One Thing At a Time

A necessary condition to success

by D J McAdam


"Don't dissipate your powers; strive to concentrate them."
-- Goethe

The "secrets to success" are few, and are generally not secret, chief among them being hard work and perseverance.  Of course, there is always the attendant question as to what one should work hard at, or persevere in.

Naturally, it helps to have a clear goal.  Certainly, that goal should be a noble and moral one, the attainment of which will benefit others as well as oneself.  Chances of success also improve greatly if one works hard and perseveres at one thing at a time.

There is a quotation from William Hunter on our Success web page that states that one should "overcome obstacles singly," and it is wise advice.  Samuel Smiles, in his book Self Help, makes the same point when he observes that, "...persons with comparatively moderate powers will accomplish much, if they apply themselves wholly and indefatigably to one thing at a time."

Why is this so?

"No man can serve two masters."  This Biblical quotation has been used in a variety of contexts; from a purely psychological perspective, it is an astute observation of how our minds work. 

Let us take a practical example of two co-workers, John and Bill. 

John, from the moment he arrives at work in the morning until the moment when he leaves for home, focuses upon his work, and applies great energy and diligence in accomplishing it.  He has made it a habit.  When he is busy, he plunges in with enthusiasm and a determination that he will get the job done.  When work is a bit slow, he utilizes the time wisely to prioritize, to tie up any loose ends, and to consider ways of improving his efforts at work, the systems used, and so on.  In short, when John is at work, he is at work.

Bill, on the other hand, does what he feels is required of him.  To do more, in his mind, would create a sort of imbalance.  "Why should I do more than what I need to do to get by?" he asks.  "They'll still promote someone undeserving over me, still refuse to give me a raise.  Besides, my work isn't that important.  If I devoted myself more to it, no difference would be made."  When things are busy, he complains that he is overwhelmed with work - if he didn't complain, he reasons, they'd just keep piling on the work.  When things get slow, he daydreams, or takes care of personal business.

Perhaps you are tempted to agree with Bill's philosophy; perhaps you have used those same words yourself at some point.  There is little doubt in my mind that, in the short run, Bill will look like he has the right idea.  But ask yourself, in all honesty, who is more likely to succeed in the long run

When you are at work, be wholly at work.  Devote yourself to it.  When you are in class, devote yourself wholly to the class, and its attendant study.  Focus.  Concentrate.  Do one thing at a time, and do it with your whole heart, and with all the energy you have.

"The truest wisdom is a resolute determination."
-- Napoleon

"Though your force be less than another's, you equal and outmaster your opponent
if you continue it longer and concentrate it more."
-- Samuel Smiles

"Singleness of purpose is one of the chief essentials for success in life,
no matter what may be one's aim."
-- John D Rockefeller





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