Updated on 06.16.10

Simple Changes Aren’t Always Simple

Trent Hamm

One of my favorite writers is Ian Rogers, who blogs about his health at Fistfulayen. In one of his best posts, he writes about his use of the L.L. Cool J workout, which eventually turns into an astute point that virtually every “healthy diet” book focuses on the same handful of seemingly simple principles. He identifies six:

1. Eat five or six times a day
2. Limit your consumption of sugars and processed foods
3. Eat fruits and vegetables throughout the day
4. Drink more water and cut out calorie-containing beverages (beer, soda, and so forth)
5. Focus on consuming more lean proteins throughout the day
6. Save starch-containing foods until after a workout or for breakfast

… but then he notes they’re not as simple as they seem:

Pretty straight-forward, no magic, no surprises, but I had to completely change my diet around to get there.

The steps seem easy enough, but in order to achieve those simple steps, he had to alter his entire pattern of food and beverage consumption – and the cultural and social patterns that went with it.

In other words, a simple change that can be described in one simple phrase often has a huge amount of change underlying it. In order to, say, cut out calorie-containing beverages, a person may have to break a caffeine addiction, break an alcohol addiction, change their social lives in order to break free from such addictions, and significantly alter their daily routine so as to not fall back on such addictions.

That’s a challenge, any way you paint it. The intensity of that challenge, which ends up actually being a large handful of changes all at once, can easily overwhelm someone, even if their intent is wholly in the right place.

Let’s use a personal finance example. Cindy, a reader who emails me fairly regularly, recently wrote in to me lamenting her difficulty in implementing what seemed like a simple personal finance goal.

I will limit entertainment spending to $100 a month.

Within entertainment, she included her cable bill, the costs of going out with friends, and money spent on purely fun things. It seems like a very straightforward goal, but in Cindy’s own words, it’s harder than it seems.

In order to make that goal, I cancelled my cable and used some of the money from my first month to buy one of those digital converter boxes for my old TV. This disrupted three of my weeknights, as I’m now missing out on shows I watched faithfully. I’ve started skipping every other “girl’s night out,” which has been really hard. I don’t go clothes shopping any more either. I now spend a lot more time online than I used to and I feel a lot more moody and kind of sad, too. I keep finding myself cheating on that $100 limit too by buying stuff online.

Cindy’s not just trying one new routine in her life. She’s breaking a big pile of them and trying to establish some new ones at the same time.

She’s breaking the “girl’s night out” pattern. She’s breaking her television watching pattern, which is a several-night-a-week pattern. She’s breaking her clothes shopping pattern. She seems to be flailing with this free time and is somewhat settling on a new pattern of more online usage. She’s also seemingly adopting a new social pattern with her circle of friends, one that she’s not quite as happy with.

That’s a lot of change, any way you slice it.

I’ve found that, time and time again, when you take on a ton of changes in your life all at once, it’s very hard and there’s a huge tendency to backslide. Yes, some stubborn people can make it through a lot of changes at once, but most of us can’t – it’s very, very difficult.

So, what’s the solution?

The solution is to take stock of all of the real changes going on in your life and choose just one or two of them to focus on. Instead of sticking so fiercely to the simple “$100 a month” strategy, Cindy might want to simply live without cable for a while without altering her other routines in life. Yes, I’m advocating that she go back to “girl’s night out” every week.

Why do this? Her one change – cutting the cable – will save her money. But it’s a pretty significant alteration to her routine, one that she has to get used to and one where she’s going to need to find replacement activities that she’s comfortable with. That alone is a major change to deal with and she should give it time until that change is routine and normal.

Give it a month, Cindy, until coming home to a house without cable television feels normal. Find other things to do on those evenings where you might have watched some cable program. Try out a new community group. Visit the library and pick up a book or two. Invite the ladies over for a “girl’s poker night.” Find things that you really enjoy that don’t cost money to replace the gaps that cable has left in your life.

Once it’s all established and you’ve found a new normal, you’re sitting on a new normal with $50 less spent each month. Now, move onto another piece of the puzzle. Maybe the next thing to try is giving up clothes shopping – or at least altering it by hitting consignment shops and secondhand shops instead. Dive into that change – this one will probably be easier.

Sometimes, you’ll find a smaller change that is really hard to break because the activity you’re modifying brings you a lot of personal joy. Guess what? You shouldn’t break it. Likely, that thing is something that’s a big part of one of your true core values in life, and those are the things we work to preserve in life. Instead, move on and look for other ways to save and to change.

The moral of the story is simple: if a change is just too big for you to swallow all at once, break it down into smaller changes and work through those changes one at a time.

If you’re finding it difficult to meet a spending goal, look at all of the different things you’re spending money on and focus on the areas you can cut, one at a time.

If you’re finding it difficult to meet a diet goal, focus on one specific dietary change until it seems normal, then move on to another one.

If you’re finding it difficult to meet a personal growth goal, tackle a specific element of that growth (or focus on finding the space you need to tackle it).

It’s just like my two year old daughter with a bowl full of grapes. If you try to stuff too many things in your mouth at once, it becomes difficult to chew them and digest them. You’re far better off with one grape at a time.

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  1. Wayward says:

    We’ve wanted to move for a long while now–years, even. And the task has always seemed so insurmountable and we’ve always found some excuse (my job, his job, the housing market, not quiet being able to decide where we want to move to, etc.) to delay taking any action to toward our goal. Without having a fully realized plan to reach the final goal, we’ve been paralyzed from taking even the very first steps.

    The culture of our neighborhood has changed so drastically over the past year to the point that we can no longer relax or enjoy our home and we’ve reached a tipping point where we have to move. We still kept running into obstacles, though, usually by putting the cart before the horse. I finally sat down with Scoob two weeks ago and tried to do what you’re talking about here—breaking down what needs to happen and in what order, so we can focus on the smaller steps.

    Our first step is so move out of our house into a temporary location—our condo so small that it will not show well with us living in it. Add to that the fact that we have two cats and so we decided we need to rent an apartment while we wait for the condo to sell. So now we’re packing. We have the budget to be able to rent and pay mortgage for a while. We’re actually making progress toward something that we’ve both wanted for a long, long time, and it feels so good!

    We still don’t have a final decision on where we want to move to, though North Carolina and Oregon are at the top of the list, but by taking the steps necessary to sell our current house, we’re that much closer to realizing our goal and we’ll be free to make that move as soon as we’re ready.

  2. Laurie says:

    I think this a pretty wise post. Some changes are easy. For example, most women already have enough clothes, so it is easy to just stop buying. But children do need replace their wardrobes frequently. It takes a while to get into this rhythm… to learn to buy good deals when you see them, even if you won’t need those clothes for a few years. Some of this is about making friends with other thrifty people who will pass clothes on to you. It takes time to cultivate these relationships. When dealing with older kids who have always had new clothing, it becomes difficult to suddenly ask them to accept used clothes.

    Another difficult area is socializing. I had two friends that I introduced to each other, and who hit it off. They began doing fun errands together. They both liked to eat out and often went to lunch together. They began to exclude me because I don’t like to eat out. It is way to many calories and way too much expense. They tried to include me a few times. They even offered to pay for me, which was awkward because I can afford to eat out, just don’t want to. It wasn’t just the money but also the calories, and I was trying hard to do those last couple pounds to reach my goal. I wasn’t going eat cabbage soup while my heavier friends chowed down 1000 calories, which would have made them way more uncomfortable than me. So we all gave up. I stayed home and did interesting thrifty projects, which was more fun than being with friends doing something I really didn’t want to do.

    I guess that is the point I have come to. I would rather do something I enjoy and be alone, than be with friends and do something I don’t enjoy. But I had been thrifty for a number of years before I came to that realization.

  3. Simon Zhen says:

    Most of the time, the simple changes occur without acknowledging it. It happened to me when I started to work out in college.

    Within two months, I was drinking only water, chugging proteins shakes, heading to the gym (for fun!), and -the greatest change of all- actually started cooking healthy meals.

    Same for investing. Putting $300 in a brokerage account felt like a huge step. I couldn’t imagine parting ways with that much money. Now, funding a Roth IRA seems like nothing.

    Those who struggle through will look back and find it to be small steps that led to a great change for the better.

    Sadly though, small changes can also go the other way. Just as simple as it is to ditch that coffee addiction, it is as easy to pick it up.

  4. Nicole H. says:

    I agree that very small changes are the best method for overall big change. I’ve had success with keeping my home cleaner using little changes. I get overwhelmed cleaning my entire bathroom at once; I’ve learned it’s okay and still stays reasonably clean if I clean the sink one day, the toilet the next, the floor another day, etc. I know toss my clothes in the hamper in my bedroom, reducing the floor mess in there. These have all become habit for me…I’m going to work on small habits in the kitchen next.

  5. Virginia says:

    Thanks for the reminder. It is too easy to fail and become discouraged when you try to do everything at once. Success is more likely when you can celebrate a series of small accomplishments one at a time.

  6. Sandy Cooper says:

    I totally agree. I am a fitness and nutrition advocate and live a very healthy lifestyle. But I did it slowly over the years, first cutting out soda. Then adding more fresh veggies to my diet. Then implementing more variety to my work outs, and so on. Some things I’ve tried and realized they aren’t really for me…like becoming a vegetarian and completing the full 12 weeks of P90X.

    Certain personalities (mine included) see things as very black and white and have a difficult time adjusting a goal once we’ve set it for ourselves. We feel like a failure if we don’t reach it.

    Maybe Cindy will realize $100 is not a reasonable limit or perhaps she shouldn’t include cable, girls night AND shopping in the same spending category. She needs to know it’s OK to keep adjusting the budget until she finds something that works well for her lifestyle and her income level.


  7. John says:

    I guess my frustration with this idea is that it would take forever to get anywhere. But I guess you have to start somewhere.

  8. RLS says:

    Taking forever to get somewhere is much more productive than never getting there at all.

  9. J.C. Day says:

    This is post-apocalyptic opinionated reporting that reeks. You are just the same as those “NEW” reporters that dramatize emphatically every single little subject on the news channels. You all make me want to thank you for not being around when I was young. It sounds a lot like the 1930’s. Go ahead… DELETE IT… I’ll make sure to talk about it at tomorrows get together.

  10. Brian says:

    Saw the article again on CSM. A good article to get into more people’s feeds/inboxes. How many times have simple changes gotten the best of each of us?

  11. Sandy says:

    Thanks Trent, I really needed this today. I need to lost some weight and every time I try I tend to go overboard with an “all or nothing” attitude and inevitably I end up getting very frustrated and throw it all out the window. I think at least a part of this problem is watching shows like Biggest Loser where you see people lose 50 lbs in a month that make it seem like losing 1/2 lb a week is failure. I know I’ve been told to take it slowly before, baby steps, but we want it all and we want it now, and I’m no different! So it’s hard to take it slow sometimes as well.
    I am going to try and implement this strategy and start with two things – eat 5 servings of fruit and vegetables a day and walk 3-5 times a week. Hopefully this will work better for me.

  12. Janie Riddle says:

    Having a friend who is working on the same thing is helpful. I have a friend who is working on her budget and watching her encourages me.

  13. Bryan M. says:

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I wrote a while back on my weblog about living without cable OR a TV. I watch everything that I can get online.

    Here’s the blog post for those who might be interested.

    There’s a lot of content you can find online via free services, and Netflix Watch Instantly is a really great value at $9/mo.

    Also, related to exercise/fitness, I recently joined our student rec. center, which is $75/semester. They have a set of 10 workout machines that promise a workout in 30 minutes. You do 10 reps on each one, and ride for 5 minutes on a stationary bike. I started out doing one repetition every other day. On off days, I’m walking around the neighborhood. That tends to cut down on the “all-or-nothing” approach. Now, I do 3 reps on the 30-minute workout, and walk a couple of laps around the gym in between.

    It might be worthwhile to check into a local gym to see if they have that kind of “beginner” workout section.

  14. Kris says:

    It is so true, when you look at those 6 tenets for weight loss, they seem so simple. But then you think about that caffeine headache you are going to get from not having your pop at lunch or whatever, and all the sudden, things aren’t so easy anymore.

    Having small victories, one at a time is probably a much easier,sustainable way of making change. I think I read it take 3 weeks to make a habit stick. So maybe it take 18 weeks instead of 3 to completely alter your eating habits. That’s a lot better than starting, failing, and starting all over again.

    Interesting post.

  15. Diane says:

    I totally agree with this approach! Like @Sandy Cooper, I first started improving my diet by giving up soda. I later settled on having 1 soda per week when we eat out. Then I focused on adding more fruit & fresh veggies to my diet – which actually involves not only eating them, but shopping for them to keep fresh items in stock.
    I’ve gradually added healthy nuts to my diet, and now I’ve cut back on meat consumption by going meatless 1 day per week & then cutting back to 1 meal with meat per day. So far it’s working.

    This concept definitely works with reducing spending as well. I spent 1 month tracking no-spend days, trying to have as many days as possible where I spent nothing.

    @John, I understand the frustration of changes taking longer than you’d like, but really that’s the only way to make them stick. Trying to change too many things at once is likely to fail.

  16. Brittany says:

    Cindy–what shows do you watch? With the exception of a very small handful (Like Showtime), nearly all networks post at least the last if not the last several episode online the next day. So while you might not be able to watch your normal show on Tuesday night, you can watch it on Wednesday instead. Also, why not continue going to girls night out, but spend less money? Have only one drink, join the girls after they finish dinner, or take Trent’s suggestion of finding lower cost things to do.

  17. Mike Martel says:

    Instead of taking the approach of how someone is going to limit themselves or cutting back on some activity (which they like to do) look for ways to make it happen. Make more money, find a reciprocal arrangement where if you do something for someone else and they do something for you.

    At least find replacement activities. In this way you are replacing something you find pleasant with other activities that are also pleasant.

    Limiting or cutting back is scarcity thinking and you will find yourself feeling deprived and moving back into these activities without any way to sustain them.

  18. Andrea says:

    I agree with John that making incremental changes means it take a longer time to start to see results. Some people need to see instant results or they lose interest. But if they see results, then they get inspired to do more. So it depends on your personality type, and also how quickly you need to see results. Like, if you are on the verge of foreclosure, it makes sense to go radical immediately. Not $100 per month for entertainment, but $0 for entertainment.

    Sandy, you are also right about Biggest Loser. First, the more you weigh, the easier it is to lose weight, but as you get closer to your goal, 1/2 pound a week is a victory. BL diets, I believe, have you multiply your body weight by 7 and eat those calories per day. So if you weigh 200 pounds, you eat 1400 calories. This is unnecessarily radical, but the basic idea is pretty interesting. The more you weigh, the more you need to maintain, so as you lose, you should be stepping down your calories to continue to lose at about the same rate. So multiplying your body weight by 9 or 10 enables you to gradually ease into a diet of lower calories. (If 9 seems too slow, try 8). Using this method a heavy person can eat a great deal and still lose. As they approach their goal, they have to become more precise about the foods they choose to get a balanced diet and also the volume to feel full. So there is adequate time to learn calorie values and refine strategies over a period of months.

  19. Amit says:


    I think any goal that is” moving away from goal”- like losing weight or cutting down spending…to work smoothly has to have a “moving towards” counterpart…..or spending only 100 dollar a month or 1200 annually on entertainment..can be better achieved by…having more time indoors with frnds..board games, volunteer work, free entertainment that trent writes about…

    or even better..i think having a goal like..” restrict 100 dollars on entertainment” one should see ones values…wrt to over all budget.if one values girly times more than some other things in life..those should be eliminated 1st..we cannot see a goal..as stand alone..everything should fit naturally in overall fabric of life ..cheers

  20. Joseph Librero says:

    True it’s not that simple to change so focus is necessary. I tried mono-dieting and just live with fruits and vegetables for three days and I have to change my lifestyle. I cannot just go to the cafeteria because I know when I see their fried chicken I will get hungry for chicken.:) So small change is not as simple as it sounds but it’s all worth it if it’s for the better.

  21. Claudia says:

    Sometimes we try to give up too much. Some people I know won’t eat some foods they have always enjoyed ever again because they are high in calories. They won’t spend on new clothes, cable, music, going out to eat etc. some of the things they have always enjoyed. Then they wonder why they feel depressed? Enjoy life! If you love french fries and bacon cheeseburgers, live a little, eat them a couple times a year. If you really enjoy buying new clothes, do so once in awhile. Will a $30 shirt really make that big a difference? You can be frugal and you can eat healthy with a splurge now and then. I enjoy being frugal because I don’t have to worry about finances, but a splurge now and then keeps me even happier. I enjoy eating healthy because I feel better, but I love having soda and chips, so I do sometimes. If you found out you had cancer and had only a few months to live, would you be saying, “Thank goodness, I never ate cheeseburgers?”

  22. Yes, it is quite easy to come up with a list of five or six things to improve your diet.

    Much harder to implement depending on what your current diet consists of.

    The key is to come up with challenging but reachable goals with an end in mind.

    Start where you can, celebrate your progresses,and soon you’ll get to where you want to be.

  23. alilz says:

    I’m doing this with my goal of trying to use less petroleum products and plastic.

    I’m trying to do it slowly and make small changes, I slip up or make bad choices, but I go back to trying to do the small things and make those a habit.

  24. K.C. says:

    I agree with Amit that it is far easier to stay motivated if a goal is stated in positive terms so that I am acquiring something, rather than giving up something. I’m not giving up sweets, I’m becoming healthier.

    Being a perfectionist, myself, I must employ the salvage approach to any endeavor. I will never do anything perfectly, so I must accept as sufficient that which I can accomplish at any particular time. So maybe I’ve blown my goal to reduce entertainment spending by $100 this month. Instead of giving up, I ask: What can I salvage? Hey, an $80 dollar reduction is still progress, right?

  25. Georgia says:

    The perfect diet for me was an old Lilly Foundation Diabetic Diet. It listed all the foods and amounts needed per serving. It had about 6-8 lists from 1500-3000 calories and what you could eat on those amounts, for each of 3 meals and 3 snacks. I was able to follow this diet easily and feed my family the same way. It was a very healthy diet.

    I combined that with an equation I found that really worked. If you are a norml, fairly active person, multiply your weight by 17 and that is what you need to eat to MAINTAIN right where you are. Subtract 500 calories or 1000 calories from that figure daily to lose 1-2 pounds per week. If you are very inactive, muliply by 13 and very, very active, multiply by 21.

    Actually, don’t go much below 1400 calories per day, as you’ll be in starve mode and your body will store fat more carefully.

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