I don’t know about you, but I have a lot on my plate as a 5th year undergraduate student. I’m taking a full course load in school, in addition to working 20 hours a week and writing for my blog and CIG.
From here on out, I will refer to this question as The One Thing Question, or simple, The Question. And I’m going to talk about why this works and how it’s worked for me.
It Helps You Decrease Activation Energy
In chemistry, activation energy is the minimum amount of energy needed for chemical reactions to happen. By decreasing the amount of activation energy required or by increasing the energy applied, we can set a certain set of reactions in motion. 🤓
In our day-to-day lives, by decreasing the amount of activation energy required, we need less energy to get started on stuff we have to do (because who, in their right mind, wants to expend more energy?).
You’ve probably seen this in action.
For example, maybe you have a big essay due in a couple of weeks and you don’t want to work on it today. But, from past experiences, you know that if you get started, you’ll probably get into a groove and work on it for a few hours. You just have to get past the initial barrier of getting started.
By asking “if I only got one thing done today, what would it be?”, I lower the activation energy required to get started on my humongous to-do list.
In essence, although I kinda know that I have a lot of things to do, I’m also telling myself that, “Hey, chill. If you don’t feel like working after you get started, that’s OK. Just do this one thing.”
It Helps you Become Effective First
If you’ve ever heard of the 80/20 Rule, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Basically, the 80/20 principle is this cool concept that the 80% of your results only come from 20% of your efforts.
Think about how staggering that can be for us as students: if you study the right 20% of material, you can get about an 80 on an exam. 😮
No more all-nighters, midnight panic attacks and 5-inch high pile of readings and papers, because only 20% of the material taught in class make up 80% of the exam.
If this sounds too good to be true, it’s not – I’ve tested it.
This semester, I only had two midterms. Both midterms were quite similar: Midterm A had multiple choice, then an essay section, while Midterm B was all essays, but allowed a crib sheet to list concepts in. Because of the crib sheet, I would say the difficulty for both exams were about the same.
With everything on my plate, I didn’t have a lot of time to study so I had to be picky about what I studied and what I didn’t. To do this, I constantly asked myself, if I was the professor, what would be the most important concepts I would put in the exam? 🤔
In the end, for midterm A, I spent maybe 2 hours studying for it (basically just reading 2-3 chapters I hadn’t read before). For midterm B, I spent about 6 hours studying for it (because I was behind on the readings). In addition, I didn’t just re-read the concepts – as I was reading the chapters, I would actually pause once in a while to try to explain the concepts to myself in my own words.
I was relentless about these, and that paid off – I ended up getting an 89 on Midterm A, and an 86 on Midterm B, without the usual pain associated with midterm season. Hell, yeah. 💪
Of course, if I had more time, I would definitely put more time into it and try to aim for a 💯, and you should, too. I believe in always trying to do your best, and to push the limits of what you’re capable of. But for everything we do (and if want to make more time for the tasks we want to put more work into), the 80/20 principle applies – relentlessly focus on the must-have’s first, before thinking about the nice-to-have’s.
It Helps You Prioritize Ruthlessly
In this post, I wrote about the ABCDE Rule which I use to prioritize and organize my tasks every day.
Asking The One Thing Question takes this prioritization one step further.
Instead of just focusing on your A and B tasks, the question forces you to choose just one task. In addition, it forces you to eliminate (E) and delegate (D) low-priority, low-reward tasks.
For the C tasks (stuff you still have to do but just suck, for lack of a better word), you can use a tactic I picked up from Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project called The Maintenance Day. Basically, this tactic lumps all of the little errands you have to do in a 3-6 hour block of time, usually in the weekend. This way, the little things don’t interrupt your work hours and work-days, but they’re still resolved.
The Big Meta Takeaway
By asking The One Thing Question, you get over the initial procrastination hump of simply getting started, while making sure you’re working on the right things that give the most value.
With this tactic, you cut through the noisy barrage of stuff and work on the things that actually matter to you, whether that’s getting started on that big essay that’s worth 40% of your grade, or starting to apply to summer jobs.
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Also published on Medium.