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The Scientific Argument for Mastering One Thing at a Time

The Scientific Argument for Mastering One Thing at a Time

Many people, myself included, have multiple areas of life they would like to improve. For example, I would like to reach more people with my writing, to lift heavier weights at the gym, and to start practicing mindfulness more consistently. Those are just a few of the goals I find desirable and you probably have a long list yourself.

The problem is, even if we are committed to working hard on our goals, our natural tendency is to revert back to our old habits at some point. Making a permanent lifestyle change is really difficult.

Recently, I’ve come across a few research studies that (just maybe) will make these difficult lifestyle changes a little bit easier. As you’ll see, however, the approach to mastering many areas of life is somewhat counterintuitive.

Too Many Good Intentions

If you want to master multiple habits and stick to them for good, then you need to figure out how to be consistent. How can you do that?

Well, here is one of the most robust findings from psychology research on how to actually follow through on your goals:

Research has shown that you are 2x to 3x more likely to stick with your habits if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you will perform the behavior. For example, in one study scientists asked people to fill out this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

Researchers found that people who filled out this sentence were 2x to 3x more likely to actually exercise compared to a control group who did not make plans for their future behavior. Psychologists call these specific plans “implementation intentions” because they state when, where, and how you intend to implement a particular behavior.

This finding is well proven and has been repeated in hundreds studies across a broad range of areas. For example, implementation intentions have been found to increase the odds that people will start exercising, begin recycling, stick with studying, and even stop smoking.

However (and this is crucial to understand) follow-up research has discovered implementation intentions only work when you focus on one thing at a time. In fact, researchers found that people who tried to accomplish multiple goals were less committed and less likely to succeed than those who focused on a single goal.