The Case for Focusing on One Thing at a Time

Toby Hazlewood

Multi-tasking often means doing lots of things badly, at the same time

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Dart Hitting the BullseyePhoto by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” - Stephen R. Covey

Stephen R. Covey nailed it with this quote, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a laser-sharp focus on what’s most important in life. Often when I’m feeling overwhelmed and struggling it’s because I’m too concerned with keeping all the plates spinning. I’m worrying about the bigger picture and am more pre-occupied by the things that I’m not doing, rather than focused on those that I am.

When my attention drifts from one thing to the next and I can’t concentrate or make progress, it’s usually because I’m distracted and my efforts are spread too thinly. I’m blinded by mental-haze, distracted by FOMO and paralyzed by analysis of the various tasks and options open to me.

The conscious or subconscious division efforts has proven counter-productive - this study even suggests that multi-tasking can be bad for our health. Where I may have hoped to be making progress on multiple fronts, instead I’m going nowhere with any of them. Losing focus on the main thing, the one-thing affects me at the micro-level too.

The curse I carry from years of boasting a heightened ability to multi-task to recruiters and prospective clients alike, has blinded me to the power of focused and deep work. I’ve lost sight of the benefit of focusing in on just one thing at a time, and keeping my overall purpose, my main thing in mind as I do so.

Life has presented ample opportunities to learn the power of focus in a variety of contexts, and somehow it’s taken time for those lessons to gel. I’ve had the opportunity to learn it in my family life, my career, working towards my goals for life and in personal development, and in seeking to better provide for my family. In each case, the realities of life have been laid-out for the learning:

True personal power and effectiveness lays in keeping your main thing in mind, your overall purpose at the fore. The power of a singular focus also applies at the micro level in undertaking tasks one at a time as you progress towards the macro goal.

Do one thing well

Being an effective parent and raising happy, loving and fulfilled kids takes time, a wide-range of skills and the ability to juggle tasks, roles and a relentless stream of demands. As any parent will attest, when you’ve got more than one child to usher along through the process of getting ready for school, it can feel like trying to herd a pack of cats.

One demands breakfast, another is searching for their shoes, the third needs help with homework that should have been done the night before. Trying to tackle each of these things simultaneously is futile, but dealing with each set of demands one at a time is the only way to achieve the desired results.

This only comes about by dividing and conquering at a task-based level. It’s about focusing on one thing at the micro-level. The overall goal of raising kids who are supported, loved but also raised to be independent and take initiative remains the over-arching purpose that shapes their upbringing as these micro-level tasks are completed.

In work, I’ve learned that the conditions in which I best thrive, are when my task-list is groaning and I’ve too much to do. This doesn’t dictate that I should then try and tackle every task simultaneously. Instead, I prioritise each task based on its likely impact and contribution to my overall goals and then tackle them one at a time to make headway. My over-arching purpose is to deliver meaningful work and to build a rewarding career as I do so.

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Fist with Focus written on itPhoto by Chase Clark on Unsplash

The focus on a unifying vision that guides actions is not a revolutionary idea; corporate mission statements attest to the supposed power of a singular focus, wrapped in a statement that encapsulates over-arching purpose or intent. I wonder though if such statements are created as part of a corporate box-ticking activity? I would struggle to recall the corporate mission of any of my past employers and major clients.

What I do remember is the places where I felt productive, appreciated and valued, like I was making a contribution to something bigger than myself. This correlated to working within organisations where everyone else seemed to be oriented to the same greater purpose as I was. The main thing in those organisations was clear and ran through the culture of the businesses and the people who worked for them.

One thing

I recall a particularly memorable moment in one of my favourite childhood movies, City Slickers starring Jack Palance and Billy Crystal. Palance’s character, Curly, the trail-boss leading the hapless band of city-folk on a cattle drive across the rugged west shares something significant with Crystal:

“You know what the secret to life is? One thing. Just one thing. Once you figure it out, you stick to that… everything else don’t mean sh*t” -Jack Palance as Curly in City Slickers
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Jack Palance playing Curly in the movie, City SlickersPhoto from IDBC

The key to a successful life, is in figuring out what your one-thing, your main thing is.

Many identify their personal mission, the one-thing that drives them as the making of more money. This, along with freedom of time and an escape from the shackles of the daily 9-to-5 grind becomes their focus and their fixation. I know this was the case for me.

In the pursuit of this as my one-thing, I immediately felt compelled to explore and execute each and every business model, secret, hack, process, strategy, tactic and activity that I discovered, in a bid to bring about the rewards. I convinced myself that this was the best way of taking massive action, in essence by doing anything and everything possible as the means of bringing about my goal.

The right thing

What emerged is that my one-thing, my main-thing was the wrong-thing.

More money, success and freedom are second-order consequences of the what you do, but not why you do it. They are by-products from actions taken in pursuit of a bigger picture. I was pushing myself to do everything I could, and questioning and doubting myself repeatedly when it wasn’t yielding results.

The reason; I hadn’t taken the time to get clear on my purpose, my why, my one-thing, my main-thing. Even more damaging, by focusing on the voids, the scarcity and the gaps that I perceived in my life, I was cheating myself of the joy from acknowledging how much I already have.

My one-thing now boils down to this (although it evolves!):

To live a simple, happy, fulfilled and rewarding life where I can serve my family, my friends and myself through doing meaningful work, and to live with purpose, gratitude and to make a positive contribution to the lives of others as I do so.
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Man stood next to the seaPhoto by Jim Jackson on Unsplash

Certainly I hope to make money as a result of this and this would contribute to feelings of success in allowing me to better provide for my family. Certainly, more freedom would be good too, but again, such feelings and rewards will only come about as a result of living consistently and congruently with my main-thing.

Interestingly, as I’ve become attuned to this bigger goal, the effects from living in a way that’s aligned to it and the results come more easily. I feel free and unencumbered by the need to achieve my goals. I can recognise with gratitude and completely free of guilt, just how much of it I already have in abundance in my life.

I’ve reached a new and more complete definition of my one-thing, one that comes from the heart and soul and not just from a misguided interpretation of vague terms such as success and freedom.

What you have (and what you are) is good enough

In recent history I’d convinced myself that happiness, success, and fulfilment lay somewhere else, beyond me. They were more, bigger and greater than I already had. My one-thing, my main-thing was defined more out of groundless dreams, crass and stereotyped examples prompted by others’ interpretations. I was distracted from allowing myself to feel the gratitude and appreciation for all that was good in my life, and fixated on what I didn’t have as a prompt for growth.

In City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character is searching for the his one-thing, the answer, the meaning of life. When he returns home at the end of his adventure, he seems to have reached a similar conclusion as I have; every person’s one thing is different. What each person aspires to, and orients their efforts towards is different and unique to them.

What these things have in common is that they will inspire, motivate and drive us towards their achievement and the process of daily life.

This is where the meaning comes from.

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