I wrote recently that I’ve begun the Scrawny to Brawny fitness regimen. After ten days, I like it — but I also find it a little frustrating. I want more to happen NOW! but instead must wait patiently as the program guides me through gradual change.

You see, the folks who designed Scrawny to Brawny are clever. Instead of giving participants a basket full of changes and asking us to implement them all at once, they instead ask us to modify one thing at a time. After we’ve had time to build one habit, they add another. And another. They want us to get fit slowly.

Intellectually, I recognize that this is the right way to do things in order to achieve lasting change. Research indicates that both attention and willpower are depletable — each of us has a finite supply of them. If we try to do too much or try to make too many changes at once, we’re less likely to succeed than if we make small moves or tackle only a few things at a time.

So, it makes sense for the Scrawny to Brawny system to first ask participants to get in the habits of going to the gym and drinking three “super shakes” every day first before diving deeper into the program.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to apply a similar principle to my own life.

Every January, for instance, I choose one major goal for the year. Instead of creating a list of resolutions, I pick one thing that I’d really like to improve, and that becomes my focus for twelve months. That’s how 2010 became the “year of fitness”. (To be honest, I’ve actually found that I can handle a few things at a time — as long as these goals are from different domains. In other words, I can handle one fitness goal, one finance goal, and one professional goal simultaneously, but not three finance goals.)

In 2012, I tried something a little different. It worked.

My friend Castle told me she’d started a new project. Each day, she tried one new thing. Maybe it was a new food. Maybe it was a new exercise. Maybe it was a new TV show. One day, she decided to try making more eye contact with people. “It was amazing,” she told me. People responded much more positively to her.

“I don’t keep all of the changes I make,” Castle explained. “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?”

In 2012, instead of doing one new thing each day, I decided to focus on doing one new thing each month. But I tried to make these changes bigger.

  • In March, I had lunch or dinner with a different friend every day. This let me reconnect with some people I’d been missing.
  • In April, I embarked upon an Extreme Dating Project. My goal was to date as many different women as possible. April was a fun month.
  • Then I made it a goal to go to the gym every day in May.
  • In June, my aim was to eat “no junk in June”. I focused on my diet, which helped me to lose five pounds and two percent body fat.

Perhaps my most successful month-long experiment came in January of this year, where I went “chemical-free”. I gave up caffeine and alcohol for thirty days to see how I felt. I felt great — something I’ve been reminding myself lately as I feel run-down. (Maybe it’s time to try that experiment again?)

Lately, I’ve applied the “one thing at a time” idea to a different part of my life. In general, I tend to take on too much work. I’m usually juggling several projects at once. As a result, I don’t do any of them to the best of my ability.

Kim was listening to me list the various things I want to do — write an ebook, write a real book, produce a conference, hold a retreat, start a new blog, start another blog, start a third blog, start a consulting business with friends, and so on — when she offered a suggestion: “Why not just do one thing at a time and then move on to another one?”

Obvious, right? Not to me.

Since returning from Ecuador, I’ve put Kim’s advice into practice. I’ve been focusing on a single project: an ebook about money. Even with this constant focus, the work has taken longer than I’d hoped (and anticipated). I’m not sure what would have happened if I’d allowed myself to try to tackle several things at once! Still, I know I’m doing quality work, and that offers solace. If I’m focused on only one thing and I’m doing the best I can do, there’s not much more I can ask of myself.

I’m now a convert to the “one thing at a time” approach to my work.

A few weeks ago, Kim gave me a small stone into which was carved a single word: Balance. Kris used to urge me to find equilibrium too. I have a tendency to be “all or nothing”, as many people have noticed — even blog readers. The “one thing at a time” method is a sort of lifehack to force me to stay balanced when my natural tendency is to take on too much.

Ideally, of course, I’d find a way to integrate a couple of ongoing projects into my life at the same time that I tackle a single major project. To an extent, I do this. I continue to write my weekly column at Get Rich Slowly, for example, and I’m doing my best to make it to exercise every day. But I’m only able to do these things because they are habits, deeply ingrained into my daily life. I don’t have to think about them. They don’t add much to my mental burden, don’t deplete my attention or willpower in the same way a second or third major project would.

In time, maybe I can incorporate another blog (or two) into my daily routine in such a way that they don’t seem like major projects. Or maybe I can make it one of my major projects to set up systems to “harvest” information about Animal Intelligence and Awesome People efficiently so that writing these sites doesn’t take too much time and attention.

For now, however, I’m going to stick with what’s working. I’m going to tackle one thing at a time.

5 Replies to “One Thing at a Time”

  1. 2013 has been a tumultuous year for me, to say the least. But, here at the end of the year I’m actually feeling like I’m in a really good place. I’ll be going into 2014 with new focuses and new perspectives.

    I was a bit foolish with my money in 2013, *and* I had some unusual expenses (like funeral costs), but nothing too horrific happened. I didn’t go into debt. I still have retirement savings (though, not as much as I’d like). I made a realization about myself – I’m a natural spender. If I have money in my hands I’m likely to spend it on something fun. So, I realized that my best bet is to just keep money out of my hands, and I’ll be OK then, because I’m pretty good at not spending money that’s not in my hands. This isn’t absolute, and I’ve come up with some calculated exceptions for myself. I’m going to allow myself to carry one vehicle loan, if I want, without worrying too much about it. I’m also going to force myself to max out my 401k contributions each year. This is a balancing act on my part to allow myself to have some of the expensive new things I like while still making sure I’m saving for the future. I may also start over-paying my mortgage by some amount in the near future, I’m sure exactly how much, but this is just more savings on my part that I feel justifies some of my spending. I’m also going to do a review of all my recurring expenses and see what I can trim (I feel like these slowly pile up and I don’t realize I’m still paying for things I’m no longer using).

    I also have anew woman in my life this year, and in many ways, this is a good thing. My new girlfriend loves sailing. That vehicle loan I mentioned above, in 2014, will be for a new boat. I’m going to pay cash for a used car and finance the boat, because, to paraphrase J.D., you can have *anything* you want, but you can’t have *everything* you want. So in 2014, we’re getting a new race boat. I bought a boat this spring, and had a *ton* of fun on it all summer. The problem was that I bought it with a partner, and he didn’t end up using it much, and so it’s unfair to expect him to keep paying for half a boat he’s not using. That boat crewed with five people as well, and my new boat will crew with three. I already sold the old boat (for the same amount I paid for it) and that money is the down payment on the new boat.

    So in 2014, I’m prioritizing saving and sailing, and family, of course, but that’s a given. My plan is not “perfect” in any financial sense, but that’s OK. I’m going to spend the year with my daughter and my girlfriend, and out on the bay racing and up at the yacht club drinking beers and telling stories. I’ll still put $17,500 in my 401k and I think I’m on track to have an awesome year.

    Sorry, rambling, but I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last couple weeks.

  2. Stephen says:

    ” But I’m only able to do these things because they are habits, deeply ingrained into my daily life. I don’t have to think about them. ”

    That is exactly how you make habits stick. Find the tiny little barriers, remove them, and then keep going.
    You want to go to the gym in the morning, you get your clothes set out the night before so there is no excuses in the morning.

  3. Great points JD – and Kim too! I have multiple clients and multiple responsibilities for each of them, so trying to focus on one thing at a time can definitely be a challenge. That’s why I started my project, 30 months of focusing on a different project each month – mostly self improvement challenges, but also some topics simply of personal interest. I find many of the good habits are sticking with me, and it has been a very rewarding exercise. It also keeps me accountable on writing, as I share each month’s experience. Thank you as always for sharing your life lessons and experiences with all of us. 🙂

  4. Andi says:

    Have you considered outsourcing your goals? I was talking with my boss about putting down your goals and then putting it out to your sphere, group of friends, colleagues, whatever, and see what you can get help with. That way you may only be actively working on one goal at a time, but all your other goals are being progressed forward as well.

  5. David Hooper says:

    Have you read a book called Compound Effect by Darren Hardy? I think it does a good job of illustrating that, if you just show up and keep at something, you’ll see big results…eventually.

    Looking forward to hearing about your other experiments. Keep it up!

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