The One Thing Philosophy: A Guide to Improve Your Focus

William Meller - The One Thing Philosophy
How The One Thing Philosophy can help you to concentrate on the right things, improve your focus and really get things done at the end of the day.

I read the book The One Thing about four years ago.

Authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan reveal in this book that successful people start small.

They don't try to do everything at once but instead concentrate their attention and energy on the one activity that will yield the greatest reward.

Successful people do not focus on all that they could do.

They concentrate on what they should do!

I began to consider how the philosophy of focusing on just one thing and ensuring that "the one thing" was not interrupted or blocked by any distractions was affecting my own life.

A success list, according to the authors of this book, is essentially Pareto's Principle on steroids. Use the Pareto Principle. Take the 20% and apply Pareto once more. Repeat. Repeat until only 'One Thing' remains on your list.

Once you've shortened the list down, the task that remains is the one you should be working on.

I recall being intrigued to realize that my entire routine was based on interrupting an important activity due to a conversation, a noise, a notification, or any other problem around me.

But how did I see it?

It was a Sunday afternoon, and the orange sunbeams were already fading in the distance. The dim lighting indicated my commitment to myself to write the week's article in the next 120 minutes.

A writing routine and environment that had been a part of my ritual for some time during that period of my life.

But, as the weeks passed, the more difficult it seemed to keep the simplicity of that moment and focus on bringing letters to life on the blank page in front of me.

Nonsense tactics were employed, including turning off the internet router to avoid any potential distractions or temptations. But I didn't have the cognitive capacity to focus solely on one activity, and my anxious brain was looking for a quick, brief distraction.

It's time to break some bad habits.

While attempting to identify my own flaws in this process and identify what could be improved, I discovered that the reality was even worse than I had imagined.

I had to expend enormous force to focus on just one activity because what was rooted in my brain was not a concentration path, but a distraction path.

A slightly different-colored bird flying overhead was enough to funnel my attention away from what I was doing and cause me to think about unimportant things.

I used the bird as an example, but there were hundreds of other activities that I noticed (and documented) during that focus day when I was just looking for problems.

There was a time when I was upset with myself. At the time, I remembered a note from Dan Harris's book 10% Happier, in which the author discusses his journey to learn more about the pleasures and benefits of meditation.

Dan describes how he began meditating by sitting comfortably without crossing his legs. He only needed a comfortable seat and position.

However, it was nearly impossible to focus solely on breathing when attempting to practice meditation.

It was as if the brain hadn't prepared for it!

In the book, the author suggests that whenever your attention wanders, forgive yourself and gently return to the breath. It is not necessary to clear your mind of all thoughts; this is actually impossible.

The game is to bring your mind back when it wanders away and then return it to your breath as many times as you need to.

Despite its apparent simplicity, the author admits that meditating "was like trying to hold a fish" at first, as fighting with the mind until mastering it required a lot of determination.

As I tried to summarize my notes on this book, I realized that what I was trying to accomplish by focusing on just one thing at a time was essentially the same as learning to meditate.

I tried to get my brain and its crazy thoughts to focus on one thing, but it was gone in a few seconds into endless tunnels of overthinking.

I quickly realized that this would not be a simple journey.

Changing a habit as strong and ingrained in us as simply concentrating is excruciatingly painful.

Do you understand the habit loop? We discuss it briefly in this post, but in summary, it is as follows:

In our brains, the habit loop consists of three stages: cue, routine, and reward.

Everything starts with the cue, which is the stimulus that causes the brain to go into autopilot and indicates the habit that should always be used (brushing your teeth, for example).

This leads to routine, which is how we complete our tasks, whether they are physical, cognitive, or emotional.

All of this is done in the pursuit of a reward, which helps the brain decide whether or not to keep this loop running in the future.

Changing a habit necessitates training and commitment, which is the most important factor in an individual's success. It will take some time! At the very least, 100 days, as I always say, and commit myself!

It's similar to exercising your arm and leg muscles; it takes a lot of determination and effort to make this a regular part of your life.

It's like going to the gym for the first time after not exercising for a long time, but without an instructor or trainer to guide you.

The muscle (in this case, the brain) is very stubborn and does not assist us at first.

He knows that the dopamine he needs is only a click away on social media, so he keeps trying to get our minds by setting up various traps.

But I was determined to change my circumstances.

Then I realized I'd be fighting this stubborn brain for a long time.

I was also familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, which was developed in 1988 by the Italian Francisco Cirillo. It is a time management method that can be applied to a variety of tasks, whether in school or at work.

The technique was developed in order to use time as a valuable ally in order to accomplish what we want to do and how we want to do it.

The Pomodoro method is straightforward and takes two hours. First, you engage in a 25-minute activity. Rest for 5 minutes after the timer goes off. And so on until the two hours are up. You rest for another 30 minutes as a reward.

I also had good personal organization, with a self-management system that always kept me aware of the next activity to be completed and all necessary information well organized.

That wasn't the issue. I had a plan. The system was functional. And I had trust in the system.

The issue was very specific: what happened between selecting the next activity to do (starting or not starting a timer) and completing that activity.

As I became more determined to change this reality, I began to keep a 10-minute timer (not exactly following the Pomodoro) on my phone and marked a small mark with a pen on the paper every time I deviated from that activity, no matter how minor.

With so many marks on that piece of paper at the end of the day, I was wondering if I would need to buy a new pen.

But I had a clear starting point now because I knew what an improvement meant the next day: another paper with fewer pen marks at the end of the day.

If it cannot be measured, it cannot be managed” — Peter Drucker.

And I was able to measure and manage it at the moment!

It took a few months, not a few days or weeks, for me to see some progress and begin to be proud of it.

More than the progress itself, I was feeling really good because all of the improvement movement centered on The One Thing Philosophy, which had now been incorporated into my self-management system, had given me a very high level of self-awareness and a strong sense that I was improving my own mental model and brain path.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention that this process is continuously improving for me.

But it is now a part of my continuous improvement lifecycle, an important component of my self-management system that we will discuss further in future articles.

This process taught me that our energy level controls our concentration, which means that how you feel mentally and physically affects your performance.


William Meller - Procrastinating
Illustration by @junhanchin



Do you want a few examples of things that could be draining your energy and you're not even aware of it?


1. A poor diet or improper nutrition
2. Not drinking enough water each day
3. Poor quality or insufficient sleep 
4. Addictions (cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, etc.)
5. Negativity

At this point in my attempt to follow The One Thing, I do something very simple.

I set a 10 to 15-minute timer on my watch or phone and stick to my strategy of focusing solely on that activity at that time.

The habit loop eventually worked for me because my brain realized there was a reward (the pause between one activity and another, sometimes even with a coffee, tea, or chimarrão).

This philosophy enables us to focus intensely and try to assert complete control over ourselves.

Changing how your brain reacts to distractions affects everything you do because it alters how your brain is supposed to work in the face of problems and challenges.

Of course, as a result, you will accomplish more (and more important) tasks at the end of the day.

If you devote just 30 minutes of your day to reading a book and manage to make those 30 minutes count with full commitment to reading, not only will your reading level improve significantly, allowing you to read more, but it will also significantly increase your retention and the quality of your reading.

I apply this philosophy to all of my little daily habits just as much as I do to professional or personal tasks.


Is there ever a time when multitasking is advantageous?


That is an excellent question!

There are some tasks that require focus and concentration that cannot be completed concurrently with other tasks that require focus or creativity.

It's impossible, for example, to listen to a podcast while writing!

However, you can listen to a podcast while running, walking, driving, or cleaning the house.

What is important here, and what I'd like to emphasize, is that simply reflecting on what I want (purpose) from this activity has changed my routine recently.

What exactly do I mean?

Sometimes I go for a run in the park to brainstorm ideas for my next article, clear my mind, or simply distract myself from a problem.

If I put on a podcast and sometimes even music, I couldn't take my mind off the work of consuming information, and thus, I do not achieve my goal of relaxing my mind or thinking about the idea for the next article.

I require silence if my running goal is to generate ideas or clear my mind. If that isn't the case, a podcast or music will come in handy as a multitasking tool throughout the race.


How can you always know what the next task is?


This is one of the most important questions to begin answering as you work to improve your organization and develop your self-management system.

If you read the previous article about finding time to do things, you know how important it is to have a system that allows you to get organized and always know what the next task is.

We'll go over the task control system in greater detail in future articles, but the process is very simple and can be completed right now with your smartphone or a piece of paper and pen.

I'm referring to the well-known ToDo list!

Make a simple list of the tasks that must be completed for the day. However, list everything! Totally everything! Put it on the list if you need to do laundry!

Why? Because you need to practice both the process of getting things out of your head and the process of marking tasks as completed. Only with this complete flow will you be able to form a new habit, using the cue, routine, and compensatory strategies discussed earlier in this article.


Starting the One Thing philosophy in 7 easy steps


1. Always be aware of your next task - ALWAYS!

2. Schedule time to focus on the next task.

3. Remove all audio and visual distractions from your environment.

4. Set a timer.

5. If the activity has not been completed by the end of the time limit, take a 5-minute break. 

6. Return to full concentration and restart the timer.

7. At the end of the activity, take a few minutes to reflect on the distractions you encountered and how to avoid them in the future.

Are there any apps or gadgets that can assist you?

On the free list, a simple Trello board and a phone timer will assist you in determining your next task (Trello could also have the Pomodoro timer there).

Nothing else is required.

As I previously stated, a simple piece of paper and a timer will solve your problem.

With this article, I intended to assist you.

Finally, I'd like to invite you to participate in this challenge and help others change their habits.

Making a habit change is difficult, and when we have the support of others, our motivation increases significantly.

Furthermore, when we try to do this with someone else, we create a nice sense of responsibility to not fail.

This change will significantly improve your life!

See you next time, to continue our discussion about the self-management system.

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