Chapter 1: Create a space

For many years, I had a hard time making changes — mostly, as it turns out, because I didn’t really understand how change works. I would struggle and fail and then feel bad about myself, thinking I was not as disciplined as I liked, wondering what was wrong with me.

I tried to start a new diet probably half a dozen times and inevitably failed before the week was up. I tried to quit smoking seven times and failed each time. I tried new exercise programs and gave up each time after a week or so. I struggled to get out of debt.

I didn’t understand what was going on, and so I kept failing, and blaming it on myself.

It wasn’t until I successfully changed a habit (quitting smoking) that I began to understand how change works. Then I applied those lessons to running, and ran a marathon; then to eating healthy, and lost more than 60 lbs.; then to decluttering,  and got rid of all my junk; then to debt, and became debt free; and eventually to much more.

I learned about change through doing it. One change at a time.

The only way to truly learn about change is to do it. You have to try something, make mistakes, correct those mistakes, and increase your understanding through this process of trial and error. You can’t just read about change and understand it — you need to put it into action.

Create a space for one change

The first step in that process is to pick a change. Just one. While most of us have multiple changes we’d like to make, all at once, I’ve learned from repeated experience that trying to do multiple habits at once is a beautiful recipe for habit failure.

The reason is that each change we make takes much more focus and mental energy than we realize. In the beginning, we have a lot of enthusiasm for changes, and we have this idea that the change will be easy, and we’ll be successful and life will be great. This is not the reality of the change, but the fantasy we create in our heads (another Mind Movie).

In reality, the change turns out to take more work: making time for it each day, overcoming resistance, reporting to others if you have accountability set up, remembering to do it, dealing with it if other things come up, dealing with any negative consequences (like sore legs if you’re running).

So multiple changes at once means that we’re multiplying the difficulty of change, which means we’re greatly decreasing our chances of success. When making change, I’ve found that you want to increase your odds of success as much as possible.

Imagine that your life and your attention are a small room, and in this room you wanted to put a meditation cushion, a weight set for exercise, a kitchen for healthy eating, a couch for reading, a writing desk for creating a novel, a yoga mat for doing some yoga, and a tea table for mindfully drinking tea. The tiny room would be cramped, and none of these things would have any space, and we’d not really be able to do any of them. This is what happens when we try to do multiple habits at once: we overfill the small space of our lives and our attention so that we have no room for anything.

Instead, imagine that we only had one thing in that room — let’s say the writing desk. That’s all that’s in the room for the moment. This desk would have space, and the writing would get our full attention.

Create space for your habit change, by doing one habit at a time, and you’ll do your best job on that habit.

What do we do if we have lots of changes we want to make, though? We need to let go of the ideal (the Mind Movie) that we’ll be able to make all our life changes at the same time. We can’t do everything at once. Let go of the idea of doing everything, and just create space to do one thing well. You’ll have time to get to the other changes later: this is a marathon, not a sprint.

How do you make a choice when you aren’t clear which habit would be the best starting point? Pick any one — it doesn’t matter too much which change you start with. In the long run, you’ll make all the changes you want, but for now, it’s best to just make a quick decision and pick one, even if it’s random or a complete gut decision.

Mission: Pick one habit

Today, pick one very small, actionable habit change to make during the course of this book. What we want is a very small, very easy, specific change that you can make to your daily life. A few examples:

  1. Drink a glass of water in the morning.
  2. Have a cup of green tea in the afternoon.
  3. Eat one fruit with lunch.
  4. Do five pushups.
  5. Do yoga for two minutes.
  6. Meditate for two minutes.
  7. Go for a five-minute walk.
  8. Write for two minutes.
  9. Declutter for two minutes.
  10. Stretch for one minute.

As you can see, these are all meant to be exceedingly easy changes. Just pick one for now. What we’ll learn as we work on making this change is the nature of change itself.

Don’t actually start on the change yet. Just pick one, and write it down in a document on your computer, or on paper. This will be the start of your Habit Plan (see the Habit Plan Guide in the appendix).

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