One Thing At A Time — The Power of Less



The danger and complexity of Wile E. Coyote’s plans (and his use of ACME products) were a sure sign of imminent failure. Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

“The more simply you see, the more simply you will render. People see too much, scatteringly.” — Robert Henri

Less isn’t more, but it can be more effective. The modern world may not agree, but our obsession with doing more, acquiring more and being busy all the time hasn’t exactly created more happiness. As artists, constant doing doesn’t necessarily equate to greater success or creativity. We need to be present and focused to be at our best. Our art demands it.

“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.” — Aristotle

If there’s one word in the 21st century that haunts us it’s multi-tasking. The excuse is that we’ve got so much to do with so little time that we all have to multi-task. We sadly think that by doing it all, and doing it all at once, is balance. We couldn’t be more wrong.


Cartoon strip from Scott Adam’s comic Dilbert.

Science has shown time and time again, that multi-tasking doesn’t work. Many people claim they can multi-task, but what they’re actually doing is jumping from one task to another while doing none in particular at any level of respectable competence or honest attention. Some individuals can appear to juggle many things at once successfully — switching quickly between activities — but a majority of individuals fail and tend to do so spectacularly. Juggling is a rare skill which can be learned, but regardless of our adeptness, there is always a risk and price associated with it.


The Letterman Techroom at Lucas Film in San Francisco. Render farms are a huge collection of processors designed to handle all the rendering needs of an animation studio. Photo by Peter Sciretta.

What about computers? Don’t they multi-task? Aren’t we just computers? Well, even computers don’t multi-task — they operate by time splicing which consists of giving a very short period of time (usually milliseconds) to one task, then a few to the next and then to the next and so on. In other words, even the fastest computers in the world only switch from one task to another, only they do so at very high speeds. Now, computer systems with multiple CPU’s connected and working together are able to drive multiple programs or calculations at the same time. In animation studios, we all know the look and size of those render farms (stored in that one big room no one dares to enter except the IT guys). Substantial computing requires substantial power.


The two halves of the human brain. Each side has its own priorities and responsibilities. Illustration by VaXzine.

As humans, at least for now, we only have one brain (one processor) and even then that one processor is split into two halves — a right hemisphere (for gestalt, social and creative tasks) and a left hemisphere (for logical, analytical and mathematical calculation). Moreover, these two halves of our one brain don’t seem to operate so well together or even at the same time. One tends to dominate over the other with the balance of power constantly shifting at different rates among different individuals.

“It’s very hard to get your heart and your mind in the same place.” — Woody Allen


Image from Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss. Are you also juggling too many things of different size, weight and complexity in your life?

Multi-tasking is like juggling eggs. With two hands, we can hold on to two eggs quite easily even if we can only feel the weight and texture of one egg at a time. Once we add more eggs, we need to keep our hands moving in order to keep them eggs in mid-air. This can be fun, if not entertaining, at least for a short period of time. The more eggs we add however, the more speed and focus you need to place on the act of juggling while risking dropping any or all of the eggs. The fun stops and the stress rises. Not only does multi-tasking rob us of the entire physical and relational experience we have with the object(s) in our grasp, we also exponentially increase both the size and the odds of failure. We’re talking eggs in this example, but we could easily swap these eggs for more substantial things, such as our job, our health, time with family or our personal happiness. A significant fail in any one of those departments have incalculable effects on the others.

Here then, is a list of some of the benefits of doing less:

1) Increased attention (focus)


Archery requires the utmost in focus and strength. Here, Errol Flynn stars as the legendary archer-hero, Robin Hood in the 1938 classic film of the same title directed by Michael Curtiz.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” — Alexander Graham Bell

When we reduce our attention to fewer things, more our of creative and physical energy gets directed to the immediate challenge before us. With decreased distractions, we give our minds and bodies the opportunity to get in sync, coordinate and align together for maximal performance. When the path is clear and empty of distraction, deviation is limited and the job is actually easier.

2) Achieving simplicity


Picasso’s remarkabe sculpture, Head of a Bull, which is made out of bicycle parts is perfect in its simplicity.

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak” — Hans Hofmann

This is true in art as it is in life. To accomplish the simple things well is often the hardest. It’s why the greatest performers, when they reach their peak, act and express simply. Their work is clear, decisive and remarkably effective. This is true in sports, music, and the arts. The masters always seem to be able to slow time down while expressing themselves with directness and clairvoyance.

3) Seeing the bigger picture


Artist Franz Kline was a very skilled, traditional easel painter who discovered a new way of painting to address his individual needs and the needs of an emerging America. By venturing into abstract expression, he and his fellow modernists helped define a new era of art, one that was grand in size and remarkably bold, much like its homeland.

“Big thinking precedes great achievement.” — Wilferd Peterson

With less on the table, it’s far easier to see what’s at stake. We can access problems, pitfalls and make better plans. We gain time to question our desires, assess our options and by default decrease the tendency to rush into action, which in turn of course, decreases the odds of failure and having to do it all over again. As artists, we don’t want to repeat the past. Doing something new has always been the aim of artist, both past and present. We are not here to copy or mimic. We want to boldly step forward. To do this, we must step back and look at what’s really here or there.

4) Remaining flexible


The strength of bamboo is in its flexibility and is both commonly used and revered by Asian societies.

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”  — Albert Einstein

With less obligations, we’re also more flexible to adapt to unexpected challenges that are sure to happen. Taking on less things opens up our reserves for handling adversity. The best people aren’t necessarily the ones who can do more, but those who are most adaptable to the forces at hand. In our age of advancing technology and accelerated human and economic activity, flexibility is a powerful asset.

5) Improved learning & performance


The great Bruce Lee practiced a multitude of techniques and trained with all kinds of equipment, but he always worked only on one thing at a time, fully committed, fully focused.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” — Bruce Lee

We gain both effectiveness and efficiency when we’re focused.  We learn better when we give things the time that they need. And when we repeat those tasks our skills develop, making us stronger and more adept at handling similar challenges in the future. This is the essence of practice — the ritual of rehearsing our minds and bodies on singular tasks for excellence. It’s the foundation of greatness.

6) Ability to see the details that matter


The Artist’s Mother by Lucien Freud. Freud’s pain-staking approach to painting revels in the details. They make the picture.

“There’s something in the very small minutia of life that tells us something about the big, big picture that we see every day all over the place, and so I think the more specific and creative and revelatory you are in the micro, the more powerful the macro will be.” — Philip Seymour Hoffman

When we are looking at too much or doing too much, we simply can’t see or feel the details. The mind needs to be clear and calm to do so. If you multi-task, it can be pretty much guaranteed that you’re missing out on the easily overlooked, but important details. Sometimes these seemingly minute concerns, are like that tiny screw that holds the whole thing together. We all know that a slight miscalculation or misstep here or there can be the difference between success or failure in our art. Life is oftentimes very fragile and temperamental. We need to know when things matter, no matter how small they may appear.

7) Higher level of engagement


Bill Waterson’s funny and often poignant comic book series, Calvin and Hobbes.

“Never mistake activity for achievement.” — John Wooden

Being constantly busy or doing a million things at once robs us of the experience of doing. It’s like cooking ten dishes at once and not getting the chance to taste or eat any of them. All presence is gone when attention is so fleeting, and such is the state we’re in constantly when we attempt to multi-task. To feel presence, we have to be present. One thing at a time assures us of living in the now.

8) Greater fulfillment & more memorable experience


Arnold Schwarzenegger, seen here during a break from his training enroute to his 6th Mr. Olympia title. From the definitive film on bodybuilding, Pumping Iron.

The most powerful thing to emerge from doing one task at a time with complete and utter devotion is that we get more out of it, both immediately and in the long-term. When we’re fully engaged, we’re completely absorbed and sight, sound, touch and feel become ingrained in our minds. How wonderful it is engrave our sweetest experiences into memory! Think back to the many mindless, busy tasks that we’ve all succumbed to in our past and you’ll know exactly what we’re talking about here.

Many of our actions and feelings are so fleeting when we’re not fully engaged. I don’t remember a single thing from my numerous hours studying organic chemistry or macroeconomic equations in University where I was often going through the motions. They feel blank, like time and energy sucked into a black hole. But I always  remember the time when I was so immersed in my evening figure drawing class that all the existed for me was the model and the drawing. When I “awoke” from my trance, I was alarmed to see that the entire class was standing behind me watching me draw. Singular focus has great power.


“So much to do and so little time.” Such are the words of the Mad Hatter from Walt Disney’s interpretation of Lewis Carol’s Alice In Wonderland.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with shifting from one task to another — we must all do that once in a while or else we couldn’t function. Staying with any one activity for too long can also be taxing and unsustainable. But our aim most of the time should be to tackle one sustained challenge at a time. Life is complex enough and we’re all riding this wave towards the unknown, hoping to grow, hoping to battle through the tough times and enjoying the ride while it lasts. Why complicate each and every precious moment with ever more stress and responsibility by trying to do too much in too little time?

We mustn’t feel obligated to rush or to multi-task just because everyone else is doing it. We can choose our own way — one of presence and fulfillment — doing one thing, one moment at a time.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” — Viktor E. Frankl