To Change Effectively, Change Just One Thing

I lost 18 pounds in the past month and a half.

I didn’t exercise harder or longer than usual. I didn’t read a new diet book supported by evidence and filled with rules and recipes. I didn’t eat prepared meals from a diet organization.

I’ve done all those things in the past and some of them worked but none of them lasted. They were too complicated or too expensive or too cumbersome to continue.

So I made a different decision this time. A much simpler one.

First a little background on losing weight. Every new diet book explains why it’s better than all the previous ones. This new plan, the author claims with enthusiasm, holds the key to losing weight and keeping it off forever. It will succeed where the others have failed.

So we decrease our fat consumption. Or increase it. We eat more protein. Or less. We raise our intake of carbohydrates. Or reduce it. And the question lingers: which is the best diet to lose weight?

Well, we now have the answer. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year put 811 overweight adults through four different diets, each one a different proportion of fat, carbohydrates and protein.

The result? On average participants lost 12 pounds after six months and kept nine pounds off after two years. No matter which diet they followed. Certainly some diets are healthier than others. But in terms of losing weight? No diet was better than any other. Because all diets work through a single mechanism — they restrict your calorie intake. People lose weight when they eat less.

If that’s true, then the best diet is the simplest one. So I asked myself: what’s the one thing I can change that will make the biggest difference in my calorie consumption? Everyone has one thing.

Mine was sugar. Sometimes I would eat three bowls of ice cream in a day. If I changed that, everything else would work itself out. Cutting out sugar was the one thing that would give me the highest return.

So I stopped eating it. No more cookies, candy, cake, ice cream. That’s the only change I consciously made. I sidestepped millions of complex little decisions most diets require — counting, weighing, choosing, deciding. No phases, no recipes, no thinking.

Each person’s one thing could be different. For some it might be fried foods. For others, meat. For others still, soft drinks. What’s important is to keep it simple.

The implications of this are huge, not just for diets but for all behavior change (after all, what else is a diet but behavior change?).

Typically, people overwhelm themselves with tasks in their eagerness to make a change successfully. But that’s a mistake. Instead, they should take the time up front to figure out the one and only thing that will have the highest impact and then focus 100% of their effort on that one thing.

A few years ago a Fortune 100 client asked me to design a new leadership training program. They already had one and had spent several years training people in it, but now they wanted a new one. Why? Because the current one wasn’t having the impact they wanted.

I asked to see the old one. Honestly? While I’d love to say my leadership ideas are far superior, I thought the ones they were using were equally good. Leadership models are no different than diets — most of them are just fine. The brilliance is rarely in the model, it’s in the implementation.

Don’t start from scratch, I pleaded with them. You’ve already spent years spreading the word, inculcating the language, and socializing the concepts of the old leadership methodology. People are familiar with it. Don’t get rid of it.

Just simplify it. Reduce it to its essence. What’s the one thing that will have the greatest impact on their leadership?

After some thought they concluded that if managers communicated more with their employees it would solve the majority of their issues. Great, I suggested, focus all your efforts on that. Let everything else go.

Sam, an entrepreneur friend of mine, called me disheartened after his business didn’t work out. He’s taking a few months off before starting his next venture, and we discussed how he should spend his time. It turns out that Sam’s dyslexic and has always had difficulty reading.

We agreed he should do one thing in his time off: read every day. That’s unusual advice from me. Usually I tell people to forget about their weaknesses and focus on their strengths. But in Sam’s case the dividend will be huge. If he can tackle reading, not only will it open doors for him, he’ll conquer the one thing he thought he couldn’t do. That confidence will change everything else in his life.

If you’re going to work on a weakness, never choose more than one.

A large retail organization with stores all over the world — we’ll call it Marla’s Clothing — developed ten “Gold” behaviors they wanted all sales associates to exhibit. Things like greet each customer, ask customers if they want an accessory at the point of sale, measure customers for a good fit, and thank each customer for shopping at the store. Stores in which sales associates exhibited all ten behaviors saw a substantial increase in sales.

After some time, Marla’s Clothing sent in mystery shoppers to see how the sales associates were doing. Management was pleased: on average the associates were displaying nine of the ten behaviors.

I asked the project lead if they had seen a change in sales as a result of this 90% success rate. After a short inspection of the data it turned out they hadn’t.

So we looked to see if the associates were each missing different behaviors or if they were avoiding a specific one of the ten. As we suspected, they were all skipping the same behavior: measuring customers for a good fit.

“You don’t have ten Gold behaviors,” I told the project lead, “You have one. Measuring customers for a good fit is your one thing.” We instructed the sales associates to focus solely on doing that one thing. Marla’s Clothing sales shot up.

“18 pounds!” a friend of mine exclaimed. “You should write a book about it.”

I considered it for a second but quickly realized I’d only have one thing to say.

“Not a book,” I responded, “but maybe a blog post.”