by Mark Gutman

In 1726, 20-year-old Benjamin Franklin put together a list of 13 virtues (e.g., temperance, silence, order). He planned to focus on one virtue at a time, slowly mastering each one until he would eventually “live without committing any fault at any time” (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, see chapter 8). I think Ben was onto a principle that has been overlooked. We do better by working on changing one habit at a time than we do by trying to change several (or even a few) at the same time.

On December 31, 2011, the Sabbath School class I attend had a New Year’s Eve party. At the party we were given a slip of paper and asked to write a New Year’s resolution on it. The leader collected the slips of paper and redistributed them through the class to be read out loud. I had been considering a resolution, but this provided a sudden spark. I wrote that I would spend five minutes a day reading Tony Schwartz’s book Be Excellent at Anything. I’ve succeeded in keeping that resolution. Having committed to the class that I would spend those five minutes a day provided motivation even on days I would just as soon have skipped reading.
Reading that book has led to other steps. I began reading a book that dealt with emotional health. That turned into an additional five-minute-per-day habit that I have kept up. That led to another habit that’s been continued, which led to another habit . . . . The Schwartz reading has led to other habits I wouldn’t have predicted last December 31.
About three years ago I read The Power of Less, by Leo Babauta. Babauta explains that a few years earlier, “I was over my head in debt. . . . I was overweight and unhealthy. I was eating fried and fatty and salty and greasy foods every day, I wasn’t exercising, and I was a smoker. . . “(introduction, page x). He decided to simplify. He quit smoking. That was his whole focus for a while. He explains that “Beating that barrier helped inspire me to new goals and habits, and I used the same method on each one: I’d focus all of my energy and attention on that one challenge, and the barriers would break down (ibid).” Later on the page he lists several accomplishments he’s achieved by focusing on one goal at a time.
As I read his book three years ago, I was inspired to make several changes at once. I quickly made a list of at least six items I needed to start or stop doing. And they all looked so important that I didn’t think it made sense to put off working on any of them. Guess what? When I picked up his book again this year, I realized that I hadn’t accomplished a single one of the important items that I thought a few years ago were too important to wait to work on. Even then, it wasn’t picking up his book that motivated me to change a habit at a time. What seemed to make the difference for me was that I kept reading Schwartz’s book, and it began to set me thinking more seriously about improvements to my life.
Babauta counsels to “Do only one habit at a time. . . . Trust me – I’ve tried both ways many times, and in my experience there is a 100 percent rate of failure for forming multiple habits at once, and a 50 to 80 percent rate of success if you do just one habit at a time – depending on whether you follow the rest of these rules” (page 36; he then lists five more simple rules).
At that New Year’s Eve party, I wasn’t thinking about working on other habits during 2012. I only focused on one, which I had told the class I would do. But focus on that one has led to major progress, one improvement at a time. The habit I’m focusing on this month I just decided to do on the first day of this month. When I realize that a habit of mine is causing problems, I tackle it for a month (or plan to tackle it in a future month). If I want to relapse then, I can, but I may have learned that the new habit is worth the effort.
I’m reminded of Aaron’s lame explanation to Moses about a golden calf Aaron had sculpted: “They gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32:24, NIV)! We have trouble believing that Aaron actually expected Moses to believe such a line, so why do we hope to work the way Aaron said he did? No need for elaborate planning or sculpturing – just watch the marvelous results occur quickly, the way the quick weight loss or moneymaking schemes promise. We pile up a list of things we want to do while we let our focus scatter so widely that we accomplish little. You’re only going to end up with a (golden) calf if you work for it.

For 2013 or just for next month, you don’t need to make up a list of resolutions. Or at least not a pack that you’re going to start on January 1. Because if you make such a list, what does Babauta say? “100 percent rate of failure.” Randy Roberts, Loma Linda University church pastor, quotes a verse:
“Last year I made a list of things that I resolved to do.
I’ll use that list again this year; it’s still as good as new.”
A resolution list can be simple. List several habits you’d like to start or stop. But then choose just one. Use Babauta’s rules:
#1. Choose an easy goal. “If you think you can exercise for thirty minutes a day, choose ten minutes – making it super easy is one of the best ways to ensure you’ll succeed” (page 37).
#2. Choose something measurable. 
#3. Be consistent (same time every day).
#4. Report daily.
#5. Keep a positive attitude. “Expect setbacks now and then, but just note them and move on” (ibid).
I recommend that you start where I did. Make your first goal to read the Tony Schwartz book (or similar) five minutes a day, and tell others your new plan. It will probably lead you to other goals suited to your situation. If you commit to reading it five minutes a day, it won’t take much of your time but it will keep making an impression. I look forward to 2013!
You can work on starting (or stopping) a new habit any time. You don’t have to wait for the end of a month. Start on one the first day you read this. Maybe you can start another one at the beginning of the next month. If you’re not interested in continuous improvement, work the way that Aaron told Moses he worked (which was, “I did almost nothing.”). Or make a list of six changes you’re going to make in the next month. But if you want to make steady noticeable progress, commit to making one doable change at a time.