One Thing at a Time: The Parable of the Holes

Why is it important to do one thing at a time?

The Parable of the Holes

Albert and Barry were lost in the desert, and their water was running low. It was very hot, and they were getting very thirsty.

Barry the Hole Digger

“Don’t worry,” said Albert, brightly. “There is water under ground. If we dig deep enough, we are sure to find it!”

Barry frowned. “You may be right,” he said. “But how far down is the water?”

“Only about 6 feet, I reckon!” replied Albert. He found two shovels, and he handed one to Barry.

To increase their chances of finding water, the two men decided to dig separate holes. The ground was hard, and the sun beat down, but both men worked tirelessly at their task.

After a few hours heavy toil, the bottom of Barry’s hole began to fill with water. It turned out that Albert had been right, for Barry’s hole was just over 6 feet deep when the water came. Barry filled his hands with water, and eagerly gulped it down. The water was a bit muddy, but it was surprisingly cool, and it was so, so refreshing. Barry filled his canteen, then drank some more.

Eager to share this liquid treasure with his friend, Barry climbed out of his hole and went in search of his companion.

Barry was astonished to see that while he had been digging his single hole, Albert had already dug lots of holes. He was also surprised to see that Albert’s holes were different depths, some just a few inches, and the deepest no more than a couple of feet.

Albert was sitting in one of his shallower holes. He looked exhausted, but he had a serene smile on his face.

“Albert, I’ve found water! Come on and have a drink!” said Barry.

Albert waved feebly. “Not until I have dug another hole.” he croaked.

“But, I’ve finished my hole!” said Barry. “I’ve found water!”

His companion shook his head, marveling at Barry’s shortsightedness. “I know,” he said. “But you’ve missed the point. When I finish all my holes, think how much water I will have!”

This is a silly story that illustrates an important principle:

Results come more quickly if you do one thing at a time.

Look at Albert in this story:

Albert had a good attitude, good information about what needed to be done, and he worked hard. He was performing the right activity: digging. But despite all this, Albert failed to find water. If both men had followed Albert’s strategy, they might well have died in the desert. Albert’s problem was that he was working on too many holes, and not finishing any of them.

In contrast, Barry focused on one thing done at a time. He worked on a single hole until it produced water. Having benefited from finishing his task, Barry was refreshed and ready to begin another task, that of finding his friend and offering to help him.

What Can We Learn from the Parable of the Holes?

Lesson 1: Do one thing at a time and you’ll see results more quickly.

Albert didn’t get any water from all his half-dug holes, whereas Barry got water from his one, completed hole.

Doing too much all at once slows you down on all your tasks, whereas completing one task before you begin another means that you start to see results more quickly.

Lesson 2: The sooner you get benefits from a set of tasks, the sooner you can re-invest those benefits.

Barry used the benefits of his activity to refresh himself and prepare him for helping Albert. In the mean time, Albert couldn’t continue to work.

Some of the benefits from completing tasks earlier include:

  • Early wins are motivating. They make it easier to continue with later tasks.
  • Things you learn on early tasks can help you complete later tasks more quickly.
  • The physical benefits of a task can be re-invested in making later tasks easier. This works for money, time, materials, etc.

Conclusion

The point of this post is that taking on too much at a time is counter-productive; whereas focusing on one thing at a time makes you more productive in the long run.

A single focus is infinitely more productive than a split one.

— David Allen

Acknowledgements

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