The power of focus: Why you should tackle one goal at a time

The power of focus: Why you should tackle one goal at a time

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.)

[Weight Loss Progress]

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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Shara G.
Shara G.
3 years ago

“One thing” sounds lovely. But I don’t think I could do it for 5 minutes (an exaggeration…kinda). Sometimes life is less like writing the alphabet and more like cooking dinner: you have to get 3 or 4 things completed at the same time or close to it, and you don’t have an option of doing them in series. Sometimes you have to stir with one hand while flipping with the other then immediately check the oven or something is going to burn. I agree that the idea that intentionally doing three things at once is somehow more efficient is silly.… Read more »

Kenneth F LaVoie
Kenneth F LaVoie
1 year ago
Reply to  Shara G.

My battle with the same notion. I want to practice music more, make some personality changes, change a couple of habits and cetera. What I try to do is focus on only one big thing at a time. So right now practice around an hour a day musically, study Spanish everyday, and a few other little things but my main goal this year is to change a certain personality trait. That’s the only one that counts. I think the key is differentiating between target “one thing’ type goals to work on, and everyday good habits. The semantics can be confusing… Read more »

Shara G.
Shara G.
1 year ago

I guess my point is that between work, home, and personal commit mental focusing on “one thing” is next to impossible. Things were, and will be, different when I didnt have kids in the house. But there are plenty of stages of life that necessitate “multi-tasking” at both a micro and macro level.

Eliza
Eliza
3 years ago

I’ve recently come to this conclusion as well when I realised how many roles I had taken on. When I focus on one thing, it gets done and crucially if it’s a habit change then it usually sticks as well. If I try to hit a number of goals at the same time, I end up worn out from constantly trying to correct what I’m doing or worse yet, needing to decide what the most important action to take in any given moment. Right now, my priority is my blog. I have a set time each day to work on… Read more »

Matt @ Optimize Your Life
Matt @ Optimize Your Life
3 years ago

I recently wrote about the myth of multitasking and the importance of focusing on one task at a time for productivity. And that’s important. But I think the most overlooked takeaway from this article is prioritizing one goal at a time. This is huge. I can be as productive as I want, but if I am trying to balance too many large goals at once I will only be productive at completing tasks rather than reaching my big picture goals.

This is something that I struggle with and need to keep working on. Thanks for the reminder!

Freedom 40 Plan
Freedom 40 Plan
3 years ago

I very much agree on the importance of setting small goals that are attainable. A while back I implemented a little something I like to call the “pay check challenge”. Because of the short time frame (15 days) – it helps to keep me very focused on one or two specific things during that period. If I decided to carry something over that’s fine, but I often find I don’t need to because I’ve created a new habit or made solid progress within the initial time period.

Lisa
Lisa
3 years ago

I’ve always struggled with setting too many goals. Instead, we are now focusing on one thing – getting out of debt. Now that we’ve set that as our big over-arching goal, everything else seems to fall into place.

Fire_at_45
Fire_at_45
3 years ago

I think that’s awesome that you focused on one month of dating as a goal and ‘hit’ it big. I’ve done this strategy as well, unfortunately without finding the one. I saw a presentation by a keynote speaker on multitasking. Essentially, it’s not possible. End of story. Women aren’t better than men. We all suck at it. Period. I once pursued golf right after my divorce with a fervent determination. I practiced meticulously with an online coach. I improved but I did not reach my goal and 3 years later (yes, I’m a slow learner) I finally gave up my… Read more »

Denise
Denise
3 years ago

Focusing can be a tough one..definitely struggle with that one here! Mom with kids in school now..it’s hard to have a routine without the kids in the house. I also find it hard to stay motivated with goals..always falling off track and I am a huge procrastinator. I have focused on one goal at a time and have been successful..just gotta keep up with it..thanks for the insightful read! Cheers

Girt
Girt
1 year ago
Reply to  Denise

Yes I think that looking after my kids is the one goal ….. taking up a good 15 years of attention so far. My focus rotates between the essential needs of each chikd, myself and the house. Still trying to find the mental space to prioritise my own fitness and fun.

Jason W.
Jason W.
1 year ago

And the follow-up post will be on how to determine what the next one thing should be??? 🙂 The Pareto principle is great; I’ve streamlined and automated my finances, focus on health and wellness, and work to maintain and enhance positive relationships with those around me. Great! But that could easily lead to “drift”; you’re following a script for general success without going all-in to one specific aspect of your life. Great article, appreciate the push to determine the next most important thing to focus on.

Joe
Joe
1 year ago

One or two major goals per year sound about right.
I have a checklist, but most of them are sub-goals. The overriding goals are pretty much the same from year to year. Get healthier and improve financially.
The hard part is you have to maintain it once you get there. Losing weight for example. It’s hard to lose weight, but really difficult to maintain once you get there. Good luck with the redesign. That’s always on the back burner for me…

dh
dh
1 year ago

I think one of the keys here, and you don’t really learn this until you’re older, is there are only a few things in life even *worth* focusing on. Here are some examples: A) Being happy. This is achieved by some form of meditation (by not thinking so much). B) Health. This means walking some everyday and eating the right things: real food, mostly plants, not too much. Try everyday to *mostly* build your diet around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds — then mix in a few good animal products like wild fish, eggs, and yogurt, and… Read more »

olga
olga
1 year ago

As a rule, it’s a very smart thing. You definitely achieve better results with single-focused mind. Figuring out what IS number 1, when you have a few items on a list seemingly equal in importance is one of the obstacles. Having a number of pressuring priorities. Or, picking one and focusing so much, that some other get neglected (while being considered not #1 for the time period), which could sometimes lead to a bad consequence. Also, another reason people may not want to focus on 1 goal – a much bigger fear of failure. When you juggle a 3-4 things… Read more »

Debbie
Debbie
1 year ago

Over nine years ago I starting picking Word of the Year and a random word will just resonant with me . My first year it was “Me” which lead to changes at work, my realizing just how unhappy I was in my marriage and near the end of the year I was happily divorced. Another year I picked “Adventure”. This year is “Fun”. The words never pan out over the year as I think they will but they always improve my life. The “Growth” year lead to opportunities for two brief speaking in front of 100+ people with microphone and… Read more »

Kim @ The Frugal Engineers
Kim @ The Frugal Engineers
1 year ago

It is so tempting to try to do everything all at once, I’m starting to wonder if I’ve got some ADD tendencies lately. With moving to a new town, blogging, still working my freelance job, getting a kid ready for first grade, exercising… it’s easy to get pulled into a hundred directions every day. One thing I started doing is on my to-do list for the day, I only write three things. I can’t add ANYTHING else to it until those three things are done. Sure, everything takes longer, but it also all gets done shortly after I decide to… Read more »

Sandy
Sandy
1 year ago

I agree with the ‘one thing at a time’ philosophy. It’s good to relax and figure out what’s most important at specific stages of life. I spent a lot of time figuring out our dire financial situation in 2007 and how to do things differently so that was a singular focus for a very very long time. However, some things just aren’t worth the massive commitment of time/money/energy and for me, because I tried it, flipping real estate and/or managing tenants is a PITA. Now that all the kids have graduated college, I am looking at life a little differently… Read more »

Buyside Hustle
Buyside Hustle
1 year ago

Completely agree with your points. It especially applies to those who are trying to get a job in a career they want to break into. I come from a finance background and I have seen many people spread themselves too thin by going after too many different types of job opportunities. In college, there were people who tried to go after both banking and consulting. Most of these people did not end up getting a job in either field because they did not prepare well for those interviews. Focus is the number one key to success. It is how you… Read more »

Sikay
Sikay
1 year ago

Overall, good advice. However, aren’t those plans too drifting? Maybe it’s because the ultimate mission, “personal growth,” sounds a bit vague.

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