May 072013

When it comes to achieving goals, there is a great deal to be said for single-mindedness. Having just one priority, to which everything else is subordinated, is an efficient and effective way to accomplish whatever it is. But it’s not always practical and, in any case, we may not have a single objective that eclipses all others. I feel this issue goes to the heart of not only productivity but also fulfilment and is therefore worth examining.

It may be that you have several priorities at the same level of urgency and importance. Choosing to move forward in a variety of areas at the same time is a perfectly valid approach, which can be just as successful as the single-minded one, though it will produce a slightly different result. As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing and have adjusted your expectations accordingly, all is rosy. For example, if you’ve decided that this year you’re going to learn to play the saxophone, speak Portuguese and build websites, the odds are you won’t get as good at any of them as you would if you concentrated on only one of these skills. However, by pursuing all three at once, you’ll end the year with a grounding in all of them. There is no right or wrong to this; there are pros and cons to both broad-but-shallow and narrow-but-deep. All that matters is that you’re realistic in your expectations and don’t set yourself up for disappointment.

The main advantage of single-mindedness is that it carries a big and satisfying pay-off. The other huge benefit is that focusing our energy and resources along one channel keeps leakage to a minimum. I see this a bit like filling a bucket with water from a hose: point the hose into one bucket and it fills up quickly and efficiently. Try filling three buckets at the same time and inevitably some water is lost as you swing the hose from one to the other.

For me, the difficulty with juggling too many priorities is that I waste a lot of time deciding which one to pursue at any given moment, rather actually achieving anything. And, to exacerbate the problem, into this gap in my productivity rush all sorts of procrastinatory activities, such as checking my email, having a look on Facebook, wondering if I ought to clean the oven…

The solution, I suggest, for those of us who don’t have a single, overriding objective, is to allocate a period of time to each activity – a week or a month where that goal takes precedence and the others are left on hold until their turn comes. This way, the level in one bucket rises significantly before the hose moves away and far less water goes over the side.

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