The Single-Changing Method

Post written by Leo Babauta.

After last week’s article on How I Changed My Life, In Four Lines, I had many people ask the same question:

“I want to change a few different things in my life — health, debt, productivity, etc. Do I really need to do them separately, focusing on one thing only and nothing else until that change is done? Even if they’re in different areas?”

Yes, I would recommend you focus on one change at a time. Here’s why.

It’s very hard to make changes that stick, especially if you’re trying to focus on more than one. In my experiments, I’ve found very consistently that changing multiple things at once doesn’t work very well. Your focus gets spread thin, and in the long run you end up failing to stick to any of the changes. If you’ve tried and failed at multiple changes at once before, you’ll know what I mean.

So do one change at a time, for at least a month. Six weeks is better. Then you can focus on one more change, and so on. That’ll be about six to eight changes a year — changes that will stick. They will last much, much longer than ones that you apply thinner focus to.

What you’ll find is that this is enough. These little changes will really add up over time, and you’ll end up with major changes in your life after a year or two.

This method is effective. I’ve used it for six years to great success, and many of my readers have too. Most people use the less effective method of multi-changing, and fail to stick with things, and blame it on their “lack of discipline”. No, it’s just a less effective method than single-changing.

Patience is tough. We are geared to wanting lots of changes right now, and waiting seems too hard. We want instant gratification, because television and marketing has taught us that this is best. It isn’t. Waiting and doing things slowly is much more satisfying, I promise.

And most of us will read advice like this and say, “No, this doesn’t apply to me. I can do better than most people.” And maybe that’s true. My advice applies to people who have had trouble changing their lives. Those who are good at it might not need to follow the single-changing method. But most of us should do one change at a time.

Try it, and see what happens. I dare you.

Questions & Answers

I received a couple common questions:

Q: If I’m trying to pay off my debt, do I focus on nothing but that until all the debt is paid off?

A: Focus on one of the changes you need to pay off your debt … like spending less, or making regular savings deposits or debt payments … for 4-6 weeks. Then you can move on to another change. Don’t focus for 4-6 weeks on the goal (the outcome), but the change in habits you need to reach the goal.

Q: How do I know when to start a different habit? How do I know if the first one is already fixed and it is time to move to the next? Are there signs or do I follow the 21 day rule? Is that really enough?

A: The 21 day rule isn’t based on anything really. You know you can move on when you don’t have to consciously do the change — you automatically do it. If you’re very consistent, about 4 weeks should be good enough. If you have a slip-up or two, it might take up to 6 weeks. These are rough numbers, and depend on how difficult the habit is and also whether anything comes up in the future to derail the habit.

A good rule of thumb is to go by feel … do you still need to put a lot of focus on the habit change, or has it become routine and semi-automatic? It’ll take a couple more months of repetition before it becomes really automatic, probably, but if you don’t really need to remind yourself, but just go to do the habit right after your trigger, it’s starting to become a part of your routine. At this point, you can start a new habit, as long as you’re keeping an eye on maintaining the first one.