How doing one thing differently saved my bacon

Anyone who’s read my newsletter, spent more than 10 minutes in semi-meaningful conversation with me or seen the shame that is my bookshelves knows I have a predilection for the self-help aisle.

I fought it for years, in no small part because I saw my mother devour book after best-selling book even as her alcohol intake crept slowly but steadily upward. Reading is no substitute for action. Buying and piling in artfully arranged stacks around the house, even less so. And while I’m a pretty productive motherfucker when all is said and done, I’ve got undeniable hard-wiring for procrastination on both sides of my genetic divide.

Dad was a frighteningly efficient accomplishment machine, but anyone who knows about “-aholic” tendencies knows that’s just the flip side of the same coin. He “did” out of fear; mom “didn’t”. And they both avoided the root issue until the days they died.

I, on the other hand, have made it my singular mission in life to act, and to act well. There’s nothing else for me to leave behind to make the world a better place, no genetic material I’ve given a better start to, no big pile of money to fund a groovy foundation. It’s just whatever ripples I can send out there now, and whatever additional ripples people whom I’ve (hopefully) helped or a book that I’ve (hopefully) written can send out later.

So when I get stuck, when there’s not only no forward motion, but no indication of what that forward motion should be, I get a little panicky. I don’t think, “Oh, good…a nice rest!” or “Great! Things are just marinating upstairs!”; I start sliding into the dark place on a greased chute with no handrails.

In times like these, I grab onto those books like a lifeline and use them to start hauling myself back up. The best ones (and you do know to only read the best ones, right?) offer some kind of clearly defined, actionable steps, and when you’re in a place where you can’t see clearly, a well-lit staircase with an “EXIT” sign at the top is your friend. It doesn’t matter which set you get on: it will get you out.

Sometimes, though, there is no time. Sometimes you find yourself in hella mess and the clock is ticking and there’s just no damned time for a whole book, much less careful digestion and implementation of its contents. That’s when you need this prescription-strength remedy:

Do One Thing Differently.

Yes, it’s a self-help book, too. I’ve never read it, though. I’ve only heard of it, and then fondled it briefly in my shrink’s office while waiting for her to come in and start our session:

“It looks like you could get everything you need from this book just by reading the title.”

“You can,” she said.

I’d thought about this exchange many, many times since we first had it, maybe six months ago. (Maybe a year, my memory ain’t what it used to be.) I’ve thought about it a lot because I’ve been dealing with my own existential crisis for the past eight or nine months. I actually capped off the year by doing one thing very differently: admitting out loud that things were broken, and that I was taking some time off to evaluate them, four months off, to be precise.

The gods love it when we make plans, don’t they? It’s like Season 4 of LOST to them, or, more likely, some really good, trainwreck-y reality TV. I’m guessing they’ve had me on TiVo and are praying I get renewed for another 13 episodes. My Finnish dark night of the soul has been appointment viewing up on Mt. Olympus.

It was getting old down here, though. So I’ve been One-Thing-Differently like mad, from my kitchen to my alarm-clock setting to my hairstyle. Desperate times call for desperate measures! A few of the myriad thangs I changed up include:

  • enlisting the help of an accountability partner, a badass, take-no-prisoners type whose list of accomplishments makes me look like a piker
  • replying over and over to generalist queries into my state of health and well-being with a frank admittance of my perilous suckitude (counts as once because the first 15 times were an out-of-body experience I gained nothing practical from)
  • admitting I had fucked up
  • walking three miles each morning, whether I wanted to or not
  • billing for work done (feel free to laugh at me, the gods aren’t the only ones who know how ridiculous I am)

On Thursday night, I finally had a breakthrough of the major sort. Something popped, and it feels like I’m finally on track again. Thank god. Gods. Whatever. That’s an eight-month experience I don’t want to repeat anytime soon.

But from the other side, I feel it my duty to say that the One Thing thing works. It really does. Those One Things got me through a lot of rough patches and gave me the hope and the oomph to hit it for one more day.

And cumulatively? Holy crap, do they add up! Try it. Try folding in a few one things, and see if there’s not some kind of major, quantifiable effect at the end of six months. A kitchen you’re not afraid of entering. A scale you’re not afraid of stepping on. It works, folks: it really, really works.

The biggest irony in all this is that now I feel like I’ve got to read the book. Just to see if I did it “right” and if next time, I couldn’t do it better.

You, however, have no need of it. Just do it, like the ad said. One thing. Differently.

And if you’ve got some sweet, sweet self-helpage you know about and don’t leave it in the comments? You’re no friend of mine, Klein.


Image by greenapplegrenade via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Yup, doing things differently sounds wonderful to me. Its great when you get to do that by choice, but I think life’s making me do things differently via applying thumbscrews presently. I’m yelling back at it…ok…really…I’ll change…promise!
    I guess any journey has stagnant places, were you have to tread water awhile. I like to think its cos more is happening inside me than I’m actually physically doing. I get furious at myself when I forget my life isn’t only about stuff I do, but more how I am. I wasn’t brought up to value that as much. I keep feeling that being so achievement orientated I’m missing something huge. And in that huge something, I’ll find a better way of being.

  2. Congrats on the breakthrough! You have inspired me to add that book to my already overstuffed-with-self-help-books shelf, in the hopes that I’ll join you in getting my shit together.

    Seriously, this made a difference!

  3. A couple of weeks ago, I painted ALL the living/dining room woodwork in our 1840’s New Hampshire farmhouse. Many windows. Which made the 20-foot-long whitish rug look like crap. (That happens when you have a brown lab) So yesterday we cut the rug into pieces and dragged them out to take to the dump. Now the wide-pine board floors are exposed.

    Can’t sell the house in this damned recession, so I’m doing all i can to get rid of stuff and lighten up. It feels liberating, like pounds lost. My office (gasp) comes next — and finishing my ebook on speechwriting.

  4. I know you’re a journal writer, like me. I’ve found that when I fall into that funk, I avoid my journal, or maybe I just write a few sentences.

    This last funk, I forced myself to write two full pages in my journal every day. Nothing else was different, but my mood was better by the end of the week.

    I don’t know if confiding in the journal was the healing thing or if it was “One Thing Differently.” Either way, it helped me more than I thought it would.

    Sending good karma your way, babe.

  5. It’s all about that one step of doing something differently. Came out of Vietnam in the early 70’s with idea that being the best advice I ever received. You work one and then move on to the next. The secret for me was to always keep the “one thing” in perspective. You can try to many “one things” and that will get you out of wack. One thing is all it takes and you’ll be amazed at the positive changes in your life. It’s all small stuff and if you just take care of it one thing at a time, it all handles itself for the good of you and those around you. There’s nothing better than saving your bacon!

  6. your movement–though may feel snailspace from inside–is tidal wave-y from here. you set the timer, tell the tale and it shimmies into our lives. thank you for taking the risk and showing up. i’m walking more, doing more and trusting more by witnessing you. thank you.

  7. Starting today, I’m going to brush my teeth right-handed. And have beer for breakfast. That should trigger some changes. Oh, wait, that’s two things. What the hell, I’m a go-getter.

  8. The do-one-thing-differently approach is so sweet, I think, because in those stuck places, at least for me, the “enemy” (whomever or whatever it might be) is so HUGE and FORMIDABLE. Then you go and do just this one thing differently and the molecules of the universe have all suddenly shifted, revealing that the enemy was just (again) illusion after all. You remind me of the power of this antidote with this post. Speaking of self-help, I know you’re familiar with Pema Chodron. Her books, like your post here (and many before) legitimize small right actions. I especially love her “Start Where You Are” for that and would highly recommend it. In the self-help genre, I’m old enough to now be turned off by any book that tries to sell me on “Take these steps and you, too, can have that perfect life.” These days, gravitating more toward writers (like yourself) who are saying, “Life’s hard, isn’t it? Here’s how you can avoid making it even harder.”

  9. Aside from making the first step, which you’ve done, there’s another big step here – you told the world.

    Congrats on being brave. Congrats on putting ‘it’ out there. Congrats on shining the bright light into the dark room and exposing all that is there.

    So much more good to come of these actions – should be a fun ride!

  10. Wendy – Bingo! I’m trying to address more change proactively, instead of waiting for things to pile on so high they grind me into change.

    Charlie! Thank you! And I don’t know what’s happening with your URL but it’s adding mine to it, so everyone, if you want to visit Charlie, go here.

    Jean – You and I are on the same home reclamation schedule, it seems. As I understand feng shui, if you want a new place, the thing you do is fix up the old place first. Even if it’s utter b.s., you wind up with a place that makes you feel so much better, it’s almost like being in a new place.

    Laura – That’s a good idea. In fact, that was the best idea I took away from a Beth Lapides intro workshop: to save the journaling for times when there’s a shitstorm happening (I’m paraphrasing). I am leery of journaling all the time, b/c it does act as kind of a steam valve, and most of the time, I’d rather put the energy into art. But some private steam-letting ain’t a bad idea when there’s a lot going on.

    Bill – Uh…Vietnam? Jeezus. Thanks for putting my own crisis into perspective. And you’re right, of course, about one thing AT A TIME. That’s pretty much what I did–not implementing another one thing until I’d gotten the last under control.

    Dyana – Sweet music to my ears. Thank you.

    Earl – Brush your teeth with beer. That turns it back into one thing. Sort of.

    Mary Ellen – Well, I came late to the self-help genre, so it’ll probably be a while before I give it up. Thanks for the Pema tip, and the compliment.

    Dave – Doin’ it out loud. Does make a difference, huh? Thanks for pointing it out–makes me feel even better.

  11. 20 years ago I first heard of Ben Franklin’s 13 Virtues (readily available on the web) and his system for applying them. I’d never come across something so valuable and haven’t since. To this day, with varying degrees of diligence Ben himself would understand, I use his system. It’s a succint, well-written blueprint for reasonable, sensible action and response. It has helped me (make that saved my hickory-smoked) countless times.

  12. Ben Franklin! Of course!

    He’s, like, the original self-help dude.

    And it is such a sensible list. Plus it’s not like the guy didn’t accomplish a whole bunch.

    Great tip!

  13. Yeah for you!

    It makes me feel good to know you feel good. Keep feeling good — don’t do that differently tomorrow, ok?

    Holy crap, yes. Life sometimes does send us on strange journeys.

    Funny disclosure when I read this post, I thought “I don’t have the damn time for a funk! It would almost be nice.” I remember spending 3 days on the couch when I was a single lassie, eating Haagen Das and watching 45 straight episodes of Law and Order.

    But really, that is just glamorizing it. It sucks when you feel that way, but is so wonderful when you get the breakthrough.

    My magic wand of the day? Throw your challenge at this site and see what it tells you. Freaked me out how accurate it was for my problem.

    So my one thing different:

    Tomorrow, I will turn over my power to a random internet tarot card site.

    Beats taking responsibility! :)


  14. Hey, I totally feel your knee-jerk disdain for my namby-pamby, First World problem. If I was slaving in a factory for the 1.25 I needed to feed my family there wouldn’t be time for my sissy wailing. Why, when I was my age, I walked 17 miles to the schoolhouse in the freezing hail–both ways!

    Seriously, I’ve been working through this whole time, just wildly inefficiently. And certainly woefully, which is no fun for anyone. So Hooray! for me, and for the world.

    Now I’m off to try your woowoo card thingy. Will report back anon!

  15. Glad you’re on track again, we’ll remind you of this when needed. I’ve had my fair share of self help books but it’s not until someone reminds you of them that you remember how much they helped at the time.

    Little by little, we’ll all get there with you. Reminds me of that great Christmas tune “One foot in front of the other”.

  16. There you go again. Another great post on a subject very dear to me. Before I started commenting on this post, I have sent the url to a few of my friends who are going through “that phase” just now. I am sure that they will be inspired.

  17. Ah yes. This post got heavily circulated by moi. Navel gazers, analysis paralysis. I own all self-help books. But at mid-life I’m tired of fixing, eh? I want to burn them and say THIS IS WHO I AM. Sad, messy, funny, sexy, irritable, lonely and needy at times. Take it or leave it. But some days I simply cannot stand myself.

    When I can, simple house-cleaning, purging does seem to help. I guess it is the first thing to go when the funk hits. Writers spend an awful lot of time thinking, right? Funks seem to be built in.

    Now I’m all caught up in what my “one thing” should be and I’m quite sure that I’ll spend more time thinking about it than doing it…

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