One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.

Among those in the business of telling you how to change your life, it is universally contended that the best method is to choose the most important change you can make, make it, and then move on to the next one. Presented as Exhibits A:

How to Implement Daily Changes

This method is fairly simple, and if you really implement it, nearly foolproof: One Change at a Time. You can break this rule, but don’t be surprised if you fail. Do one change for a month before considering a second. Only add another change if you were successful at the first.

and B:

Identify your Keystone Habit, and focus on it.

… the importance of identifying your Keystone Habit—the habit you identify as the most important thing you can change about your life. To find out what that is for you, ask yourself, what constantly gnaws at you? … Whichever habit you’re working on, pick one at a time. More than one at a time will be overwhelming and will increase your likelihood of failing to improve any habits.

The trouble is, I could never decide what that first habit should be. Was it studying more? Beginning a practice of calming meditation? Or perhaps more exercise as an attempt to increase my energy and thereby make more usable time in the day to allow for such beneficial new habits? Or a different one of any number of other possible changes?

Naturally, this made it difficult to take action, especially sustained, exclusive action: life happens. Whenever you’re working on one trait, another seems to flare up. The inevitable outcome was to feel overwhelmed and depressed.

I was musing on this recently and realize that it is depressing because I’ve been running up against the same flaws over and over and over again my whole life, usually just when I think I’ve made some progress. Shouldn’t I have kicked some of these bad habits by now? I remembered the old joke – that we all want patience, now.

Then I realized something which is so obvious it’s embarrassing to say it, but which I can’t possibly be the only person to have forgotten:

I’ve been thinking of the changes I need to make as a to-do list: December, acquire patience. January, become unfailingly sweet and thoughtful. February, master the art of time management, permanently and for all situations that will arise ever again.

I’ve been expecting to grow sequentially and in order and cross things off the list once and for all. Out of curiosity, I wonder what I thought the last thing on the list was going to be, when I was 80 years old and 99% perfect except for that one last untouched trait sticking out like a sore thumb….

Clearly (with some exceptions for tangible habits like smoking), and despite what the experts say, it doesn’t work that way. All the things I need to work on will continue to need to be worked on for the rest of my life, just hopefully to a constantly diminishing extent. It’s not a list… it’s a circuit. A little on this, a little on that, and so on, sometimes at the same time, until it’s time to come around and work on this again.

And you know what? I can live with that. Knowing that I don’t have to choose the single most important thing before I can start relieves that crucial little bit of pressure. It’s one thing I can cross off the list.

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