Change (Just) One Thing

Home / Behavior Change / Change (Just) One Thing

Research suggests that by late January, many of us have abandoned our New Year’s Resolutions.  So how about a February 1st reset?  But this time, try a different approach.  Here is the process I use with clients to help them integrate one change at a time into their lives.

  • Rather than tackling seven resolutions at once, focus on just one  Self-discipline is a much more limited resource than we think, and trying to change several habits at once sets you up for failure.  So pick just one change, maybe two if one of them is small and easily managed (g., flossing daily plus one other change).   But by all means, save the full list; you can move on to the second change after the first new habit is solidified.  Then you can move on to the third item after the first two practices have become a regular part of your modus operandi.
  • Which change to begin with?  The one you are most excited about or committed to.  If none of your resolutions excite you, think about this: If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about your life in the next three months, what would it be?  What is one step you can take towards that goal?  It can be something you begin doing or something you stop  For example: I want to improve my Spanish, so I will use Duolingo for ten minutes every day.  Or, I want to lose five pounds, so I will stop snacking after dinner.
  • Next, write down the answers to these questions: Why does this matter to you?  How will your life be better once you habitually do or stop doing X? The goal here is to build up your commitment by seeing and feeling the positive difference the new habit will make.  Spend at least five minutes thinking about this so you go beyond the superficial answer.  If necessary, ask yourself again and again, “And why does that matter?” Please actually write out your answers.   Writing helps the information register in your brain, and it also means you can go back and re-read your answers when you need fresh motivation.
  • Now make your agreement.  The key is to answer each of the below questions as specifically and concretely as you can and, again, to write down each answer.  For example, rather than, “Exercise more,” write, “I will run two miles each Saturday, Monday, and Wednesday morning,” or, “I will walk up the stairs to the office every morning.”  Rather than, “Go to bed earlier,” write, “I commit to being in bed by 10 p.m. each night. I will read and meditate for 20 minutes, then turn out the lights at 10:20 p.m.”  You want each answer to be so specific and actionable that you know when, where, how, and how often you’ll do or refrain from doing.

The questions:

  • What is one thing you agree to do or to stop doing?
  • When will you do/not do it?  How often?
  • Beginning when?
  • Where will you write down your agreement?  (Make it somewhere that lets you review your answers regularly.)
  • What reminders will you use?   (Options include: Schedule it into your calendar or use an app.  Put an actual, paper sticky-note somewhere you’ll see it every day—on the side of your computer monitor, by your toothbrush, on the door you exit and enter through.  Wear a rubber band on your wrist.)
  • How will you hold yourself accountable?  Will you have an accountability buddy?
  • How will you reward yourself for progress or meeting milestones?

Boil it all down to three sentences by filling in the blanks a lá “Mad Labs”:

 I agree to __________ (action).  I will do/not do it __________ (when, how often), beginning __________ (day or date in the near future).  To hold myself accountable I am __________ (tracking mechanism).  And to reward myself for progress I will __________ (celebration).

  • Holding yourself accountable is important.  Many people find it beneficial to have an accountability or check-in buddy: someone who asks how you’re doing each week (or every other week).  If you do this, pick someone whose opinion matters to you and who won’t easily let you off the hook for not keeping your commitment. Someone who will ask, “Why did you fail?  What will you do differently going forward?”—not from a place of judgment, but because they want to support you in your efforts to do and be better.
  • Please make sure to reward yourself for progress!  Often, we begin to change, but refuse to acknowledge progress or success until we get all the way to a goal.  Or worse, once we reach the goal, we nod and celebrate for three seconds, then move right on to the next challenge.  This can very dispiriting and drain our will-power to keep going. On the other hand, cheering ourselves on for achieving milestones and naming the positive benefits of our efforts—while still acknowledging there is more to do—can help re-charge our self-discipline.

Remember when you were a young child and got gold stars or stickers for doing something and you loved it?  Well, in many ways, we are still six years old; our brains and psychology don’t change that much on this front.  So go ahead, give yourself a sticker, gold star, or other “pat on the back” each time you do/don’t do what you committed to.  You walked up the stairs rather than taking the elevator?  You get a sticker!  You did not eat a bedtime snack?  You get a sticker!  You’ve walked up the stairs ten mornings in a row?  Woo-Hoo!  You get to watch an extra episode of your current TV indulgence.  You’ve refrained from bed-time snacking for two weeks straight?  Well done!  You’ve earned one chocolate truffle (eaten earlier in the day).  Also take a moment to celebrate what is better in your life: running the two miles has gotten easier and you have more stamina in general.  You feel better—more focused, happier, more energetic—now that you’re getting enough sleep.  Improving your Spanish makes it easier to communicate with family members or co-workers.

Now increase the challenge—the next reward will come when you reach 20 successes.  Or maybe you’ll brag to your co-workers or friends about your new habit.  Why not get some public applause and recognition?  This will also help you keep going, since now, co-workers/friends will be watching to see what you do.  –Peer pressure can be a good thing.

Feeling solid with the new change?  Congratulations!  Leave a comment about your success.  Or maybe you’re struggling.  Please tell us about it in the comments and we’ll see how we can help.


  • The Willpower Instinct” Google Talks by Kelly McGonigal
  • The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
  • Habitica – An app that helps you develop new habits and get things done by gamifying your life; it turns tasks into monsters you have to conquer
  • Me – A second app to help you develop new habits
  • Daylio – An app that helps you track your mood and habits over time so you can see what you do in a day that causes you to feel certain ways!
Alexandra Marchosky
Alexandra Marchosky
I coach individuals and organizations to do and be better by more fully living their values.
Recommended Posts

Leave a Comment

Start typing and press Enter to search