Do just one thing…

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I speak with people all of the time, frustrated with themselves for being unable to make a change, or unable to stick to anything to get the results they want.  Sure, life gets busy, or things happen, or our motivation waxes and wanes.  Or maybe the actions we need to take are too hard, it’s not the right time, or we decide change isn’t that important.

Whatever the case, we usually end up feeling bad.  There’s at least one reason for this.  Our society teaches us that everything is a dichotomy: good or bad, perfect or flawed, sane or crazy, and so on.  Turn on the TV or go online and you’ll see this.  And when it comes to improving our lives, if we’re not winning, we’re losing- or, if we’re not perfect, we’re failing.  For many people, they get up the motivation to do something, form a plan, and get going.  And sometimes things go well for a while- and you feel good.  Maybe you lose a few pounds, get some things done, or you start thinking more positively.  But then, something happens, you slip up, or you stop being perfect- and boom!  You’ve failed.  And not only that, YOU are a failure!  We feel bad about ourselves, decide we’ll never be able to change, or we don’t care anymore- until we then get motivated again.  And so the cycle goes on.  But until you can learn to think more flexibly, this is going to continue to be a problem.

In school, most people think of a 70, 80, or a 90% as a good grade- especially on a hard test or in a hard class.  But in our own lives, we’ve decided that anything less than 100% is a failure- and that’s a tough standard to live by!  100% is unrealistic, or at least not sustainable in the long run.

If you want to end the cycle, you need to have not only realistic goals (learn about SMART goals here, or check out some of my other posts), but you need a realistic plan.  This means being able to tolerate being less than perfect, avoiding specific pitfalls, and being able to recover (and quickly) from setbacks.

One strategy you might use is to do just one thing, as noted in the title of this post.  This can help you to get started if you’re having trouble, and it can set a realistic goal at least in the short-term.  If your goal is to lose weight, be sure to exercise today or to track what you’ve eaten.  If you can do both, great- but in this way, you will have done one thing today to work toward your goal.  So if you’ve exercised, but maybe you didn’t eat well today, you can say, “Ok, well I did exercise today.  And I’ll do it again tomorrow”.  If you give yourself permission to do just one thing, then you’re not allowed to be angry or upset that you didn’t do more.  But if you did, then that’s a bonus!  The idea is then to continue doing this, until you feel comfortable adding something else.  And you can do this in two different ways- either start with the thing that’s easiest, so as to build some momentum; or, you can work on the biggest priority first, provided it’s not too difficult.  Take it a step at a time, and you’ll likely have much greater success than if you try to do too much at once.  I usually use weight loss or leading a healthier lifestyle as examples, since they’re near universal- but this strategy and others I discuss can apply to just about anything.

Dichotomies are rarely a good thing, and I find that in therapy most people need to learn to recognize- and accept, that there are a lot of gray areas- and to be there is totally ok.  You’re on the right track.  And if you’re doing just one thing today, chances are that’s 100% more than you did yesterday- and that’s a step in the right direction.

As always, if you find this difficult, or if you’ve had limited success on your own, try contacting a professional.  A psychologist or another type of therapist can help you to address your challenges and get on the path to success.  Click here to find a referral.

Take care,

Dr. Jesse Matthews







Published by Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a practicing psychologist and director of Matthews Counseling & Coaching, a private practice in Chester Springs, PA. I work with clients 18 and older, and my specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's. Our group works with individuals from tween through older adult, helping them with a variety of life issues. Check out the practice website for information on other clinicians and their services: .

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