The Power of Doing Only One Thing

Have you ever heard someone say they’re a great “multitasker”? Or had a potential employer say they’re looking for someone who can “multitask”? In today’s world, being able to juggle numerous tasks is practically seen as a badge of honor. Those who can keep up with the demands of many responsibilities are labeled more productive, more dedicated, and “worth more” than someone who only does one thing at a time. 

However, in recent years, psychological studies have indicated that multitasking in the way we imagine it, doesn’t really even exist.

Our brain doesn’t actually focus on multiple things at once. Instead, it flits back and forth between tasks at a rapid pace. When our brains have to dart back and forth like this between all our different tasks, we end up losing focus for a fraction of a moment while we switch. Ultimately, this causes us to lose time while dancing back and forth, and also causes us to never enter into a state of “flow” — a state where we fully engage and enjoy our work. These studies demonstrate that multi-tasking isn’t actually an effective productivity technique at all, and that by trying to “multitask,” we actually diminish our overall efficiency.   

But multitasking doesn’t just cause problems in our day to day. It also causes issues over the long term in regard to our life goals.

When we “multitask” – or “dabble” – in a variety of different activities and pursuits, we never fully master any of them. 

Putting your time, energy, and resources into many different goals means that you have to distribute your time, energy, and resources further, therefore causing each goal to develop slowly over time. 

Think of your time, energy, and resources as a water pitcher, and each of your goals as a cup. If you have many cups, it will take longer to fill the cups and you may never fill any of them at all. If you do end up filling a cup, it will probably take quite a long time. 

So, is there a solution to this multitasking problem? 

Gary Keller, author of The One Thing, thinks there is. And if the title doesn’t give it away yet, it’s to simply focus on one thing at a time. 

Keller writes that:

“Success demands singleness of purpose. You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.”

In other words, Keller suggests we drop our multitasking habits, both in the short term and long term. Instead of answering calls, reading emails, working on a project, and scrolling on TikTok, just choose one thing to focus on at a time, and you’ll get much further (and faster!) than if you hadn’t. This also means you should choose just one goal to give your attention to, rather than 5, or 10, or 50, like we often try to do with our New Year’s Resolutions. (Which may be why we give up on all of them by mid-February!)

One reason doing only one thing at a time works so well is because you’re able to achieve a state of flow. A state of flow is a term psychologists use to describe a state in which you’re not easily distracted and can work fluidly and calmly. You’ve probably experienced this state of flow at some point in your life. It feels amazing, right? In order to harness that “flow,” you have to focus on only one thing at a time. Rather than forcing your mind to keep stopping and starting, you can drive forward purposefully. 

Doing only one thing also means that you can devote more time, resources, and energy to that thing and gain massive improvements within a shorter amount of time. Remember our water pitcher from before. Now that you only have one cup to fill, it fills up pretty quickly, right? And once it’s filled, you can move onto the next cup, then the next, and so on and so forth. Before you know it, you’ve filled up many cups very quickly.

You may have also heard the story of Warren Buffett’s pilot, who asked Buffett the secret to his success. Buffett told the pilot to write down his top 25 goals in life. After writing them down, Buffett told the pilot to circle his top five, and that everything else on the list should be avoided at all costs because those goals will only distract him from ever accomplishing the top five. 

Whether the story is true or not, the moral still applies. 

If you have 25 goals, it’s unlikely you’ll accomplish all of them. But if you choose your most important 5, you’ll have a greater chance of success. And of course, those other 20 goals could easily get in the way of your progress with the top 5, so it’s actually to your benefit to avoid working on them. 

This is the power of doing only one thing at a time: it makes your chance of success much greater, and you’ll get to enjoy that success sooner. 

However, it’s important not to get sucked too far down the rabbit hole of doing just one thing at a time. 

Keller writes that:

“Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls — family, health, friends, integrity — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”

Obviously, things like family, health, friends, and integrity are extremely important aspects of anyone’s life. If we choose to only focus on one thing, these other major facets would crumble and ultimately, we would become miserable. 

In other words, you can’t let absolutely everything in your life fall to the wayside in pursuit of your “one thing.” But you should carefully examine each of your pursuits in your life and ask yourself how important they really are. 

So, what’s the best way to focus on doing only one thing? Keller recommends creating a “Success List.” He explains it like this: 

“Long hours spent checking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success. Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.

To-do lists tend to be long; success lists are short. One pulls you in all directions; the other aims you in a specific direction. One is a disorganized directory and the other is an organized directive. If a list isn’t built around success, then that’s not where it takes you. If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.”

A success list is built by finding out what your values really are. You can try the exercise Buffett’s pilot used, or you could just think of what would really constitute success in your mind. This list should be extremely short. Once you have it, it will give you immense clarity when it comes to designing your day, your week, and your life. 

By allocating your energy intentionally, you’ll stop getting pulled in a million different directions, and start making progress towards the life you desire. 

As Keller writes:

“Achievers operate differently. They have an eye for the essential. They pause just long enough to decide what matters and then allow what matters to drive their day. Achievers do sooner what others plan to do later and defer, perhaps indefinitely, what others do sooner. The difference isn’t in intent, but in right of way. Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.”

Prioritize your “one thing” and eliminate the rest from your life. The result may just surprise you. And the power of the “one thing” will help you achieve your goals faster than you could have ever expected.


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