I spend a good chunk of my life working, so it makes sense that I want to do it well. Years ago, I put together a document on Principles for Knowledge Work. The document is intimidatingly long and includes suggestions like batch email, use multiple monitors, and have a weekly review.

When I would try to sell someone on working like this, they would nod along for a while and then eventually say something about how complex and constraining it feels. My results agree: I have tried to do all of these things, sometimes successfully, but too often it feels uphill-like the meta-work adds to the work instead of simplifying it.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with a single principle: Sit down at the computer with a single goal. That goal might be to clean a dataset, write a section of a paper, or empty my inbox; it doesn’t matter. It’s crazy how time moves with one goal in mind—I’ll sit down at 10:57 AM, write a few paragraphs, look up, and it will be 11:19 AM. I get up, get a drink of water, and then sit down again with another goal.

Alternatively, time moves like lightning when I sit down at my computer to generically “work.” I’ll open my email, respond to slack, write code, and wake up, and it will be six hours later; I’ll have 57 tabs open, the start of a headache from skipping lunch, and it will be unclear what, if anything, I’ve accomplished. One of my biggest fears is that I’ll look back, and this spinning sense of busy meaninglessness will be a microcosm for how I’ve spent my life.

There’s no single magic bullet for how to work. But, it sure is easier to keep a single principle in mind. Lately, sitting down with a single goal has helped me get more done and feel happier doing it.