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"One Thing"

31Dec 2007

Remember “Curly”, the ascerbic senior wrangler played by Jack Palance in City Slickers? In the movie, Mitch (played by Billy Crystal) is in the midst of a midlife crisis brought on by his 39th birthday. So he and two friends go West to “find themselves” by participating in a cattle drive. Curly is the cowpoke in charge and gives Mitch the answer to his midlife crisis — he needs to find the “one thing” that is central to his being and that becomes his life purpose.

Now there have been a lot of books written in the past ten years regarding finding one’s purpose in life (First Things First by Stephen Covey; The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren; Life on Purpose by Brad Swift) and that is not the point of this entry.

Rather, I would like to tie in the idea of “one thing” to New Year’s resolutions. The other day my wife asked me if I was going to work on my New Year’s resolutions and I said, “No, I don’t do those anymore”, which is true to an extent. I don’t make a list of things I want to do or change in the coming year (largely in response to either a sense of failure in past years, or a desire to be more honest now.) But I do focus on “one thing”.

I have learned that if I am going to change something in my life, either to do something I haven’t done before or to remove something from my life, I need to focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise, I become overwhelmed, get bogged down, and none of the x number of changes I wanted to make actually happen.

So let me share some key components of making change in our lives. The more of these you include in your plan, the higher the probability is that you will be successful in incorporating new behavior in your life. The fewer involved in your plan, the more difficult it may be to make the change happen and “stick”. But the list isn’t an “all or nothing” proposition. Rather, pick which ones work for you in your life right now and go for it!

1. Define your goal in observable and measurable terms. Set a goal (to exercise a total of 240 minutes a week; to take a 10 week class in conversational Spanish; to save $1,000 by Memorial Day). If your “change” is amorphous and ill-defined, you really can’t develop a specific plan to achieve the change and you won’t know when you reach your goal.

2. Make a firm (written?) commitment to yourself that you intend to reach this goal and set a target date for achieving the goal. Most of us set “sort of” goals, like “I think I’m going to …” or “I’d like to …” This is in contrast to: “I am going to …. by x date.” Feel the difference in the level of commitment?

3. Determine how and when progress toward the goal will be measured. Often we set long-term goals (anything over two weeks is really long term in the realm of change) but don’t set up interim goals that will help us track our progress and help keep up accountable. If you are going to save $1,000 by Memorial Day then you should set up interim goals for every week or month between now and then.

4. Use social support. One of the key factors to successful behavior change is not trying to do it by yourself. Hence, the success of WeightWatchers or exercising with a friend or taking a class together with someone. Although the support can be in the form of reporting and accountability, the best form is by doing it together. That way, you encourage and support each other along the way.

5. Accountability — have an external reporting source verify your progress. If you really want to get serious about accomplishing your goal, set up a system to “check in” with someone who has to verify (by physical evidence, not by your verbal report) your progress. They see the balance on your savings; they check with your friend about class attendance; they watch you weigh on the scale. It’s tough, but effective.

6. Use rewards and consequences for reaching (or not) your interim goals. Although goals and consequences for reaching your ultimate goal work sometimes, usually the timeframe is too long to make a difference in our daily decisions. If you go to your Spanish class and get all the homework done, treat yourself to a dessert. If you reach your exercise goal for the week, rent a movie you have been wanting to see. I would encourage you to focus more on rewards than consequences; otherwise, you can develop a negative and resentful mindset toward the life change if you don’t reach your goal in one or two weeks, which results in giving up.

7. Focus on a short-term project rather than an exceptionally long period of time. If you want to make a long term change, break it up into a series of short term goals (3-4 months). Most of us only have so much mental and emotional energy, and from a perspective point of view, short-term goals are easier to start toward and complete.

With regards to choosing that “one thing”, let me offer some different ways to decide what change you should pursue. Sometimes you pick the one thing that really irritates you the most about you, and that would significantly change how you feel about yourself if that behavior or characteristic were different. Sometimes it is best to choose an “easy win”; some behavior that you know you can (and will) change if you just set your mind to it. And then you use this as a confidence builder to attack a more menacing behavior next quarter. Or sometimes you pick a behavior or pattern you have been thinking about working on, and one of your friends is planning to attack the same area — that way you have a built in social support system.

Whatever it may, I hope you find “one thing” you want to improve in your life and develop a plan that has a high probability of success rather than just go through the motions of making some New Year’s resolutions with no definite plan — that will probably lead to frustration and negative thoughts about yourself (and nobody needs that). I’m going to decide what my “one thing” is and work out a specific plan, and I will have it done by 8 a.m. CT 1/2/2008.

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