Whenever I go for a walk, ideas flood into my mind. I don’t know whether it’s the physical exercise or the fact that I have time to think, whatever it is, the ideas just flow.
I acknowledge these ideas and promise myself I will act upon them when I get back. The only problem is, I rarely do.
This is not for want of trying, I want to implement as many of the ideas as I can. No, the reason is simpler than that. Trying to execute several ideas at once is tough.
I just don’t have enough time in the day to write articles, read 100 pages of a book, exercise for an hour, cook all my meals and take the time to execute all the ideas that race through my mind.
If I could buy more hours in the day, I would. Unfortunately, I’m stuck with the 24 hours currently on offer. As we all are.
What I’ve realised recently is that if you want to get better at something, you need to focus on it, otherwise, you’re likely to fail. Stretching yourself out and trying to accomplish too much at once, just leads you to crash and burn.
It may seem counter-intuitive in a world where startups are told to “move fast and break things”, but taking your time and focusing on singular issues can be more beneficial in the long run.
One by one
Seneca was a Stoic philosopher and advisor to the emperor Nero. He was also a prolific writer of letters. Many of which were sent to his friend, Lucilius, who was the procurator of Sicily.
Since Seneca was often based in Rome and other parts of the Roman Empire, you might think he would pack as much information as he could into his letters.
Well, you’d be wrong.
They were mostly about one subject. You can read these letters for yourself, and learn from the wisdom imparted to his friends, in the fantastic book, Letters From a Stoic.
These letters dealt with a variety of topics from anxiety, fear, temptation and self-discipline. By focusing on one subject, Seneca was able to offer a clear solution to whatever was plaguing his friend, Lucilius.
Had he wrote longer letters in which he discussed multiple topics, the message may have become lost among a sea of words. The power of this is profound. By focusing on one thing intensely, it’s easier to take effective and progress. It becomes easier to improve. It becomes easier to focus on the issue.
When we try and expand our range and tackle multiple issues at once, our focus decreases and we struggle to make headway. When this happens, it’s easy to become frustrated and give up.
We can only devote so much attention to the myriad issues that make up our lives at any one time. I may want to write a book, write articles and set up a website, but if I try and accomplish each of these things every day, I will soon fail.
My attention can only stretch so far and my ability to carry out the tasks to the best of my ability diminishes the more challenges I take on. This isn’t to say that I should give up some tasks and focus on one. On the contrary, I should continue with all of them.
What we should change is the way we approach the tasks. Instead of going in all guns blazing, we need to step back and take things at a more incremental pace. One step at a time.
1% every day
Most of us have a flawed view of success. We tend to think of success as a singular grand event, something that happens overnight. The reality is not as romantic as we’d like to think.
Success often comes from improving at a small rate every day. The British Track Cycling team were renowned for this approach. They referred to it as marginal gains. They made little adjustments such as adjusting the height of a rider’s seat, or the skinsuit they used.
These changes might seem inconsequential, but over time, these changes compounded. The difference from the starting point to the endpoint was significant and allowed them to become the dominant force in track cycling. This is how you should approach self-improvement.
By using this method, you don’t burn yourself out, you give yourself time to adapt, make mistakes and get better. If you write one article every day, by the time your 365th day comes around, your writing should have noticeably improved.
Consistent, deliberate practice reaps huge benefits. Adopting this approach allows you to spread out the work if you have multiple goals too. You can read a certain amount of pages each day, write a certain number of words each day and improve your exercise and nutrition bit by bit.
Or, you focus on one thing for a week and then shift to another the next. It’s a much more flexible approach that can last the test of time while bringing results.
The key is to tackle one issue every day. If you’re doing this, you’re on track to see big gains three, six, or twelve months down the line.
Much like Seneca’s letters almost always focused on a single topic, by focusing our energy on one endeavour, we give ourselves a much greater chance of success.
It’s tempting to jump in and go for hell for leather to see success but, often the right approach is to take things one step at a time. Day by day, those improvements add up, until you look back and realise how much better you’ve become.