One Thing at a Time

focus on one thing
There is plenty you could/should be doing, but it’s best to focus on that gold cube.

Tis the season…five days before Christmas as I publish this…

No doubt life right now is full of holiday cheer.

I myself have been to half a dozen Christmas parties in the last week or two.

With all this celebrating, how can one really be expected to keep losing weight, gain the right kind of weight or even maintain their current weight?

Many of you have already thrown in the towel and decided you’ll ‘get started‘ in the New Year.

It’s a shame really, because it’s a lot easier than you’re making it out to be on yourself. You should give yourself more credit too.

Goal Dilution

By far the biggest mistake I constantly see people make in the process of:

  • Weight Loss
  • Muscle Mass Gain
  • Health Improvement
  • Performance Improvements

Is biting off WAY MORE than they can chew.

“He who chases two hares, leaves one and loses the other.”

~Ancient Chinese Proverb

Maybe you’ve heard the biblical version:

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

Matthew, 6:24

Ya I can’t believe I just quote the bible either, but we’re all trying new things today, right?

What these ancient sayings are alluded to is a concept called ‘goal dilution.’

Chasing after two goals is all fine and dandy so long as the methods you use support both. So yes, lifting weights is good for all of those things above. Yet, at some point, the approach will have to diverge.

What do you do when the two goals (rabbits) separate and go in different directions? If you keep trying to follow both and split the difference between their paths, at some point you end up with a whole lot of nothing.

In short, chasing both will eventually mean you lose both. At some point, you’ll have to dedicate your attention to one goal (hare) over the other.

You either make concessions and likely end up unhappy or dissatisfied by chasing more than one goal.

Or you chase one goal and put all your energy there. And yes, there is modern research showing that multiple goals lowers the likelihood that you’ll use the right methods for goal attainment.

Doing Too Much At Once

This is a major problem with a lot of conventional weight loss, muscle gain, health or performance plans.

They expect you to completely overhaul everything that you were doing before.

It’s not enough to change one thing in your diet. No, they want you to cut out all legumes, all grains, all dairy, all added sugars and ‘junk food.’

Oh ya, and while you’re at it, no alcohol and you have to make all your own meals over the holiday season. Okay?

Did you head just spin? Mine too…

These kinds of diets have good intentions but they don’t understand behavior change.

Changing even five little things at once would be a challenge, let alone removing 20-50% of your diet at one fell swoop.

Most people can only handle this for a short time frame. In my experience a lot of people are off such a wagon in 2 weeks, some make it a month and almost everyone is done by the 6th or 8th week.

A better more sustainable approach is to tackle one change at time. That way you can focus on one goal. Then you can keep that goal your goal, rather than trying to prevent yourself from swinging into a state of despair.

Getting Back on Track

Maybe you started that gigantic physical transformation program a few weeks ago. Maybe you’ve stuck it out, or maybe you’re at your wit’s end by now.

Or worse, stressed out about all the bad food and lack of exercise you’ve been getting lately.

It’s time to reel’er back in and get things under control. NOW, not 2 weeks from now.

I know the idea of this can be daunting, but worrying about tomorrow, next month, or next year will be far more distracting.

Get focused on today.

For instance, which of the following statements makes you most anxious?

  • Following your Paleo/South Beach/Zone/etc… diet to a tee over the holidays?
  • Cleaning the entire house for a white glove inspection?
  • Exercising 6x a week, 90 minutes a day?
  • Never consuming alcohol, butter or fatty cuts of meat again?
  • No baked goods, desserts or whole grains ever again?

Now only does trying to create a whole bunch of change at once sound crazy when you right it down. It’s a huge deterrent to getting back at it.

If you think you have to do all of those things at one time, how motivated are you to get started again? Be honest…

The Better Approach

Just like setting goals, getting back on the horse is a skill and they share a lot in common. When you whittle something down to the most simplistic action you can take, the motivation to do it, returns.

What if you reframed some of the above to something more like this:

  • Eat one or two fistfuls of veggies with my next meal
  • Clean the kitchen counters today
  • Get through 10 minutes of exercise today
  • Only drink non-caloric beverages today
  • Only whole foods with my next meal.

I’m guessing that the items in the second list seem far less daunting and they are.

You could even break them down further or expand if/when you’re up for it. Instead of just a meal, maybe it’s a day. Rather than just the counters maybe you clean the whole kitchen. Instead of 10 minutes, you find that you’ve got time and the energy for a 45 minute training session.

Remember the snowball effect

Break Things Down Into The Smallest Elements

We all love how caterpillars turn into butterflies. I get it, we all love the idea of rebirth. Having a massive amount of goals is exciting. At first…

We almost always forget to simplify those goals down into something realistic and practical.

A critical element to the goal-setting process is breaking down each goal into the sum of its parts.

What needs to happen this month for you to achieve this goal? What about this week? This day? This moment in time?

Break everything down into small actionable steps. Steps that feel approachable and you’ll have far more success.

Instead of taking on an entire diet at once. Find one element of the diet you can implement right now, today, this week and this month.

Once it sticks, once you’ve developed the skill, layer a new skill over top.

In other words, do things one a time, not all at once. You’re simply not as good at multitasking as you think. And when you are, you’ll only be able to manage small bursts.

The step-by-step single-task approach sticks better.

Same Thing Goes For Getting Back on Track

We love the idea of accomplishing these monstrous tasks — yep, even me…

We’ll feel uber productive completing some fully entrenched objective over a large period of time.

The reason the step-by-step approach works best is because eventually we lose that motivation to do eight things at once.

We can only multitask in short bursts. A step-by-step approach helps makes things stick.

What happens when you fall of the wagon juggling ten different things? It’s a lot harder to get back in the wagon because you don’t know where to begin.

You will feel stuck and you will hate this feeling.

To get yourself unstuck, focus on the one approachable thing that puts a good step forward. Find your bright spots, and get a small win quick.

Whatever you do, focus on something you have direct control over. You don’t have control over your past, only the present. You can only influence your future self by what you do in the present too.

You don’t climb a mountain without a lots of steps up.

You don’t raise great kids without a lot of little experiences accumulated over their childhood.

You don’t save for retirement without a lot of little deposits accrued over a long time.

And you won’t stay thin or get thing without focusing on the one most impactful thing you can focus on right now.

You won’t build muscle, improve performance, or enhance your health without focusing more on the process and less on the end result. If you manage the process well, the results will take care of themselves.

One last piece of advice…

Everybody makes the critical mistake of focusing on what they shouldn’t be doing or eating.

Bad move…

Don’t focus on the white bear. Or what’s called the ‘Ironic Process Theory’ in psychology.

It’s a known psychological phenomenon. When researchers ask you not to focus on the white bear, they actually reinforce you to keep thinking about the bear.

That’s the irony. By attempting not to do something, we in effect wire our brains to want to do it even more.

This is why telling yourself repeatedly that you won’t eat cake, actually leads to you craving cake. Maybe even eating more cake!

Telling yourself not to do something, makes you think about it more, which reinforces the desire to do that thing.

Instead you should focus on skills that move towards what you should be doing. Reinforce positive behaviors by thinking repeatedly about them.

Spin your process oriented goal into a positive light.

Focus on the good stuff you should be doing, it will naturally offset the ‘bad stuff‘ you already know you’re doing.

So instead of “I won’t drink soda or alcohol” spin it to, “I will drink non-caloric beverages like water, tea or coffee.”

Same meaning, more or less, but yields a totally different attitude and approach.

Focusing on a positive improvement rather than ‘stopping’ a negative one, and you’ll likely find more success.

Got a tip, or story about holiday eating and exercising, leave it in the comments, and have a Merry Christmas!


Also published on Medium.