The Scientific Argument for Mastering One Thing at a Time

Many people, myself included, have several areas of their lives that they would like to improve. For example, I would like to attract more people with my writing, lift heavier weights in the gym, and start practicing mindfulness more consistently. And these are just some of the long list of goals.

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The problem is that even if we strive to work hard to achieve our goals, our natural tendency at some point is to revert to our old habits. Making a permanent lifestyle change is really difficult.

I recently came across a few studies that (just maybe) make these challenging lifestyle changes a little easier. However, as you will see, the approach to mastering many areas of life is somewhat counterintuitive.

Too many good intentions

If you want to master a few habits and stick with them forever, you need to figure out how to stay consistent. How can you do this?

Well, here’s one of the most compelling findings in psychological research on how to actually achieve your goals:

Research has shown that you are two to three times more likely to stick to your habits if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will do the behavior. For example, in one study, researchers asked people to complete this sentence: “Over the next week, I will do at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF THE DAY] IV [LOCATION].”

The researchers found that people who completed this proposal were two to three times more likely to exercise than a control group who did not make plans for their future behavior. Psychologists call these specific plans “implementation intentions” because they indicate when, where, and how you intend to implement a particular behavior.

This finding is well proven and has been repeated in hundreds of studies across a wide range of fields. For example, implementation intentions have been found to increase the likelihood that people will start exercising, start overworking, keep learning, and even quit smoking.

However (and this is important to understand), subsequent research has shown that implementation intentions only work when you focus on one goal at a time. In fact, the researchers found that people who tried to achieve multiple goals were less committed and less likely to succeed than those who focused on one goal.

This is important, so let me reiterate: Developing a concrete plan for when, where, and how you will stick to a new habit will dramatically increase the chances that you will actually implement it, but only if you focus on one goal.

What happens when you focus on one thing

Here’s another science-based reason to focus on one habit at a time:

When you start practicing a new habit, you need to put in a lot of conscious effort to remember to do it. However, after a while, the behavior becomes simpler. Eventually, your new habit becomes a routine, and the process becomes more or less meaningless and automatic.

Researchers have a fancy term for this process called automatism. Automaticity is the ability to perform behavior without thinking about each step, which allows the pattern to become automatic and habitual.

But here’s the thing: automatism only occurs as a result of repetition and practice. The more reps you do , the more automatic your behavior becomes.

For example, this chart shows how long it takes people to develop the habit of taking a 10-minute walk after breakfast. Initially, the degree of automatism is very low. After 30 days, this habit becomes quite routine. After 60 days, the process is as automatic as possible.

The most important thing to note is that there is a “tipping point” where new habits become more or less automatic. The time it takes to develop a habit depends on many factors, including how complex the habit is, what your environment is, your genetics, and more.

However, the aforementioned study found that, on average, a habit turns into an automatic habit after 66 days . (Don’t overdo it. The range in the study was very wide, and the only reasonable conclusion you should draw is that it will take months for new habits to take hold.)

Change your life without changing your whole life

Okay, let’s take a look at what I was offering you and figure out some practical implications.

  1. You are two to three times more likely to implement a habit if you make a concrete plan for when, where, and how you are going to implement it. This is known as implementation intent.
  2. You must focus entirely on one habit. Research has shown that implementation intentions don’t work if you’re trying to improve multiple habits at the same time.
  3. Research has shown that with more practice, any habit becomes more automatic. On average, it takes at least two months for new habits to turn into automatic behaviors.

This brings us to the climax:

Paradoxically, all this research suggests that the best way to change your whole life is not to change your whole life. Instead, it’s better to focus on one particular habit, work on it until you master it, and make it an automatic part of your daily routine. Then repeat the process for the next habit.

The way to master a lot of things in the long run is to just focus on one thing right now.

Scientific argument for mastering one thing at a time | James Clear


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