Updated on 04.19.10

One Change at a Time

Trent Hamm

For quite a while on Facebook, I’ve been following a friend’s attempts at getting into better shape. He’ll post several updates about going to the gym regularly, how great his diet is right now (“I just ate two grapefruits for lunch.”), and so on.

Then I’ll see an update along the lines of “Too tired to go to the gym this morning.” This will often be followed in a day or two by something like “That new KFC sandwich is awesome!”

A few days after that, I’ll see some deeply remorseful entries (“Why do I keep failing myself?”) and then some serious resolve to make it all work again.

And the cycle repeats itself.

His desire is in the right place and, overall, he’s making positive progress. The only problem is that this progress is very much in the “five steps forward, four steps back” mold.

One step forward is better than “five steps forward, four steps back.” On the surface, the accomplishment is the same, but underneath it, the “five steps forward, four steps back” approach leaves you worn out mentally and physically and reduces your ability to really trust yourself.

I shot my friend an email and (besides asking if I could mention his story very non-specifically on The Simple Dollar) suggested that he try just accomplishing one thing in a week. Pick one very simple goal for the coming week and accomplish it. Let everything else just flow according to routine.

Guess what? About a week later, he posted that he had kept his eating under 2,500 calories each day this week and it was easier than he thought it would be. All he really did was just start off each meal with some very low-calorie foods, allowing himself to get partially full on them.

One simple strategy, one change that he can repeat and repeat and focus on and repeat some more until it becomes a normal part of his life.

I’m a huge believer in this “one change at a time” philosophy. I’ve seen it work time and time again in my own life. If I take on three or four big projects or changes in my life all at once, I usually end up failing at all of them. If I merely take on one at a time, I see success.

I’ll use a couple recent examples from my own life. Last summer, I simultaneously tried to take on a stronger exercise routine, a book manuscript, and a community organization goal all at the same time. The stronger exercise routine failed completely, the community organization initiative was mediocre at best, and the book manuscript wound up being almost a month late.

On the other hand, I’ve been completely single-minded about getting everything ready at our home for the baby and I’ve felt that I’ve been pretty successful at that. Things feel like they’re coming into place quite nicely, with most of the “big” things on our list taken care of.

Don’t worry about a big transformation in your life. Most big transformations never work over a short time frame. Instead, pick one little thing to change and focus in on that change like a laser beam.

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  1. Leah says:

    Agreed that one change at a time is key if you find yourself struggling at all. Weight loss is a big issue for me, and I’ve been implementing a change every few weeks recently. It’s slowly paying off. I’m using physicsdiet.com, the hacker’s diet, and the Beck Diet book to help me out too. All three address some of the issues of dieting (the first two address calories and weight fluctuations, and the third addresses psychological barriers to maintaining weight loss), and by slowly working to absorb their lessons, I’ve been seeing real progress.

  2. Vicky says:

    Aren’t you a bucket of inspiration when I need it. :)

    It never fails to check in to see what you’ve posted when I’m feeling down to be completely inspired again.

  3. Josh says:

    Step 1 for your friend should be realizing that 2 grapefruits for lunch is not ‘great’ or even ‘good’.

  4. I’m with Josh with that one. Two grapefruits is NOT healthy…so sad how we define success in terms of health related good. We define health by our waistline. Just remember, meth addicts tend to lose a lot of weight, too. It is time that we take a closer look at our nutrition and all of these BS diets that are NOT healthy for us.

  5. Brittany says:

    Re: “Two grapefruits is NOT healthy”

    False. It depends on what the ate for the rest of the day whether the grapefruits are healthy… for example, if I ate a huge breakfast and was planning on snacking in the afternoon and then having a decent-sized dinner, I would consider a salad or a couple pieces of fruit a decent lunch/mid-day snack replacing lunch. Two grapefruits ARE healthy. Grapefruit is a very healthy food. Eating only grapefruit ever obviously is not, but that would make the rest of his diet (which you know nothing about) unhealthily, not the fact that he had grapefruit for lunch.

  6. Good for you for encouraging your friend. So many people just silently judge without taking into account how hard change really is. I’m naturally pretty extreme so I hate doing things gradually but I can definitely see the benefit of it and how it works. Thanks for posting this. I’m inspired!

  7. The key is to know what works for you individually. I’m a big believer in “all changes at once, no surrender”, because that’s what works for me. It allows a quick build up of momentum and there are no reminders of the “old life” to distract. In terms of fitness (and probably in other places as well) there are so-called “ten percenters” who are the 10% who will not take the fast and/or easy approach but will go for the toughest approach possible so that they too will become tough. It’s close to 1 in 10 people.

  8. Johanna says:

    The two grapefruit themselves are not unhealthy. But the mindset most likely to lead a person to eat two grapefruit for lunch *and* to see that as an indication of how great his diet is – the mindset that considers “healthy” and “low-calorie” to be synonymous, and thus the healthiest diet to the one that contains the fewest calories – is.

    If you’re eating two grapefruit for lunch (or an apple for breakfast or what have you) because two grapefruit are what you feel like eating for lunch – and if you’re eating more heartily at the other two meals and you feel well enough when you eat that way – then more power to you, and if we ever find ourselves with a grapefruit each, you can have mine. But I doubt that that’s what’s going on with Trent’s friend.

  9. Matt says:

    One change at a time is what I’ve been working on. I agree with Trent’s analysis about doing too much snows you under and you can fail quicker because there’s too much on your plate.

    I’m currently conducting a 30 day trial eliminating soda from my life. I’m 4 days in and I’ve found the biggest challenge to be when I’m eating out. The looks you get on waiters/ waitresses faces when you order water with your meal can be quite surprising. Yet I feel like I’ve been able to get better sleep each day as a result, so I’m willing to stick by it day by day, meal by meal.

    Another awesome post Trent, keep up the great work!

  10. Interesting, I just heard the same advice on the radio during a show I sometimes listen to. They were suggesting just starting out with a walk around the block every day. Then progress up to the neighborhood. Pretty soon you’ll been running the mile. It sure does make a lot of sense. If the goal, instead, were to exercise for 1 hour every day, failure would likely be on the horizon.

  11. Jules says:

    Grapefruit can be bad for you if you’re taking drugs that are processed by the CPY(some number) system of your liver, but assuming that the guy isn’t taking blood thinners or anything like that, it’s perfectly okay.

    Incidentally, I bring carrot sticks to lunch because I like them, but invariably someone sees this and asks if I’m on a diet. Now, I’ll grant you that I’m not a supermodel-pixie-stick, but really…?

  12. One change at a time is a great way to start–taking on too much can lead to giving up on everything

  13. Jen says:

    Isn’t the “31 days to fix your finances” the opposite of what this post says? You set several goals and try to do a little on each one of them each week? (What are you going to do in the next week for each of these 5 goals?) Am I misinterpreting it?

  14. Vtcouponqueen says:

    Wow I think you spoke that right to me Trent. I have always taken on a new project like my life depended on it only to be burnt out before I barely have gotten started. It has taken many years to realize that I keep too many irons in the fire only to be burned by trying to handle them all. I think awareness is the key to changing that and these days I am feeling a level of awareness that is leading to a much healthier lifestyle.

  15. Gretchen says:

    I think this is ironic post since I’ve thought recently Trent is trying to do too much at once:
    third child, losing weight, piano 2 hours a day, possible new dog, etc.

  16. Kristine says:

    So true. We only reach our goals by taking steps, whether those steps are big or small. Bob Proctor once said, “If you stare at a rose, you won’t see it blooming. It happens little by little.”

  17. Steffie says:

    not to mention the 3 trips this summer with new baby….

  18. Trudy says:

    I am doing something along the same lines that I saw on zenhabits the first of this year called 6 changes. I set a goal and work on that one particular item for a month, get it set as a habit then move on to the next change. The first month I started doing my dishes every night instead of letting them stack up. The second month I set my goal to arrive to work early instead of 5 mintues late. I am still doing great at both new habits I formed.

  19. Geoff Hart says:

    Trent notes: “I’m a huge believer in this “one change at a time” philosophy.”

    Me too, and it’s what I teach when I teach editing skills: master one thing, make it habit, and then move on to the next thing.

    Once you’ve done something a few times (the number required depends on the person), it becomes a habit, and as we know, habits (particularly bad ones) are hard to break. The difficulty is to resist the urge to lapse into bad habits, but if you resist that urge several times in a row, that resistance also becomes a habit. Once you no longer need to think about a behavior, it becomes something you do unconciously rather than something that requires effort.

  20. Marle says:

    I think only having grapefruit for lunch isn’t good for you at all. I don’t care if you have hearty breakfasts and dinners, how do you get through the middle of your day. Snacks are good, but if they’re bigger than your grapefruit (and what doesn’t have more calories than a grapefruit?) then you’d list that as your lunch. I think only having grapefruit for lunch is why the friend is too tired to go to the gym, and then succumbed to the horrible monstrosity that is the new KFC “sandwich”. He’s too hungry. I cite the fact that he’s now keeping his calories under 2500 to diet. If his body really only needed grapefruit for lunch, he wouldn’t have to try to keep his calories under 2500.

  21. Leah says:

    I am still trying to figure out how anyone can lose weight on 2500 calories a day! (Unless you’re training for a marathon or something, sheesh — that’s quite a few calories.)

  22. Marle says:

    Leah, I’m thinking the goal is more losing size/fat that just losing weight.

  23. chacha1 says:

    I’m with Leah … 2500 calories a day is not a weight-loss regimen unless you weigh over 300 pounds. Of course, maybe Trent’s friend does!

    Lots and lots of studies out there support the need to create a significant calorie deficit in order to lose weight. Generally accepted number is a deficit of 500 calories/day or 3500/week to lose a pound a week, a number that is safe and achievable for most people. (And for most, this cannot be achieved by exercise alone.)

    And another generally accepted number is that for a typical sedentary person, multiply goal weight by 10 to arrive at the number of calories you need to eat.

    So, if the goal weight is 200, the number of calories should be 2000. Those calories will maintain a weight of 200 in a sedentary person. The more activity you do, the more calories you can consume – but most people grossly overestimate the calories burned by activity, as well as grossly underestimating the calories they consume.

    So my advice for a first change would be to start keeping a food & activity diary, and see what is really going on. You can’t necessarily identify the change of behavior that’s going to produce the best results until you know what your whole pattern is.

  24. Vivian says:

    My daughter sent me an audio book for my birthday. I had been struggling with diet and exercise programs and really didn’t want to listen to another ‘strategy’. I’m so glad I got around to listening. The book is “Look Great Feel Great” by Joyce Meyer. She also recommends one step at a time. She breaks diet and exercise down into ’12 Keys’ and gives 5 steps for each, recommending that you pick one and make it a habit. She uses a lot of analogies that I was able to relate to, and put some of the contradictory info on diet in perspective. In most cases this was info that I already knew, but just hadn’t quite thought about it in the way presented. It’s helped me go from a BMI of 36 to 29 in less than 8 months. And these are small changes-made one at a time-that I can live with for the rest of my life.

  25. Claudia says:

    I disagree that 2500 calories a day is too much to lose weight on. It depends on your size. If one is 6’4″ whether thin or fat you tend to need a lot more calories than someone 5′ tall!

    I’m 5’8″ and large-boned. Icannot follow most diet plans for women as they are geared toward the average size woman of 5’3″ or 4″. I would always fail at them because I was starving. Once I added a few extra calories, I was able to stay on the diet and lose weight.

  26. Pattie, RN says:

    May I jump in to add that the “one at a time” approach does not work well for everyone. I tend to dance around all my goals for a time, but when I am ready I go whole-hog for the results (weight loss, at work, and academically) So, for some us, hitting a point of ennui is enough to rev us into high gear! (And no, I do not have a bi-polar disorder! I just get lazy in the winter and dust myself off to get “back on the stick” in almost all areas of my life in the spring…)

  27. mary says:

    The “one step at a time” approach works for me,also. I have found the website Flylady.net is great for this as it pertains to cleaning/clutter. She has you start by cleaning your sink every day,etc.

  28. Jerry Kolber says:


    I’ve also found the same thing is true for me. Although I can keep 3 long term projects going at once, as long as each of them only has one or two major steps each week, I truly achieve deep, meaningful results when I focus on one thing. Right now I’ve got 6 major projects in my life, and I’m stalled on 2, making a little progress on 3, and deeply sad I haven’t made more time for 1 (a serialized novel in progress). I’m always telling people “one goal at a time” but somehow haven’t taken my own advice lately! Thanks for the wakeup call – I think it’s time to not say “no” to some of what i have going on, but simply to say “see you later” and focus on my novel right now. That, + work, + social life and spending time with family and friends would itself be an incredible accomplishment.

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