The Simplest Way to Do More? Do Less

I’ve always been a planner.

When I was a kid, I would make these little checklists with arbitrary things on them like “Play outside”, “Ask mom for cookies” and even "Go to the bathroom”.

As I got older, the things got bigger. I started having real responsibilities. I started setting goals.

Now my life is more complicated. I just don’t have as much time to focus on the little things. Sometimes it feels like I am drowning in little things.

We all want to be more productive, but most of us are too overwhelmed and distracted to ever build enough momentum.

I got a question on Twitter last week. One of my readers, @JennyQ, asked: "Is it possible to have multiple goals simultaneously or does that dilute goals?”.

Her question got me thinking: I know multitasking is bad. Could the same be true of goals? Is there such a thing as multigoaling?

The short answer is yes.

Now, I want to be careful here. This is true for me, but it might not be true for you. I am always learning and evolving so my perspective on this could change in the future.

With that said, I've created a technique that has been working wonders for me recently. It's called the "One Thing" approach and I think you’ll really like it. Let’s dive in.

How "One Thing" Works

The most important tenant of productivity is doing one thing at a time in focused, uninterrupted chunks. The "One Thing" approach takes this and puts it on a broader time scale. I developed this system after reading posts by Tim FerrisLeo Babauta and Scott H Young.

First, let’s define our terms:

MIT: Most Important Task - This is the one thing that you must achieve during the day. It is chosen the night before. Ask yourself: If this were the only task that I got done tomorrow, would I be proud of my day?
MIG: Most Important Goal - This is the one thing that you must achieve during the month. It is chosen the day before. Ask yourself: If this were the only goal that I achieved next month, would I be proud of my month?

Obviously you can be working simultaneously on many areas of your life, but the idea here is to only focus on one of them at a time.

Here is what the approach looks like on a macro scale:

Year: Brainstorm 3-5 important goals
Month: Choose one MIG, do it
Week: Brainstorm 3-5 important tasks
Day: Choose one MIT

Once you have chosen a goal or task, start on it right away. Do your MIG at the beginning of the month. Do your MIT first thing in the morning.

But wait, doesn’t choosing one thing limit you?

Not at all. On the contrary, I’ve gotten more done with this simple system then I ever did with more complex ones.

Why “One Thing” Works

To understand why this approach is so effective, you first need to understand the two biggest barriers to productivity: overwhelm and distraction.

Overwhelm — This is the motivation killer. I’ve talked before about the importance of breaking goals down into small chunks. “One Thing” works in a similar way. When you force yourself to narrow down, you actually end up getting more done.

This may seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense from a psychological perspective. Having a to-do list of ten things is stressful. When you set the bar low with one thing, it makes it easier to start (and starting really is the hardest part).

Motivation is our scarcest resource. Having too many things to deal with creates inertia and motivation declines. But if you get your one big thing done for the day or month, it builds momentum and motivation flourishes.

Distraction — You are bombarded with so many things every day that it is a huge challenge not to get torn apart by distraction. You have to be like the Bruce Lee of productivity just to survive. You need to learn to focus.

When you choose a task or goal as though it is the only thing you will achieve, it forces you to be ruthless with your focus. You start prioritizing better and you stop creatively avoiding. Suddenly, you are actually getting the important stuff done.

It’s always better to get one crucial thing done than ten arbitrary things. Leo Babauta talks about identifying big rocks, the things in your life that you won’t compromise. What are your big rocks? Once you figure them out, it is easier to let sand (the small things) form around them.

When “One Thing” Works

I want to be clear: This approach only works when you implement it the right way. Let me explain...

“One Thing” is meant to build on itself overtime and become "Many Things”. Even though we are focusing on one task or goal at a time, they are always kept as part of a broader framework. We are ultimately working towards a strong and balanced life in many areas, not just one.

The key is putting as much as possible on autopilot. You do this by creating habits. It generally takes at least 30 days to form a new habit (maybe more), so a month is the minimum amount of time you should spend.

Can we pursue multiple goals? Sure. But habits need to be formed one at a time.

If you don’t create daily habits, routines, and rituals, then it will be hard to make long-term progress. You will shift your focus to a new area and see backward movement on your old goals. That’s not what we want.

Here’s an example of what an effective "One Thing” approach might look like:

Year: At the start of the year, you set a number of goals - let’s say losing weight, moving to a new city, and starting a blog.
Month: In January, you decide that your MIG right now is starting a blog. In order to do that, you will need to post content regularly. You commit to setting aside 90 minutes every morning to write, and mark this off on your calendar.
Week: Each week, you continue developing a habit of writing. You also choose some important tasks that will help move the blog, or any other area of your life, forward.
Day: On Monday, you choose your MIT for the day. Maybe that is choosing a name for your blog. You put this task on your “To Do" list and make sure to tackle it before any others (but after your creative writing time).

The rest of the time, you can take care of all the other parts of your life that require attention.

By the end of the month you will have established a writing habit and made massive progress on your blog. Come February, you can choose a new focus if you would like, while still maintaining your blog momentum from the past month. Eventually, you will see your life improve dramatically.

The “One Thing” approach can feel like magic. Give it a shot and see if it works for you.

When we try to accomplish everything, we usually end up accomplishing nothing. Often, the tasks and goals that scare us most are the things that we really need to focus on. Embrace the fear and start doing work that matters.

What is the “One Thing” that you can’t afford NOT to do right now?

(Photo credit: jacqueminv via cc)

Greg Faxon

Greg Faxon, 2829 Connecticut Avenue NW (Apt 513), Washington, DC 20008, United States