The ONE Thing

By Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

Date: 31 January, 2019

Just the Highlights in : 10 Minutes

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The Summary And My Thoughts on Applicability

This book can seem to confuse its definitions throughout, such that in one passage or chapter noting that the ONE Thing is a present action or step that can be taken immediately but then in the next passage or chapter, it will describe the ONE Thing as your overarching purpose, but then also describe that your life is comprised of many areas and that each area has a ONE Thing. This can be a little confusing. In reality, the book provides a manual for organizing your life around effective goals and actions based on an overarching purpose that may also be evident in the different areas of your life. It forces you to shred a lot of the constant noise and distraction that may be the result of your external and internal environment.

How would you apply this in any meaningful way to your life?

  1. First, you can define your own overarching purpose or life mission statement that addresses the critical areas of your life.
  2. Next, you should set BROAD and SPECIFIC goals in each critical area of your life. These goals should be time-critical and faraway enough to perform the next step.
  3. Based on the previous goals, “goal set to now” by asking the Focusing Question at each hypothetical step until you reach the present moment. This will provide a rough road map for approaching your previous goals.
  4. Time block your schedule/calendar to create a session where your focus is strictly and narrowly drawn toward the current step based on the above road map.

The key to the above is to focus all of your mental power on creating solutions to each step during that established time block. Push your own expectations to their limit by exaggerating your goals in a manner to force innovative thinking and use deliberate practice to work toward mastery in your actions as you tackle each step or domino in pursuit of your long term goal. Most importantly, don’t fall into the trap of trying to do too many things at once or losing focus to trivial distractions that are common in everyday life.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 - The ONE Thing

Success is determined by your ability to narrow your focus on the most productive task at hand. “Going Small” means to filter out work that produces very little side effects in favor of work that produces the most effect.

Chapter 2 - The Domino Effect

You can figuratively view this ONE Thing, this focal point of your actions as the lead domino in a sequence of dominoes of increasing size, where the sequence of dominoes represent the series of tasks of increasing magnitude and difficulty toward a much larger goal. Identifying the lead domino (i.e., the ONE thing) means to narrow your focus on the action or task that would make the subsequent and more difficult task much easier to accomplish and so forth, this is described as a geometric sequence rather than a linear sequence.

Chapter 3 - Success Leaves Clues

The evidence of the success from focusing on ONE Thing is visible throughout history from businesses to historical and modern persons. KFC, Starbucks, Star Wars and more found success is focusing on one product or service; Apple is an example of a business that shifted their singular focus between products in a successful manner. Walt Disney, Sam Walton, Albert Einstein, Oprah Winfrey are notable people whose success can be attributed to the assistance of ONE Person other than themselves. No one succeeds alone. Similar to business, a person whose passion toward ONE Thing leads to deliberate practice and focus on that ONE Thing will often experience extraordinary results relative to that ONE passion or skill.

Part 1: The Lies

Chapter 4 - Everything Matters Equally

Everything doesn’t matter equally, believing this leads to a very reactive personality where everything feels urgent and important. By believing that everything matters equally, we pollute our daily lives with tyrannical to-do lists and busy ourselves with tasks that ultimately produce little to no effect or progress in our lives. You should replace your to-do lists with a “success list” by filtering your “should do’s” from your “could do’s”s so that your success list is comprised completely of the “should do’s”s. A “should do” is a task characterized by Pareto’s 80/20 principle where the tasks belongs to the 20% of tasks that cause 80% of the effect in your life. The ONE Thing consists of pushing this 80/20 principle further to 99/1 where 1 is the ONE Thing, the most important task on your success list that deserves all of your focus.

Chapter 5 - Multitasking

You can not multi-task on two equally important knowledge-intensive tasks without under performing in both tasks equally. Task-switching exacts a toll on your performance as time is spent resolving the context of the new task at hand; multi-tasking is an illusion that involves switching between tasks frequently. Your brain has a limited capacity and multi-tasking robs the organ of its effectiveness therefore you should safeguard it from constant distractions that can undermine its ability to effectively focus on producing results.

Chapter 6 - A Disciplined Life

An individual should only be disciplined long enough to naturally establish an automatic habit (typically 66 days). By turning your disciplined actions into a recurring habit, you can release the attention and discipline used to establish that habit and refocus on it something else. You should build each successful habit one at a time for the greatest chance of successfully establishing the habit. By making the hard stuff a habit, you are reducing the difficulty of the hard stuff.

Chapter 7 - Willpower Is Always On Will-Call

Willpower is not always available therefore you should schedule your most intensive focus on the ONE Thing during periods where your willpower is an all-time high. Like a muscle, willpower can become fatigued and may require rest and consistent nutrition to regain strength.

Chapter 8 - A Balanced Life

Work should be viewed as mastering a skill or knowledge and therefore you should give a disproportionate amount of time toward the task and subsequent tasks responsible for accomplishing that. Whereas in your personal life, you should be more involved in multiple areas equally or at least balance your involvement between them. In your work life, you can polarize your focus between what matters most and everything else, this is not possible in your personal life.

Chapter 9 - Big is Bad

If you think big and therefore act big, you will succeed big; alternatively if you think small and therefore act small, your success will be equally small. A good approach to thinking big is to multiply upon your original goal so that your approach toward this larger goal will guarantee your original goal. Thinking big should result in forcing you to creatively come up with different and more innovative approaches and take much more bold actions toward this bigger goal. Extraordinary results are built upon success AND failure, oftentimes failure sparks the creativity that leads to further success so build upon your failures by learning from them and adapting before moving forward; do not fail to take action due to your own fear of failure.

Part 2: The Truth

Chapter 10 - The Focusing Question

Oftentimes people believe that success is simply the result of outworking others and eventually overworking yourself, however, success is more-so the result of focusing the appropriate amount of energy during the appropriate time on the ONE Thing that produces the most effect. Discovering the ONE Thing is the job of the Focusing Question. The Focusing Question follows from the belief that the quality of an answer is in direct proportion to the quality of the question. The Focusing Question is “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?“. This question is phrased to promote thinking of both the big picture (the ONE Thing, the end goal) as well as the small focus (the actionable ONE Thing right now). “What’s the ONE Thing…” shifts the focus to one thing among-st a pool of distractions and other options, “…such that by doing it…” emphasizes the purpose behind your action, your ONE Thing, “…everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” underlines the criterion for this ONE Thing; it must be incredibly effective.

Chapter 11 - The Success Habit

Develop a habit of asking the Focusing Question on important matters in your life and start by asking it about the important big areas of your life such as your spiritual life, physical health, personal life, key relationships, job, business, and financial life. You can re-frame the Focusing Question by including a time frame (e.g., “right now”, “in five years” to develop an appropriate level of immediacy).

Chapter 12 - The Path to Great Answers

The Focusing Question pushes you to ask a Great Question which in turn pushes you to develop a Great Answer. A Great Question should be both BIG and SPECIFIC (e.g., “What can I do to double sales in six months.” rather than “What can I do to double sales? (Big and Broad)”, “What I can do to increase sales? (Small and Broad)”, or even “What I can do to increase sales by 5% this year? (Small and Specific)”). Answers comes from three categories, doable, stretch, and possibility: doable involves answers within your current abilities, stretch involves more research and study and sits right inside the far end of your reachable range. A Great Answer comes from the “possibility” category and involves creating a benchmark on the leading edge and moving forward based on a perceived trend among-st a pool of possibilities (essentially as a first mover).

Part 3: Extraordinary Results

Chapter 13 - Live with Purpose

Priority is driven by purpose and productivity is the result of this priority; productivity results in profit (in a business sense). Your goal should be the fulfillment of your purpose and happiness is simply a characteristic in the journey toward that fulfillment rather than the end goal. Therefore, you should discover what your purpose is in life, the purpose you’re tasked with reaching fulfillment. This purpose drives all other actions in your life. Your purpose is your overarching ONE Thing; if you have difficulty finding this purpose, you should simply pick a direction and allow time to bring clarity to this BIG question. Without purpose, you have no guideposts for priority and thus your productivity is scattered and often ineffective.

Chapter 14 - Live by Priority

When developing goals based upon your purpose to determine your priorities, it is easy to simply create faraway goals that reduce the chance of any action ever being taken to accomplish such goals. It is ideal to goal-set to now by starting with your long term goal and working toward “now”. For example, given a someday goal to be completed at 5 or more years from now, what’s the ONE Thing you can accomplish in the next five years to help accomplish this someday goal THEN based on that five years goal, what’s the ONE Thing can I do for this year to accomplish that five year goal THEN based on this year’s goal what is the ONE Thing I can do this month to help accomplish this year’s goal. You can continue this series to the present moment or now and essentially train your mind to view large long term goals as a sequence of actions of increasing significance. This also allows you to focus on the ONE Thing in that sequence based on this current time.

Chapter 15 - Live for Productivity

The key to productivity is the efficient use of time to focus on the priority that produces the most results. Productive people excel at partitioning their days into time blocks or isolated periods where they block out all distractions and focus solely on the task at head, their ONE Thing. If a disproportionate amount of results come from one activity then that activity deserves a disproportionate amount of time. Equally important is the ability to time block your rest period (i.e., time off) and also your planning time in addition to your ONE Thing since rest is as important as working (remember that willpower is like a battery and requires a recharge). In order of importance, you should time block your rest, your ONE Thing, and then your planning and review period and you should protect your time block at all costs.

Chapter 16 - The Three Commitments

When considering pursuing your ONE Thing, you should commit yourself to a path of deliberate practice and mastery if you expect to derive extraordinary results from your ONE Thing. Additionally, if you’re searching for extraordinary results, you should commit to moving from “E” entrepreneurial to “P” purposeful by challenging any ceiling encountered and shattering this artificial and self-imposed limitation. You should also commit yourself to holding yourself accountable for the results of your actions in life rather than avoiding responsibility and submitting to a victim mindset. It is also helpful to find someone to mentor you who lives out these commitments in their own life.

Chapter 17 - The Four Thieves

The inability to say “no” is a pitfall to productivity by causing you to overextend yourself in the service of others and neglect that which is most related to your ONE Thing, you should always screen your requests by determining its relationship to your ONE Thing and also what other activities you would effectively be saying “no” to by responding “yes”. Another thief of productivity is the fear of chaos that is a natural byproduct in the singular focus and pursuit of your ONE Thing; you may find that loose ends and other small engagements resign to entropy in your absence and you must be able to surrender to this reality. High achievement and productivity is also dependent on your health habits; keep your physical health (exercise, nutrition, rest), spiritual energy (prayer, meditation), emotional energy (family relationships), mental energy (goal setting, planning), and business energy (time-blocking) in top shape to ensure that your productivity follows suit. Productivity can also be negatively affected by an environment that does not support you in the pursuit of your goals, so take ownership of your environment and surround yourself with people and things that support you.

Chapter 18 - The Journey

The journey toward any goals, financial or otherwise, is a sequence of steps where each step is your ONE Thing, your focus at that time. To accomplish your largest life, you must not only think big but also take the necessary steps or actions to get there. At any moment, there can only be ONE Thing that deserves your full attention and focus, from that step forward actions will build on actions and habits will build on habits; by breaking down lofty goals into a sequence of actionable steps that your singularly focus on, “unrealistic” goals become much more attainable. Live a life worth living by focusing on your reflections toward the end of your life, aim for “I’m glad I did.” and not “I wish I had.“‘s. Learn to take calculated risks and remove any artificial limitations set by yourself by stretching your imagination to discover your ONE Thing, your purpose, and the ONE Thing that can lead you down the long journey toward that goal.


Blake Adams is a writer, software developer, technical consultant, and financial independence enthusiast living in Oxford, MS.

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