As number one on his list of 1932-1933 “Commandments”, Henry Miller wrote “Work on one thing at a time until finished.”
It’s an extremely valuable dictum, despite the difficulties I have putting it into practice. There are two elements to it that I really, really like, and one element that is really hard or imprctical.
The first element that I like is the idea of working on one thing at a time. At a very immediate, moment-to-moment scale, working on one thing at a time is the only way to go. Over very short time frames—a few minutes, perhaps—the only real options for working are: 1. to work on/write about one thing with focus, or 2. try to decide what to work on/write about. There is good value in spending time trying to decide what to do, but at some point it’s necessary to stop thinking about what to write, and to start writing. When you do start writing, you want to focus on writing one sentence at a time—there is a larger goal, but it’s built up of the small steps.
The second element that I like is the “until finished” part, which is also the part I don’t like. What I like about the “until finished” idea is the focus on finishing. There is a place in this world for journal writers and free writers to write for the sake of writing or for the self-discovery involved, but if you want to get a degree or get published, you have to finish things in a timely fashion. When your focus is on the question of finishing a project, you’re less likely to get stuck with a project that is too large to complete, and less likely get stuck endlessly revising. Focusing on completion doesn’t guarantee finishing, but it does shift the approach somewhat from “what is the best work possible?” to “what is the best work I can accomplish in a reasonable time?” Perfectionism is less likely to lead to paralysis if one of the criteria for perfection is “completed !” or even “completed on schedule!”
The “until finished” aspect, however, has two problems: 1. it can be hard to know what “finished” is, and 2. it’s often impractical to focus exclusively on one project over longer periods of time. The first of these points is related to the question of not knowing enough. People looking for answers may feel that a work is unfinished if it leaves a lot of questions unanswered or raises more questions than it did answer, but answers always lead to new questions, so it’s possible to think a work is unfinished, even if outside reviewers might judge it as an interesting and valuable project. Secondly, the idea of working on one thing at a time is perhaps impossible (or impossible to define) in the context of a research career. What counts as “one thing” in a research career? Is a research career just a series of independent projects, each “one thing” taken one at a time, or is it a larger program that leads to a series of specific projects? I think the second is more realistic for most scholars and grad students: They are driven by a larger question, but one specific research project only speaks to some of their questions of interest. (Whether seeking a professional or academic career, the researcher needs to consider the specific research project in the larger context of the career.) Miller, whose “commandment” inspired this post, wrote fiction, and perhaps it is easier to segment a career in fiction.
The “until finished” idea can be impractical, too, because finishing a work often includes delays when you can’t work on the project. For someone seeking an academic career, it’s valuable to be able to start working on a new project before an old one is complete because of the many delays that go into executing many projects. Publication, for example, is loaded with delays during which a work is not necessarily “finished” but you can’t work on it. During those times, it’s good to have some different project to work on, but then what do you do when it’s time to go back to the work in publication? Having multiple projects at different stages of development can help a scholar use time more efficiently.
But when you have multiple projects and demands on your time, it’s much easier to get overwhelmed. It’s much easier to spend time wondering what to work on next, instead of just working on one thing. And it’s easy to lose time switching between projects instead of focusing. That’s why, in terms of developing a regular practice, it’s good to work on one thing at a time until finished. Miller called that a commandment. For me, it’s more a goal or a principle for which I strive, but with deference to practical concerns. For me, it’s a particularly useful goal that helps me focus on my writing when it is time to write, and helps me prioritize and act, rather than get stuck debating what to work on and overwhelmed by the many things that I could or should do.