Doing this, I will often find myself completing my 3-4 mile target for the day. All because of the simple act of ‘just starting’.

  6. Focusing on one thing at a time I think is great strategy. We all have incremental improvements we can make. This week I’m going to focus on staying in closer touch with family!

  7. Remember Billy Crystal in City Slickers? Curly told him life was about “one thing.” I like what your friend did. Rather than jumping in and getting overwhelmed with new experiences, she is taking gradual steps to lessen the routine of life. I love throwing in a different lift or exercise every time I work out keeps the body fresh, and workouts from being mundane. Thanks for the great read!

  8. Doing one thing at a time sounds like a good plan for success. I’ve had someone tell me to make my goals, and pick one to jumpstart. I haven’t implemented it yet, but I intend to.

  9. I like the approach of taking things one step at a time, or even one change at a time. Given that many of us seem to have the ability to get comfortable with our circumstances and habits, it takes work to make changes quite often.

    Just like multitasking, it’s not always effective to make many changes at once. Stick to one at a time, focus on it with your thoughts and feelings, and you can have a better chance of success.

  10. I realised a couple of years ago that I was still quite restrictive/picky with food, so now I play a game every time I go to Chinatown and buy something completely new and weird. Sometimes they taste disgusting and I never want to eat them again, but as a result of playing this little game I’ve introduced some yummy, affordable, lunchbox friendly foods into my life; for example dried squid and beancurd strips. So that’s one change I’ve made that’s ended up opening up massive food changes for me- not too long ago I was so picky that I wouldn’t eat anything that had been near chilli and wouldn’t dream of eating seafood and now I chow down on lots of stuff like that without a second though.

    Another example would be stopping biting my nails. I literally just woke up one day and decided to stop biting my nails. I didn’t use gross tasting nail stuff or anything, I just learnt to me concious of when hands were heading up towards my face. Having nice nails makes me feel much less self concious about my hands and makes me feel like I’m looking after them and giving them the respect they deserve.

  11. Good stuff here! I’ve been (quietly) blogging about my self improvement 30x30x30 project – 30 challenges for 30 days for 30 months. Going well so far after nine months, some are definitely more challenging than others. JD was one of my major inspirations for last month, “Financially Fitting”. The most fun challenge yet was getting in the ocean every single day. Feel free to check it out, comments welcome. 🙂

  12. I like this idea a lot. I know that I have sometimes (oftentimes) got stuck in a comfortable rut — like staying in a relationship for too long because it’s comfortable and you’re afraid to start all over again. But staying with the same old thing just because it’s comfortable is rarely the best plan. I like the idea of making simple, incremental changes as a way to find out what works best for you. I will try this! 🙂

  13. I like doing the one new thing every day. I went through that phase and then I couldn’t find very many more small things. At the time I wasn’t ready to make big changes like you suggest.I think I might try it though, but I am going to go with medium changes for a week instead.

  14. I’ve been trying to shake things up with my brain. I’ll find a new way to walk to work, write a list with my non-dominant hand, take a new route through the grocery store, rearrange the furniture, move the stuff around in the fridge, or get lost on purpose. Anything to get me thinking and keep my brain from going on automatic pilot. Normally, I’m really bogged down in routines and this helps me mix things up. I’ve found that it helps me keep open to new things.

    1. Sometimes routine isn’t a bad thing. Not having to make a decision about what to have for breakfast every day, or what route to take to work frees our brain for real thinking – saving it for the important stuff. I don’t want to use all of my decision making brain-power on whether to have bananas or blueberries on my oatmeal.

      I do agree that we need to challenge ourselves to keep the grey matter healthy, I just think it’s important to pick and choose (especially for those of us over a certain age!)

      I don’t want to get up in the middle of the night to let the dog out and have to remember that I moved the furniture.

  15. This reminds me a lot of an idea I came across on Google+. Here is the link.

    https://plus.google.com/112674442385825750814/posts?utm_source=chrome_ntp_icon&utm_medium=chrome_app&utm_campaign=chrome

    It basically encourages us to pick 12 things we’d like to accomplish (one each month) and work on it every day. At the end of the month you can stop doing it and do something new the next month or you can continue and add something new.

    It’s a really cool idea and has helped me to focus.

  16. I decided to do my new year’s resolutions in the form of one thing a month. It has been absolutely life-changing. I’ve started to get on top of my schedule in a way I hadn’t been before; I started to get things accomplished at work; and people have noticed the change! Hell, I have noticed the change – since I’m pleased with myself more often now.

  17. Very good attitude. But I would also prefer to try something bigger every month. I don’t know if I could come up with something every day. And after 21 days something becomes a habit, so you could create a new positive habit every month (or lose a bad one, that can be something new too)

  18. I’m trying the make-a-new-habit-in-30-days method. I was really successful with my first challenge – brushing twice and flossing once everyday. I made a little check-off chart and hung it on the bathroom mirror. I told my husband closest friends so they could remind, encourage, and praise me. And I did it, and continue to do it three months later without any effort.

    Why did it take me so long to change something that will save me money and pain (literally!) over the long run? Because change is hard, and what’s even harder is admitting to yourself that you need to change.

    I’ve tried a couple of other 30-day challenges but for various reasons (read: excuses), I haven’t accomplished them yet. After some reflecting, here are some of the things that I feel made the tooth care change successful and that I’m going to use going forward:

    1) Ask for help. Help comes in many forms. It may be actual physical help, like talking to a financial adviser or hiring a trainer at the gym. It may be telling your family, friends, or coworkers about what you are trying to change so the they can offer you emotional support.

    2) Try, try, try again. The changes that haven’t happened for me aren’t off the list. I have identified them as things that are important improvements that I need to make in my life. Eventually I will move them back to the top of the list.

    3) Practice makes perfect. I’ve read a lot recently how willpower is like a muscle that has to be exercised to work at full capacity. So when big change seems overwhelming, I make a small change – like walking the dogs even when the weather is nasty.

    4) Be easy on myself. This is the hardest for me, because I tend to really beat myself up when I perceive that I’ve failed at something. To achieve number four I now know that it really takes working hard at numbers one through three, and reflecting on my successes.

    Good luck everyone on continuing to make positive changes. This bright-smile lady think reading GRS is a great start!

    1. One thing I can add to your 4 suggestions is to make it easy on yourself by supporting your change at a time when you find it easy. Simple example: I wanted to eat fruit daily. Just the intention was not succesful, since I kept forgetting it in the morning and didn’t feel like eating after dinner. However, I did remember my intention in the evening. I recently took advantage of that by placing a piece of fruit next to my wallet each evening, and now I act on it instinctively.

  19. Great post! I can’t say I try something new every day but I love the idea. I’ve never considered small changes like improving eye contact as something I can focus on for the day but sometimes those are the things that can really improve the quality of your relationships. I’ve had a few goals sitting on the back burner and it’s time I put them into action one day at a time. I like the approach of trying something new and if you like it continue implementing it into your daily routine (exercise, a new food you like, etc.) and if you don’t like it simply discard it.

    I love this quote: “Do one thing each day that scares you.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

  20. I like this series. I have goals upon goals upon goals, and I focus on one at a time until it’s time for the next one. One thing a day? That is easy. Castle should start a blog.

  21. If it’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that all of these “simple” life improvement tricks don’t work at all.

    I tried to make it a point to make more eye contact while running for office. While I seemed to do it more, I also forgot to do it more often than not. And plenty of times I made eye contact, only to find it uncomfortable and avert within a few minutes.

    I mean, just to use the example given.

    The thing is, motivation is always the missing link. Often, you may think you have a “problem”, such as eye contact, but when it comes right down to it, if it doesn’t matter to you, and it doesn’t make things better for you, then it ain’t going to happen. And for most of us, most of these “things wrong with us” aren’t really wrong with us at all — just someone else telling us they are and using it as a convenient scapegoat for your other problems, which are ultimately completely unrelated.

  22. Matt Cutts did a great TED talk about his 30-day challenges, where he tries to do one thing every day for 30 days. The video is up at TED. It’s only five minutes, but he’s done some really interesting things.

  23. It sounds like Castle has a great idea there. It certainly does not hurt to try some things for a day to see how it goes.

  24. This is a great article because it offers a terrific solution on how to handle change in our multifaceted lives.
    My husband taught me to outline my goal(s) for what I want to accomplish each day. This simplifies my life considerably.
    I will act on this advice, given today, for my larger life goals.
    Thank you Crystal and J.D.

  25. There’s some neuroscience around this that can be found in books like The Power of Habit. It can be used for good purposes to “fix” yourself (if you think you need fixing) or to market to you – like how Target sucks in customers and keeps them coming back:
    http://charlesduhigg.com/new-york-times-magazine/

    There’s some research behind the “just one thing” approach – Kelly McGonigal’s book “The Willpower Instinct” explains it well – very good book and she has a good blog on Psychology Today as well.
    http://kellymcgonigal.com/willpowerinstinct/

  26. I don’t like the idea of one new thing a day. It sounds like a lot of work. I would be more receptive to a new thing a month. If it works for her, then that’s great.
    Perhaps I can try it for 2 weeks and see how it goes. Life is just too busy… I know that’s an excuse, but it’s true.

  27. I think as a society we undervalue contentment. I’m sorry, but all I see in posts like this is a kind of empty restlessness. There may be excitement but there’s rarely ever contentment. If I had an overall life emotional life goal, it would be contentment. I don’t see how deliberately doing new things all the time will helps people be content. (Though it may not hinder it.)

    I just don’t see how new things are better for me because they are new to me. Did I think I would become a belly dancer when I signed up for lesson in college? No. Did I become one? No. I did it because it seemed like fun. And it was. I’m not a better person for that. I’m just a person who took 10 weeks of belly dancing classes. I’m also not a better person because I’ve eaten wild boar. It was yummy. But it’s not something I’d class as self-improvement.

    For me, improving one’s self means thinking less about yourself. Focussing on what YOU haven’t yet done takes away from that.

    I class doing something new every day as a very different kind of activity from keeping one goal or doing something for thirty days or another set period of time.

    1. Amen to that. Here’s a self-improvement item that maybe it would be better to focus on: keep your promises.

    2. Anne – I love this comment. This article left me with the distinct impression of restlessness as well – or some other state that exemplifies the opposite of contentment. Not that we should stay in comfort zone or rut, but all these ‘projects’ and ‘challanges’ – it’s another way to keep yourself busy busy busy. Is that the right answer for your life? I guess it’s a personal choice.
      Also this “For me, improving one’s self means thinking less about yourself. Focussing on what YOU haven’t yet done takes away from that.” This to me speaks to maturity. I personally believe that a mature person has the ability to see beyond him/her-self or personal sphere. This person has the ability to empathize with and/or consider someone else’s sitatuion. In other words they do, as you say, not think only about themselves and their life. Maybe that’s not quite what you were saying, but you made me think about that with your comment. Thanks!

  28. Like the philosophy! I’ve been an ardent albeit silent follower of GRS over the last three years in trying to kill off the debt and this month became cash neutral for the first time in my adult life. I guess it’s also important to remember the other stuff too though. The things that can change our mindset and distract from the daunting challenge of paying off the experiences that for whatever reason we didn’t pay for upfront at the time. The small changes are the one’s that add big value to life later down the line and there is a lot more to them than money! Keep up the good work.

  29. I like this idea. Although I think I would get caught up in picking what thing to work on each day rather than picking one thing, focusing on it and making changes to the point where it becomes a good habit.

  30. Love this post. I would not necessarily want to do it every day for the rest of my life, but I love the idea of doing one new thing a day for a month at regular intervals (e.g., every six months) and then maybe in other months focusing on trying to break one bad habit or start one new good habit. I am going to try this next month. I have noticed that as we get older people get really set in their ways and I think that this is a good way to keep an open mind and attitude in life.

  31. I’ve done this for years, but not in a systematic way. Instead of asking, “What new thing will I do today?” I try to build it into my routine. So at the grocery store, I might think, “I have never tried that fruit/vegetable. Ok, that’s a new thing”, or “I haven’t walked around that path at work today – guess that’s a new thing.” Sometimes it does scare me – to make a phone call or follow something I’ve been wanting to do. Sometimes I drop it – not interested in trying bacon jam again!

  32. After trying small changes for quite some time, I am now more content with a huge amount of changes at the same time. One of my objectives is to cut down on mindless entertainment consumption (tv, internet, …). I found that if I simply reduce the time spent on that, eventually it will return, because of a resulting vacuum of time that wants to be filled. The last time, I decided to already claim that time by starting a number of medium-large scale projects at the same time (fitness, house improvement, additional study, recreational reading, and a number of hobbies). Due to the amount of projects, there always is something I enjoy picking up at a given day, and the resulting time claim automatically results in lesser tv and internet (and interestingly, more energy). And by keeping busy with multiple projects, I avoided a previous pitfall of losing temporary interest in a single project and then dropping it all, instead of putting it on hold until I have fun with it again.

  33. I recently quit drinking all soda. I used Lent as my motivation for that. This month I am trying to spend less money by cutting out the trips to the convenience store while I am working(I work 4-8 hours a day in my car) and not buying fast/restaurant food. This one has not been as successful as the soda, but has definitely been much improved over the past. I think I will keep working on this one for another couple of weeks until the habit of stopping for a drink/snack is broken. The problem with this goal is that it requires me to actually work on more than one habit at once. I have to plan, shop, and cook ahead. If I weren’t so busy, it might be easier.
    I do like Castle’s idea though. We have a local DJ that is doing one new thing/day for a whole year.

  34. What a great idea! The changes can be small and seem insignificant but by doing them it makes the person feel like they accomplished something that day (even though it was small). And usually for me the more things I feel like I accomplish the better I feel about myself.

  35. I disagree strongly with the author of the article. People are dying of hunger, famine. Millions and billions are living on less than $2 a day for their food, clothes, and huts.

    The author is proudly talking about spending $1300 a year on dog.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to spend some money on the poor, the destitute and the orphan of the world?

    Share your wealth with humans. Only in America folks. Even in America, many decent and good folks live only on one meal a day.

    Wake up to the reality of life, folks.

    You probably will not publish my comments but I had to say those things.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *