One Thing at a Time

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Does this sound familiar?

You finally resolve to tackle a daunting goal. Let’s say it’s fat loss, though it could be any goal. You’ve spent weeks doing research online, taking notes, making lists, organizing your newly-acquired knowledge, asking questions on social media, and you’ve come up with the perfect plan.

So naturally, you dive in headfirst. You start cooking at home more, you eat more vegetables, cut out snacking, make a meal schedule, start a training program, start eating protein with every meal, start meal prepping, track your calories, get to bed early, and so forth.

Everything goes great for a few weeks, then the wheels come off. Gradually, you begin to backslide. Initially you feel frustration but then, as the problem compounds, shame creeps in. The whole thing snowballs until eventually you just quit.

What the hell happened?

What gives? This stuff should be simple, right? I mean, come on. Calorie deficit, protein, training. Do it every day and you win. “What is my malfunction?” you wonder. Is it laziness? Lack of motivation? Lack of ability?

Stop right there. I can guarantee it’s none of those. You probably just tried to take on too much at once.

If you’ve done this, you’re in good company. We’ve all done it, myself included. For some people, it’s no big deal. Some people can handle a lot of change at one time and, in fact, thrive off it. For them, a lot of significant changes at one time might be a viable strategy.

But that’s not the case for everyone. In fact, I’d guess that for most of us, too much sudden change can be a problem. Maybe not in the short-term, but it has a way of eventually sneaking in there and undermining our efforts. Here’s why.

Simple doesn’t mean easy.

While a goal may seem simple on the surface, it’s actually the sum of countless behavior changes. Take fat loss, for example. If you were to say, “I’m going to get ripped, starting tomorrow,” you’d have established an end point, but what good does that do you? Do you truly understand what’s required to get there?

Getting ripped — or gaining muscle, getting stronger, losing weight, etc. — isn’t a single action. It involves many behavior changes, maybe more than you’d expect. When attacked one at a time, they aren’t so bad. But if you try to do them all simultaneously, that can be a recipe for overwhelm and frustration.

Furthermore, while each change may seem simple on the surface, most of them aren’t. And even if they are in fact simple, they’re not easy. Many of the habits you need to integrate into your life for fat loss to happen are layered in that they require that you modify several underlying behaviors to achieve the overall change.

It’s kind-of like lifting.

Here’s an analogy. When performing a heavy lift such as a deadlift or squat, how many cues can you recall and execute mid-set? Even if someone is verbally cueing you, how many cues can someone throw at you before you become overwhelmed and start tuning them out?

My limit is one cue at a time, maybe two. Any more, and it all falls out of my head the second I start lifting. I need a long period of repetition and practice with a single cue for a technique change to stick. Only then can I incorporate another one.

Diet changes are similar. If you keep falling off the wagon due to overwhelm or the fact that you can’t sustain an approach, take a hard look at how many things you’re trying to change at once. If it’s more than a few things, try dialing it back to one. Get good at that one thing, then move on to the next.

Think of each change as a brick in a house. While each brick is important, you can’t just throw a bunch of bricks into a pile and expect it to look like a house. You must build the house brick-by-brick.

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