The One Thing

By: Gary Keller & Jay Papasan



Here’s a question to consider:

What’s the one thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Why ask this question? And, why should we ask this question?

Fundamentally, it’s because we think we don’t have enough time and consequently distribute our resources so thin that we achieve little or nothing.

In the book, The One Thing, authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan reveal that successful people go small. They don’t try to do everything at once, but rather focus their attention and energy on the one activity that will yield the most reward. Successful people don't focus on all they could do. They focus on what they should do.

Read on to learn more about the myths behind doing too much work and why doing just one thing can deliver extraordinary results.

Lesson 1: The myth of To-Do lists

Let’s consider the idea of success.

The route to success is challenging and not the same for everyone. If it were, then bookshops for example, would only need to stock one book in their personal development section or all start-ups would become multi-million dollar businesses. The same goes for taking action. Different actions have different consequences and different success rates.

So how do we decide what to do? How do we make good decisions?

One thing the authors adamantly suggest is that knocking out a hundred tasks for whatever reason is a poor substitute for doing even one task that’s meaningful. Having a full and comprehensive task list is a burden and simply fills our day with unimportant things. Being busy is not the same as being successful. Keller and Papasan demand that instead of a to-do list, we need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.

So what is a success list?

Let’s look back at the 80/20 rule. Also known as Pareto's Principle, the 80/20 rule suggests that 80 percent of our output is achieved with 20 percent of our input. This means we need to identify and prioritise that 20 percent in order to yield the best results. 

As such, a success list (as suggested by the authors), is essentially Pareto's Principle on steroids. Take the 20 percent and apply Pareto again. Repeat. And repeat again until only 'One Thing' is left on your list. Once you've dwindled the list down, the task that's left is the task you should be doing.

However, before getting stuck on the one task, there is another key myth that needs to be debunked: Multitasking doesn’t work!

Think of it this way...

There are two identical “progress cars,” but only enough dollars for one tank of “progress gas.” Do we fill one or do we fill both? If we fill both, we set off in the direction of our ambition, which only get us half way with each. However, if we only use one car, we can reach our destination completely. 

As the authors point out in the book, “You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once.” ...“Every time we try to do two or more things at once, we’re simply dividing up our focus and dumbing down all of the outcomes in the process.”

Lesson 2: The myth of Discipline and Willpower

The next two myths to shatter are characteristics that we often admire in successful people: discipline and willpower.

To begin, it's important to understand that discipline is not a noun, it’s a verb. It’s something we do — not something we have. In simple terms, discipline is a beneficial habit.

When we see people who look like “disciplined” people, what we really see are people who have trained a handful of positive habits into their lives. This makes them seem “disciplined,” when actually they’re not. No one is. The fact is, we can become successful with less discipline than we think. Success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.

Remember our “progress gas?"

Well as it turns out, our “progress car” is actually dual-fuelled and also runs on willpower. Every morning we start out with a full tank and as the day goes on, we use the gas to get us where we need to go. As the tank depletes, so does our resolve, and when it’s empty, we’re done.

Similarly, when our willpower runs out, we revert to our default fuel: Blood, Sweat and Tears.

The point? Willpower is not infinite. Use it with care. If we want to get the most out of our day, we need to do our most important work—the ONE Thing—early, before our willpower is drawn down.

Lesson 3: The myth of Work-Life balance

Here’s a work-life balance history lesson, courtesy of the authors.

Two hundred years ago, a village blacksmith could go home when horses feet were shod and not at 5 o'clock PM because that was when his work day officially ended or because that's what was stipulated in his work agreement. He worked independently and did what he had to do, when he needed to do it.

It was only after the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the concept of having large numbers of people working for someone else, did the idea of work-life balance arise. Changing job requirements forced people out of the home for longer periods of time. Principles of management changed and by default so did the meaning of success. Workers were forced to compartmentalise their lives into 'in work' and 'outside of work' activities. Workers did not work at home and domestic activities were not conducted at work. 

Due to the changing demands on today's workforce, many of us strive towards finding the elusive work-life balance in order to be more successful. The authors of this book however argue that the idea of the work-life ratio is a myth and that it does not support success. 

The whole concept of balance is to create equality between two extremes. Balance brings average and average means…well average. Magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the furthest most extreme end of the spectrum (whichever end).  

If we want to succeed, a balanced life cannot be achieved. We need to focus on One Thing and lean in its direction, maybe for up to 10,000 hours, if we are to believe Malcolm Gladwell. The question of balance is really a question of priority. When we act on our priority, we automatically go out of balance, giving more time to our One Thing over everything else.

Lesson 4: Finding your One Thing

So how do we bring it all together? How do we find that One Thing?

According to the authors we need to ask the Focusing Question: What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Let’s break this idea down into three part:

  1. WHAT’S THE ONE THING I CAN DO...This tells us the answer will be one option from many. It directs us to be specific. The last phrase, “can do,” is our call to action.
Suggests there’s a standard our answer must meet. “Such that by doing it,” lets us ensure our actions will lead to positive outcomes.
This give us assurance that good things will come.

To make it more specific, we can simply reframe the Focusing Question by inserting our area of focus or introduce a time frame — such as “right now” or “this year."

For example, “For my job, what’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure I hit my goals this week such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

The authors believe that the Focusing Question is the greatest question we can ask ourselves. But the challenge of asking a Great Question is that, once we’ve asked it, we’re faced with finding a Great Answer.

Answers come in three categories: Doable, Stretch and Possibility. 

  • Doable: The easiest answer is the one that’s already within reach of our knowledge, skills, and experience. We can do it.
  • Stretch: The next level up is a “stretch” answer. While this is still within our reach, it can be at the farthest end of our ability.
  • Possibility: If we want the most from our answer, we must realise that it lives outside our comfort zone. A possibility answer exists beyond what is already known and being done. A new answer.

The authors however, remind us that achievement of our One Thing is not without difficulty. If we lack a “big picture” view, we can easily fall into promiscuous objectives. In other words once we get what we want, our happiness wanes because we quickly become accustomed to what we acquire. New objectives then become more attractive.

Having purpose helps us. Knowing why we’re doing something provides the motivation needed to keep things going when things don’t quite go right. What’s the thing that gets you up in the morning and keeps you going when you’re tired and worn down? That’s purpose.

Live with purpose and we’ll know where we want to go. Live by priority and we’ll know what to do to get there. Purpose without priority is powerless. We need to set and prioritise our goals.

So let’s see how the focusing question, together with purpose and priority creates a plan.

Here’s how it goes:

  • The Five Year View: Based on my ‘someday’ goal, what’s the ONE Thing I can do in the next five years to be on track to achieve it?
  • The Annual View: Based on my five-year goal, what’s the ONE Thing I can do this year to be on track to achieve my five-year goal, so that I’m on track to achieve my ‘someday’ goal?
  • The Monthly View: Based on my goal this year, what’s the ONE Thing I can do this month so I’m on track to achieve my goal this year, so I’m on track to achieve my five-year goal, so I’m on track to achieve my someday goal?
  • The Weekly View: Based on my goal this month, what’s the ONE Thing I can do this week so I’m on track to achieve my goal this month, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this year, so I’m on track to achieve my five-year goal, so I’m on track to achieve my someday goal?
  • The Daily View: Based on my goal this week, what’s the ONE Thing I can do today so I’m on track to achieve my goal this week, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this month, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this year, so I’m on track to achieve my five-year goal, so I’m on track to achieve my someday goal?
  • The immediate One Thing: So, based on my goal today, what’s the ONE Thing I can do right NOW so I’m on track to achieve my goal today, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this week, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this month, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this year, so I’m on track to achieve my five-year goal, so I’m on track to achieve my someday goal?

And that’s how you get from lofty vision to pragmatic next steps.

So what’s the one thing that will deliver exceptional results for your life? Better get started!