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The Power of One Thing: How to Intentionally Change Your Life

  • Randy Carlson Author
  • Published Oct 16, 2009
The Power of One Thing: How to Intentionally Change Your Life

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from The Power of One Thing: How to Intentionally Change Your Life by Randy Carlson (Tyndale House).

Do One Small Thing—Intentionally

The person who knows one thing and does it better than anyone else, even if it only be the art of raising lentils, receives the crown he merits. —Augustine "Og" Mandino, twentieth-century motivational teacher

Whoever or whatever is most intentional in your life wins—the difference between winners and losers comes down to this profound truth. What do I mean by intentional? I use it to describe the driving force in an area of your life—physical health, let's say. A woman who is more intentional about shedding ten pounds than sleeping later each morning might begin setting the alarm for an earlier time so she can hit the treadmill for twenty minutes. By following through on one small thing—an early-morning walk—it is clear that she values physical fitness above extra sleep. To make any positive change in your life, you must create an action plan and summon the determination to intentionally get to your goal, one small step at a time.

Notice I say successful people are intentional, not merely well intentioned. The key is commitment plus action. We can have great ideas about what we want to do next, but if we are not committed to actually changing what we do and how we think, nothing much will change. In Luke 18:18-22 (NLT), we read,

Once a religious leader asked Jesus this question: "Good Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked him. "Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. Honor your father and mother.'"

The man replied, "I've obeyed all these commandments since I was young."

When Jesus heard his answer, he said, "There is still one thing you haven't done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Jesus was talking about commitment plus action. He knew that the man's wealth and position stood in the way of his total commitment. Although the man had the desire to do the right thing, he was not fully committed and lacked the willingness to act. As a result, he passed up the opportunity to follow Christ wholeheartedly. His life was not transformed.

You need to recognize that something drives everything you do. The rich ruler was driven by his possessions and status. You have only two choices—either you become the most intentional force in your life or you allow someone or something else to exert more influence over your life. If you're not the most intentional about yourself, someone or something else will be—that's a promise. You might know people who would love to run your life . . . or substances waiting to run your life . . . or emotions that are ready to run your life. You decide—who or what is going to win today?

If you're like me, you want to succeed at what is most important to you, but you sometimes find it challenging to stay focused on your top priorities. Your good intentions don't translate into the accomplishment of worthy goals. Some days everything seems to be trying to sabotage your efforts. Distractions come at you from all directions, and your time is probably eaten up by demands every hour of the day.

You can be your own worst saboteur as well. Procrastination, laziness, discouragement, and disorganization strike everyone at some point. You may be skilled at multitasking, which can actually make you feel on top of your game when you are anything but. When you're driving and talking on your cell phone, neither the person you're talking to nor your fellow drivers are getting your best. Recently I heard a radio broadcast in which listeners were told that the brain can't really focus on more than one task at once. Consequently, when you multitask, your brain shift s quickly from one activity to another rather than focusing at least a little on each of the several things you're doing.

From Intention to Action

As you've seen, having good intentions is easy. Being intentional—making an effort to reach important goals—is difficult. But it's not impossible. Intentionality is critical; without it, you would never be motivated to change. But following through on your intentions is oft en manageable only when you focus on the next one thing you need to do to bring about change.

I tend to go off in numerous directions at once. I have lots of interests, lots of questions, lots of projects, lots of what-ifs. If you're at all like me, you can end up on lots of rabbit trails guided by your good intentions. And, as we know, the road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions. So what I'm about to show you comes from my own journey of moving beyond good intentions to life-changing results.

For me, getting focused happened when I was hit with one of those difficult, life-altering events. When my mother died in August 2005, eleven years after my dad, I suddenly realized I was an adult orphan. I was now part of the oldest generation in our family, and the shortness of life came into clear focus. Like the psalmist, my prayer became "Teach me to number my days" (see Psalm 90:12). I knew that if I was to turn my good intentions into reality, I needed to change the way I used my time and resources and start using the power of one thing to change my own life.

I wanted my life to count, and I became focused on my legacy. My parents had lived with integrity and commitment, and they ended strong. I wanted the same for myself. My parents had given up a big house in the suburbs and my dad's high-paying job in order to follow a dream . . . to build a ranch where disadvantaged children could get away from their dysfunctional situations for a while.

I realized that my tendency to overcommit, which sometimes led to procrastination, could keep me from living with a similar sense of purpose. I decided that the only way to finish life strong would be to break the rest of my life into bite-size commitments—one thing done each day in one or more essential areas of life. I realized that my legacy would be the accumulation of a series of "one things" lived out over an extended period of time—the rest of my life. I'm so committed to the power of one thing that I created a One Thing wristband that I wear every day as a reminder to do the one thing that day that will make the biggest difference in my life. Others have asked me about my wristband, and now thousands wear one just like it.

A Lesson from Tiger Woods

Every big accomplishment is preceded by lots of little, seemingly insignificant actions—resulting in the one big thing everyone sees. The other day, I watched as Tiger Woods won another PGA tournament on national television, but what the audience never saw was the hundreds of hours when Tiger, all alone, worked on perfecting his swing—one practice swing after another—far from the eyes of the public. While Woods is a dramatic example, we see the same principle in all areas of life. We cheer when our son or daughter wins a statewide musical competition, but we don't have fi lm footage of the hours the child spent practicing alone in his or her room. We congratulate a married couple on the accomplishment of a fifty-year marriage, but we weren't around to witness how they stuck together one day . . . one challenge . . . one disagreement . . . one illness at a time over those fifty years.

To illustrate how the power of one thing can lead to big accomplishments in your own life, try this exercise. Take a piece of paper and draw a horizontal line across the top. On the left side, write the year of your birth, and on the right side, write this year. In between, mark off the paper in five- or ten-year increments to make your time line. On your time line mark the major events, accomplishments, and changes next to the year they occurred. For example:

when you met Christ
when you went to college
when you got married
when you solved a major problem
when a child was born
when you made a decision to go in a new direction in your life
when you started a business
when you paid off your house
loss of a child
loss of a job
major health crisis

Most people can list about a dozen "big things" in their lives. Once you have written them down, think about the questions below:

■ What small things preceded and followed each event? List all the "one things" that led up to that one big thing. Were they a series of interactions, a series of choices and behaviors, or people you associated with?

■ What pattern do you see? Are the significant events largely positive? Are they growth oriented? Or are they largely negative events that caused you pain? What does this indicate about how intentional you are? Who or what was most intentional leading up to each big thing?

■ How has your life changed as a result of each event?

Now extend your time line into the future. What is the next significant thing you are hoping for in the future? Are you working toward something that will result in a positive "big thing" in your life? Or are you just letting things happen? Your future will become reality only if today you remain focused on the most important next one thing.

For example, if the next important stop on your time line is to successfully raise your teenage daughter, then it is essential that you have a game plan to make that goal a reality. Start by making a list of all the "one things" you can think of that will be required of you to raise your daughter well.

I need
■ to deal with a bad attitude about my ex-spouse, my daughter's father.

■ I need to establish expectations and routines for myself.

■ I need to pray for my daughter daily.

■ I need to be more confident when I make a decision and not give in so easily to her demands.

■ I need to hold my daughter accountable for her actions and not respond out of guilt.

■ I need to monitor her relationships and get to know her friends better.

■ I need to encourage her strengths.

■ I need to stop criticizing her so much.

Even though the list may get long and feel pretty overwhelming to you, the power of doing the next right one thing is the only path to success. Remember, healthy change will occur only when the power of one thing is used. By doing the first right one thing followed by the next one thing until each is completed or has become a habit, you almost guarantee yourself success in what matters most.

When I look across my time line, I identify the following as the most significant moments in my adult life: my marriage to Donna, the birth of our children, the decision we made to move from Michigan to Arizona, the decision I made to finish my graduate work and go on for a doctorate, my decision in 1988 to write my first book, and the decision in 1990 to start a radio program to help families. I realize that each of these big moments represents a move or a change, something new. But each of these events in my life was preceded by many small "one things."

Why One Thing Really Does Make a Difference

We can only really live today one thing at a time—one thought, one idea, one relationship, one phone call at a time. Matt hew 6:34 (NLT) tells us, "Don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today's trouble is enough for today." We can't rush ahead; we can't lag behind. So how does change happen? Think of it this way:

One thing done once is an experience.

One thing done twice has your attention.

One thing done often is a pursuit.

One thing done always is a habit.

It has been said that our choices become our habits and our habits become our character. Our choices add up and determine the overall quality of our lives.

As you learn to choose one small change and focus on it one day at a time, your life is going to get better. After you have made the first thing a habit and experienced the satisfaction of having achieved a small but significant milestone, you can tackle one more thing with energy and confidence.

I've seen it happen—in my own life and in the lives of others—doing just one thing differently can produce significant and lasting changes for the better.

The key is how you manage each of the "one things" you do each day—the tasks,  conversations, relationships, and projects that make up your life. Remember the advice of Solomon: "Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise!" (Proverbs 6:6). Ants are commonly thought of as industrious creatures. Ever noticed how absolutely focused they appear as they head back to their colonies, hauling crumbs several times bigger than themselves?

In this proverb, Solomon urges unmotivated individuals to follow the ant's example. He knew that people who do one thing intentionally over an extended period of time can change their lives. Don't be discouraged by how far you think you need to go. Instead, be encouraged as you consider the following:

Doing one thing to intentionally love your spouse each day will change your marriage.

Doing one thing to intentionally read God's Word and pray each day for even a few minutes will lead to spiritual growth in your life.

Doing one thing to exercise each day will lead to better physical health.

Doing one thing to be truthful and reliable each day will result in people counting on you.

Doing one thing to control your anger each day will reduce violence, abuse, and the likelihood of divorce in your home.

Doing one thing to maintain healthy opposite-sex friendships each day will prevent the destructive results from emotional or physical affairs.

Once you begin linking a number of these one small things—like pearls on a chain, each representing one small, positive change—you eventually will have a long, solid chain of improvements.

Warning: The power of one thing can be your friend or your enemy. Unfortunately, a string of negative actions also accumulates. If you ignore the signs and symptoms of poor health, for example, eventually you might find that you have a serious and advanced illness. If month after month you spend a little more money than you earn, you can wind up in serious financial trouble. If you don't discipline your child during the early years because he or she is just so cute, you are likely to raise a brat.

One small action leads to another, and they join together, for good or ill. Perhaps you have determined to improve your life before. As you probably discovered, it's far easier to slip back into destructive patterns than to achieve positive and lasting change. After all, when we do nothing, our situation just naturally deteriorates; improvement takes intentionality and consistent action. If you have tried to change before, only to give up, keep reading. The next chapter was written just for you.

From The Power of One Thing: How to Intentionally Change Your Life . Copyright © 2009 by Randy Carlson.  Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188.