The Scientific Argument for Mastering One Thing At a Time

September 28, 2020

Many people, myself included, have multiple areas of life they would like to improve. For example, I would like to get better at programming, cinematography, eating healthy, and working out at home more. Those are just a few areas I can think of that I want to improve and you probably have a long list as well.

No matter how committed to our goals we are, our natural tendency is to revert back to 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. 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].

Compared to a control group, people who filled out this sentence were up to 3X more likely to act on their statement. 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 of 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, 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.

This is important, so let me repeat: developing a specific plan for when, where, and how you will stick to a new habit will dramatically increase the odds that you will actually follow through, but only if you focus on one thing.

What Happens When You Focus on One Thing

Here is another science-based reason to focus on one thing at a time:

When you begin practicing a new habit, it requires a lot of conscious effort to remember to do it. After awhile, however, the pattern of behavior becomes easier. Eventually, your new habit becomes a normal routine and the process is more or less mindless and automatic.

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

But here’s the thing: automaticity only occurs as the result of lots of repetition and practice. The more reps you put in, the more automatic a behavior becomes.

The chart below shows how long it takes for people to make a habit out of taking a 10-minute walk after breakfast. In the beginning, the degree of automaticity is very low. After 30 days, the habit is becoming fairly routine. After 60 days, the process is about as automatic as it can become.

The most important thing to notes is that there is some “tipping point” at which new habits become more or less automatic. The time it takes to build a habit depends on many factors including how difficult the habit is, what your environment is like, and your genetics.

That said, the study cited above found the average habit takes about 66 days to become automatic. Although that number can’t be for certain, it’s reasonable to say that most habits will take a few months to build.

Change Your Life Without Changing Your Entire Life

Alright, let’s review what I have suggested so far and figure out some practical takeaways.

  1. You are up to 3X more likely to follow through on a habit if you make a specific plan for when, where, and how you are going to implement it. This is known as an implementation intention.
  2. You should focus entirely on one thing. Research has found that implementation intentions do not work if you try to improve multiples habits at the same time.
  3. Research has shown that any given habit becomes more automatic with more practice. On average, it takes at least two months for new habits to become automatic behaviors.

Now here’s the punchline to this article:

The counterintuitive insight from this research is that the best way to change your entire life is by not changing your entire life. Instead, it is best to focus on one specific habit, work until you master it, and make it an automatic part of your daily life. Then, repeat the process for the next habit.

The way to master more things in the long-run is to simply focus on one thing right now.


In an effort to practice my writing and develop the habit, I copy articles from my favorite writers. I am not trying to take credit for, or reproduce this article as my own. Copying helps me hear their voice and understand their thought process, so I can improve my own. This practice was recommended by Mathew Encina, Creative Director for The Futur, after he copied 200+ articles from Seth Godin's blog.

This article was originally published by James Clear.