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069 - On Abiding In One Place - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Progress is inversely proportional to the breadth of your focus. Include in your scope many things, and you will make little progress. Focus on one thing, and you will advance it the most.
River in front of a hillside with a white horse carved into hill - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

When I advise you to be steadfast in your thinking and your decisions, I urge you to abide in one place both physically and mentally. This does not mean that you make no progress. “What can you mean?” you ask, “If I am bound to one spot, in my thinking, my abode, my actions, how am I making any progress? Life requires action, motion. I do not want to sit around doing nothing.”

The answer is simple, my dear Deuteros, but also profound. I will give you several ways of looking at the solution, and you may choose the angle that suits you best. To start, let me ask you a few questions in turn. Do you think someone who drives their air-conditioned car 100 miles a day has learned more of the landscape than the person who walks daily the same quiet streets of their neighborhood? Does the politician who changes their mind hourly upon checking the prevailing wind of opinion have more profound thoughts by virtue of having had many conflicting thoughts? Is the person who purchases their weekly lottery tickets before returning home to their day trading more of an investor than the person who automatically directs a percentage of their income to an index fund and never thinks of it? Just as the opposite of busyness is not idleness, busyness is no guarantee of productivity. How many busy people do we know who prodigiously waste their time?

When I say abide in one place, I mean three things: that you focus your efforts on one thing at a time, that you avoid distractions and temptations, and that you bend your will to making steady progress in a consistent direction. In this way you will move mountains. Continuous improvement is disarmingly powerful because it does not matter how slight the incremental steps are, just that you keep moving.

Progress is inversely proportional to the breadth of your focus. Include in your scope many things, and you will make little progress. Focus on one thing, and you will advance it the most. The reason we do not prioritize is because we fear the consequences of prioritization. To say “This is the most important thing I should be working on right now,” is to say implicitly, “And everything else is less important.” Most people would rather drown themselves in work than admit that some things are more valuable than others. And though we know this is true, but do not act accordingly, what does this say about us? Do not let yourself off the hook. Do the hard work of thinking what is most important before you undertake any tasks, and you will have set yourself up for success.

Having set yourself up for success, shut the door to the many sneak thieves who would rob you of your progress. Distractions and temptations take many forms: friends, gossip, the news, social media, TV and movies. Changing jobs, changing cities, vacations, travel. New information, more information, a better way. An urgent task, an emergency, a new priority. I say barricade yourself in a fortress against the army fighting for your attention.

“You have gone mad,” you say, “if you think the best course is for me to shut myself in a monk’s cell and cut off all contact with friends, with information, with the real world.” If I am crazy, Deuteros, it is for thinking that saying the truth will make people believe the truth. For I am telling you nothing but the truth here, though of course I exaggerate to make my point. Yes, you need interaction with others, you need to pay attention to making your way in the material world, and you cannot stop time by putting your watch in a drawer. But I urge you to consider that every moment you spend on something other than what you have decided is your most valuable pursuit is a theft your commit on yourself.

By no means do I expect you to work every hour of the day. No one is so disciplined, nor need be, although we can train ourselves to be more focused than we might at first believe. The way to handle your rest, relaxation, and recovery is to make it something you actively plan and direct, rather than something that slips unbidden upon your consciousness and spirits it away. When you take a break for exercise, when you meet up with friends for dinner, or when you leave your studies for a vacation, it will be because you decided it was the most important thing to be doing at that moment. Give your rest and recovery the same priority that you would your work, and you will get the most benefit from it. Let yourself be pulled away from either your rest or work by giving in to distraction, and you are wasting your time in both cases.

The last component, steady progress in a consistent direction, is easier to believe in after you have seen its effects for yourself. For now, trust me when I tell you that taking but a single step each day will bring you further along than all those whose efforts are heroic but sporadic. You may still have days of mighty progress, and they will be welcome. But you should be just as happy to accomplish a tiny, incremental step, so long as it is self-directed and in the direction of your choosing. Because this means you are staying true to yourself, working on what you have decided is most important, and making progress.

I call upon American President Thomas Jefferson to reinforce today’s lesson. His own actions were the proof of the truth of his words, judge for yourself:

Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.

Be well.

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