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.

xxx c

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