14 June 2021

The One Thing

Last year, during second lockdown, I watched a message of my guro Jakob where he proposed reading some books in the time when you are not able to practice in the dojo. He specifically recommended two books, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results and Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. I had seen both books in my Goodreads feed and had not paid attention. But when your master asks, you better follow ;-)

FocusThe Book
The book is about extraordinary results determined by how narrow you can make your focus. Gary Keller insists that it is possible to reach any goal if you focus on it. And by focus he means that you really focus i.e. dedicate four hours of each day to your one goal. It has to be one single goal. And then, by the thousands of hours you have put into your goal, you will see results. Yes obviously, when following this approach, you will see results. In this sense, the One Thing is extraordinary and boring at the same time. I highly recommend reading it.

First I planned to summarise the book for you, and others have done a better job doing that. The book's homepage is a start and you can find many summaries of the book online, like this one on Four Minute Books. While summaries are short and save time, you will not get the benefit of the book without reading it. A book is not only about its content. Here the book is cementing its message by many times the author tells you the same thing in different words, a.k.a. repetition. The total time it takes to read the book is also time you have to reflect on the material.

Maybe my summary above is a bit lame, so let's discuss the book's impact on my life. And it had a profound impact as you will see. The first and utmost thing I remember from reading the book is the permission to drop stuff from my agenda. Like all developers I know, my daily plan was way too full: work, write a blog post like this one, release an episode of the Coderetreat Facilitation podcast, run a public Coding Dojo for the community, follow up on this cool idea I read about, finish reading SICP and get back playing with Scheme, create more exercises for workshops, keep up to date with Twitter and other feeds, work out, spend time with family, fix this next thing in the flat my wife is complaining about, fight climate change and much more. How was I supposed to allocate 4 (FOUR!) hours each day for the thing I want to do? It was impossible. Obviously Gary was crazy. ;-) Or I had to drop some tasks from my agenda. The idea of focus and dropping tasks was not new to me. I remembered J.B. Rainsberger mentioning a "Not Doing" column in his task list in 2014. I myself have put whole technologies on my blacklist - which I would ignore from this time on, but I have never dropped tasks and ideas so aggressively. I had several TODO lists of low priority where tasks went to die without being honest to myself.

The First Month
I spent the first month following the One Thing on a meta level because I did not work on anything but worked on the process itself. First I increased my focus: I deleted most icons - usually things to do or bookmarks to look at - from my desktop. I removed TODO markers in documents and on my hard drive. Then I reduced my commitments, e.g. I dropped the schedule to blog and record, stopped visiting meetups, reduced the number of learning hours and decided on the maximum number of hours I would work for each client per week. And I was OK with that. Letting go became a mental state and I had been following the Minimalists and Marie Kondo already before I started.

Suddenly I had more time - I even had some unscheduled time to play video games which I almost never did. In hindsight this was not extraordinary at all. If you drop most things you are working on, you will have more time available. It is a matter of focus. Lockdown and home office helped as I saved more than two hours every day. While some colleagues complained that they worked two hours more, I used these two hours - giving me half of my required four hours already. And I used the first month - 80 hours total - to practice the One Thing process. I started each day with a few minutes of mediation to improve my focus. I read more books about focus, e.g. Leo Babauta's book on focus and simplicity, forming habits, e.g. Atomic Habits as mentioned above and learning. I studied these books, taking notes and collecting them. I recommend all of them. I clean up my "office" and spent some time decluttering it, storing stuff in drawers or trashing it to further improve my focus during work.

One example of my achievements since I started using the One Thing methods are the books I have been able to read this year. The Pragmatic Programmers once wrote that you should read at least four technical books a year and the last year I was able to follow their rule was 2016. Since then I have been struggling to read at least one technical book a year. Reading became hard, I had problems focusing and I usually fell asleep after reading a few pages. I decided to add some reading time every day to my four hours of focused work, reading on the topic of focus of course. So including the One Thing, I have read ten books in five months.

Spending four hours on focused work each day reduced the time I had available for other things. After some struggle, I had more clarity - and stopped my self-deception. For example, if I see an interesting article linked on Twitter I either read it immediately, or I forget about it. There is no point in adding it to my read-later list, because there is no read later list because there is no extra time for that. I would not read it anyway, my read-later list kept growing and growing. While I was dreaming of doing so much in the past, I have become a naysayer now. For example "this is a good idea. I might try it. (One second later.) No, not really this is not my One thing and I have no time. End of idea." This is refreshing and freeing. Clarity is one of my needs.

Crunch Time
One drawback is that I am always in crunch time. As my time is more limited, I have to prioritize harder and postpone many tasks I know I need to do. This makes me feel uneasy at times. And for the things I still want to do - not as my One thing, but from time to time, e.g. maintaining my blog - I have to live with tiny increments. For example, I was working on this blog post 15 minutes at a time for more than a month. It was a bit frustrating. Still writing and "Public Relations" are not my priority.

Not having time to attend meetups caused some FOMO (fear of missing out) and made me miss the people of the community I had not seen in a while. In general being unable to do things which I liked mad me sad. I have been attending every one of our local, bi-monthly Coderetreats since its inception January 2019. When I was unable to attend for the first time in more than two years, I felt very, very sad. I felt a loss, almost like mourning. Maybe this was the first time in my life when I really let something go. It is easy to let go things you are not attached to.

Crunch Time Summary
Time for a very short summary (as my latest 15 minutes increment is almost spent): Read the book. Find your One Thing. Focus on it. It is possible to allocate four hours each day to focus on your highest priority, though it might be hard to stick to it. I am half a year into the process and did not miss a single day. Keep pushing!

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