One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to try to do too much at once. Many things at once tend to add up to nothing. However, there are certain caveats.
In general, I’m a big fan of one thing at a time, or more specifically, one BIG thing at a time.
When I was making and launching YouX2, I didn’t get a whole lot else done.
However, obviously you will rarely be free to just work on one thing for extended periods of time, and often it wouldn’t be desirable anyway.
Some things, like creating a course, are best handled by dedicated, intense bursts of effort that are short- to medium in duration. Others are best handled by steady, incremental work over a longer period.
Less is usually More, but sometimes More is More
How do you know which applies when?
Most of my advice is in the direction of attempting fewer things rather than more, however, there are exceptions, and those can be identified by something I learned from Scott Adams. Most concisely, that thing is
Systems are better than Goals
Specifically, Scott (in his excellent book, How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big which I reviewed here from a slightly different angle) talks a lot about the difference between Systems and Goals.
Approximately, you can think of a goal as a destination to reach, and a system as something that helps you move in a particular direction, not necessarily with a specific destination in mind.
More concretely, a goal might be something like “I want to lose 10 pounds” where a system is “I want a sustainably healthy lifestyle”, or more concretely and usefully, “I want to figure out a diet and exercise routine that is enjoyable and that I can continue indefinitely.”
Systems tend to be better for a whole bunch of reasons. For starters, the benefits of achieving a goal are often very fleeting – the feeling of elation at accomplishing a goal fades very quickly, and the gains represented by achieving that goal may not last.
The best illustration of the last is also a health example – we all know someone (or have been someone) who achieved a goal of weight loss, muscle gain, etc., but then fell off (because the process they used to achieve that goal wasn’t sustainable) and quickly lost their hard-won improvements.
The main advantage of systems is that they are, virtually by definition, sustainable.
They also tend to be less arbitrary than goals, and avoid the emotional roller coaster that goals often entail – which runs the range from feeling let down and directionless if you achieve the goal, to being upset if you don’t.
Now, this is not to say that goals are bad – they are useful and necessary for specific things. In particular,
Goals are useful as waypoints along the direction defined by a System.
For example, when I created my first course, the creation of the course was definitely a goal, but it was a goal in service of an overall system.
The point of creating the course was not just creating the course, it was to learn the skill of creating courses so that I could create more in the future as part of a system of growing my business and helping more people.
The beauty of this is that there weren’t a whole lot of ways to lose.
If I set the goal of creating the course and selling some specific number of copies, then I would likely have been very disappointed if the course wasn’t as good or didn’t sell as well as I would hope.
Since it’s part of an overall system, a single leg of a long journey, “success” was a lot broader.
The course came together quite well, but even if it hadn’t, I knew the next one would be better – so either way is success.
The course sold quite well, but even if it hadn’t, I would have grown my audience and learned how to better market it next time.
So, what does systems vs. goals say about more vs. less?
Roughly speaking, you can do more system-like things at a time than goal-like things at a time. For example, my personal systems revolve around staying healthy, getting better at business, and expanding my social skills and networks.
These things are all woven into my day.
My health “system” is mostly simple dietary guidelines and exercise routines that I’ve maintained with reasonable consistency ever since I was a teenager. There have been some changes, such as the fact that I replaced running in my teens with weightlifting in my early 20’s with calisthenics and stretching in my late 20’s, but I’ve always done something.
My business system started out as writing a lot, usually at least a little bit on most days of the week. I may go back to daily writing soon, but meanwhile, I produce one email per week and one blog post per week (some exceptions).
My social system is pretty simple – outside of recurring activities I try to have at least one conversation with someone I’ve never met per day.
A key thing that makes systems (as I’ve currently defined them) work is that small, regular amounts of work lead to gains/improvements over time.
Now, this approach does not work well for everything. Sometimes you just need to lock yourself in a room for a week or a few weeks and do nothing else until the thing you’re working on is done.
This is where goals come in.
Systems work because they become part of the fabric of your daily life.
They stop taking much energy or willpower because they become habit.
Goals that are embedded in systems work, but only one at a time.
As I’ve talked about before, splitting your focus turns it into something that is much less powerful than the sum of its parts. You can run multiple systems at once because they don’t actually take much focus when you get them going, but big stuff will require all of your attention.
In general, you’ll want several systems that are steering you towards your top priorities in life, and you’ll want sequential (one at a time), system-embedded goals to knock out particularly hard stuff or make major progress along a system-defined path.
The embedding of the goal in a system means that you won’t have that many ways to truly fail or feel bad, and the fact that you are only attempting them about one at a time allows you to bring the awesome power of complete focus to bear on each, meaning your odds of truly succeeding will be much higher.
A common pattern is to get a burst of motivation, be inspired to set up multiple big goals at once, and fail at all of them.
If you do them one at a time, embedded in and supported by well-chosen personal systems, odds are you can actually succeed at all or most of them in a surprisingly short period of time.
Now, there are things that don’t fit nicely as either a system or a goal. Language learning seems to be one of the worst for this, because it seems that for most people, fluency requires a significant investment (at least an hour or more per day) of serious, energy-draining work, over relatively long periods of time (months to years) to make any real progress at all.
Language fluency is a highly desired skill, and combined with the fact that it doesn’t seem to fit neatly with either type probably goes a long way to explain why it is so often sought after and so seldom reached.
Noticeably, most people who have multiple language fluency seem to have it because they grew up around many languages – the act of learning was just embedded into life, and does not require going out of one’s way that far to learn and practice.
Now, to make this more concrete, my own experience suggests that sustainable systems are usually those that you can do in about 20-30 minutes per day. Less then this is usually too little to make progress on anything worthwhile, more than this risks the system being abandoned when life gets busy or stressful.
With this amount of daily time per system, I would say that most people will want to have between 2 and 4 significant systems running at any time – again, more than that is probably not sustainable.
For system-embedded goals, it’s a little harder to give general recommendations because they can vary a lot in size and difficulty. If we’re talking the bigger ones, like launching a side business, starting a blog, creating a product, etc., probably a few per year is a good number – though if you’re just starting out on a new venture, just one per year is probably acceptable.
To reiterate, you’ll generally only want to do one of these at a time, and the odds are that you’ll need breaks, probably significant breaks, in between.
When it’s ok to go overboard
Another way to look at it is that systems are the things you do in a sustainable way, goals are things that need to be done but are not necessarily useful to work on all the time.
Realistically, in the middle of a major push, some stuff is going to slip. You won’t sleep as much, or you keep up your exercise routine, your diet will fall off, etc.
Obviously it’s better if you can avoid this but realistically most of us will have to let things slide temporarily.
The key is to keep it temporary.
For example, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over eating some junk food to get a quick energy burst to finish a project. It can actually help you push through in a way other things can’t, and it’s not actually that bad for you if it’s a rare occurrence.
Just don’t let it drag out for too long, and don’t keep it up when the goal is done.
From my own experience, I can let my diet slip for a week or two without running into problems. More than that, and I start losing energy, and the odds that it will cause physical problems like getting sick or gaining weight go way up.
If your goal requires more than a few weeks to complete, you need to be much more careful, and you should consider allocating more time in order not to throw yourself too far off.
Similarly, a good reason not to attack major goals in quick succession is that you need time to rest between them, and to make sure that you have the time to reset any bad habits that you might pick up in the middle of one of them.
Systems beat Goals but a harmonious combination of the two beats everything
The reason I decided to concentrate on focus as a skill is that it offered the most immediate and obvious improvements, and requires less maintenance/upkeep than what most productivity advice, which in most cases is really just organization tips, recommends.
Now, this is not to say that organization is not important – it is.
It’s just that it’s importance is secondary, and any gains you make in organization are unlikely to last if your focus skills aren’t strong independent of your level or personal organization.
My thoughts on systems vs goals are similar. You need both, but setting and working towards specifics goals has a highly uncertain return on investment if your systems aren’t in place to support them and give them structure.
So, you get a lot further if you nail the systems first, without worrying about goals, and then gradually incorporate sequential goals as part of your system.
Hopefully this has helped you think about what to focus your efforts on, and when to focus on what in order to achieve the maximum result for the time and energy you spend.
One thing at a time, done effectively, quickly becomes a great many things.