I used to be the sort of guy who loved to have a list of goals. At least once a year — usually around New Year — I’d sit down and make a list of all the things that were wrong with me, all of the things I wanted to change.
In 2007, for instance, I made a list of 101 things I wanted to accomplish in 1001 days. (It took me longer than three years to finish that list, by the way. In fact, I still haven’t done everything on it because my priorities have changed. But now, ten years later, I see that I have completed nearly all of the ones that still matter.)
Eventually I realized that making a long lists of resolutions is a sure path to disappointment — at least for me. There’s a reason you see newspaper and TV stories every spring about how most people aren’t able to maintain the resolutions they set at the first of the year. It’s because most of us try to do too much. (And, I think, because we try to set goals that aren’t truly aligned with our primary purpose in life.)
Nowadays, I do something different, something that’s actually proven to be successful. Instead of trying to change many things at once, I’ve learned to change only one thing at a time.
One Thing at a Time
In 2010, for instance, I focused on fitness. In fact, I dubbed 2010 “The Year of Fitness”. My aim was to lose fifty pounds. Every decision I made, I made with that goal in mind. You know what? It worked. Though I didn’t lose fifty pounds that year, I did lose forty. (And I lost the final ten by the middle of 2011.)
I was able to do this because for the entire year, my only goal was to get in shape. I was focused. Nothing else mattered. I didn’t have any other big goals clouding my view or competing for my attention. I set one goal, and I worked hard to meet it.
In 2011, my one goal was to learn Spanish. And I did it. Three times a week, I paid a Spanish tutor for ninety minutes of personal instruction. In my spare time, I watched Spanish movies and listend to Spanish music. I read Spanish books. I consumed Spanish podcasts. Within a year, I’d achieved reasonable fluency in the language. I could carry on converstations in South America, and I could read Spanish-language novels. (Though not all Spanish-language novels.)
In 2012, I tried something a little different. Instead of one big goal for the year, I chose to work on one goal each month. Some examples:
- In March, I had lunch or dinner with a different friend every day. This let me reconnect with people I’d been missing.
- In April, I embarked upon my Extreme Dating Project. I’d just been divorced, and my goal was to meet as many women as possible. (April was a fun month! And it led to my current relationship with Kim.)
- Next, my goal became to make it to the gym every day in May. I didn’t quite succeed — I only worked out 28 out of 31 days — but I came close.
- My next goal was “no junk in June”. I focused on my diet, which helped me lose five pounds and two percent body fat.
Sometimes I spend a year on any given goal. Sometimes, I spend a month. And sometimes I spend even longer! After Kim and I decided we wanted to take an RV trip across the United States, for instance, I spent the next eighteen months devoted to that project.
During the first part of 2015, we shopped for and purchased a motorhome, then prepped it for life on the road. We left Portland on 25 March 2015 and spent the next six months exploring the U.S. We paused for six months in Savannah, Georgia, before beginning our homeward journey this time last year. On 29 June 2016, we made it back to Portland. We had a blast — because for those eighteen months, we were committed to one thing and one thing only.
You get the idea. At any given time, I’m concerned with only one major goal.
One Problem, One Correction
My friend (and personal trainer) Cody espouses the “one thing at a time” philosophy when he works with clients at his gym. Here’s how he describes his approach:
One of the teaching skills that is developed in good coaches is the concept of “one fault, one correction”. The idea is to take the most important correction needed and just focus on that one thing. Attack it from different angles if needed, but be tenacious on correcting the biggest fault only. Once that has been achieved, the Coach and Athlete can move on to the next biggest fault, then the next and so on, in a never-ending journey toward excellence.
Cody says that by focusing on one thing at a time, you can:
- Obtain greater focus. When you try to correct more than one thing at once, it’s easy to become distracted. You can’t do any one thing well because you’re trying to do many things poorly. But if you concentrate on a single goal, you’re able to obtain a laser-like focus that better helps you achieve that objective.
- Reduce stress. If tackle too much at once, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. It seems like you’ll never get it all done. When you focus on one thing at a time, you know that’s the only thing you have to worry about. This relieves a lot of pressure.
- Build confidence. “Honing in on one challenge and overcoming it can give you a tremendous feeling of success,” Cody says. This boosts your belief that you can overcome other obstacles. When you kick ass on your first goal, you know you can kick ass on the next one.
Cody puts this philosophy into practice every day in the gym. He uses it when coaching me on squats, for example. When I started at his gym, my form was awful. I couldn’t do an actual squat — not even without weight. By correcting one thing at a time, I made great progress. (At my peak, I could backsquat 245 pounds, which was 150% of my body weight!)
The myth of multitasking and the magic of single-tasking are well known. Study after study after study has demonstrated that when we try to do more than one thing at once, quality and quantity both suffer. It’s much better to finish one thing before tackling a second. (Did you know that those who claim they’re best at multi-tasking are actually worst? It’s true!)
Exercise: Here’s one of my favorite demonstrations of how multitasking hinders rather than helps. Grab a pen, a piece of paper, and a stopwatch. First, time yourself as you write the alphabet from A to Z followed by the numbers 1 to 26. Next, time yourself as you alternate between writing the letters and numbers, putting them each in their respective columns (or rows): “A 1 B 2 C 3”. When I tried this just now, it took me 30.49 seconds to complete the first pass (with no errors). It took me 43.57 seconds to complete the second pass (with one error — I wrote F instead of 5.)
In his book The ONE Thing, entrepreneur Gary Keller advocates relentless focus on a single goal at a time. Specifically, he recommends asking yourself this question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
Keller writes, “Extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus…You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.”
The Bottom Line
I’ve been using the “one thing at a time” approach for more than seven years now. It’s made me happier and more productive. And it’s because of this success that I’ve become such a huge advocate for creating a personal mission statement. When you have a single over-arching purpose, it’s so much easier to prioritize the other things in your life.
But I want to point out that I’m not advocating slavish devotion to your one goal. Not at all. While you’re pursuing fitness or learning Spanish or traveling the country in an RV, there’s still time to work on other areas of your life. And you should constantly strive toward holistic personal growth.
What I’m advocating is choosing one thing that takes priority over all other things, and then sticking to that until you meet your objective. If your aim is to achieve a certain weight or — better yet — to develop a fitness routine, then make sure that is the one thing that never gets pushed aside for other priorities.
Also note that the one thing that’s most important to you this year or this month or this week might be different from your personal mission. Or it might be some small subset of that larger goal. My personal mission is all about personal growth and exploration. But this month, my primary aim is to reduce my alcohol consumption. My aim for next month is to — finally! — complete the Get Rich Slowly redesign.
Lastly, I should note that although I’ve found this strategy effective and I’m writing an entire article advocating it to you, the reader, I still sometimes forget to use it.
One reason I suffered from anxiety this spring is that I had forgotten my own advice to tackle one major goal at a time. I was trying to do too much. My therapist helped me to see that I had unrealistic expectations for myself and that I needed to dial back my ambition.
“Oh yeah,” I thought. “One thing at a time. I need to focus on one thing at a time.” So I am.
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