In The One Thing, real estate entrepreneur Gary Keller argues that the key to extraordinary success is focusing daily on the “One Thing” that’s most important for achieving your goal, rather than scattering yourself in many directions. Keller and co-author Jay Papasan explain how to determine your goal or life purpose, then focus intensely on getting there, while avoiding pitfalls such as multitasking, relying on an unprioritized to-do list, thinking too small, misunderstanding willpower and discipline, and neglecting your personal life. When you know and focus exclusively on the most important thing every day, everything else falls into place. Extraordinary focus on One Thing brings extraordinary success.
1-Page Summary of The One Thing
In The One Thing, real estate entrepreneur Gary Keller argues that the key to extraordinary success is focusing daily on the “One Thing” that will make the biggest difference in achieving your goal.
Keller, founder of the world’s largest real estate company Keller Williams, says that success comes from choosing and doing the right things sequentially, each connected to and building on the previous one, rather than doing a lot of disparate things, regardless of value, simultaneously. Extraordinary focus on One Thing each day is what leads to extraordinary success.
You start by thinking big—imagining extraordinary results—then narrowing your focus until you’re thinking small—that is, focusing on the most important thing you can do at the moment to help get you where you ultimately want to go. Focus on it exclusively, and when you complete it, move on to the next One Thing on your way to your goal.
The Domino Effect
When you prioritize so you’re focusing on the right thing at the moment, everything after that subsequently falls into place like a progression of dominoes.
Physicist Lorne Whitehead determined in 1983 that a single domino can bring down another domino that’s 50% bigger. Another physicist tested and confirmed this in 2001, using eight dominoes of plywood, each 50% larger than the one before. The first was two inches tall and the last one thirty-six inches tall.
When you pursue your goals by starting with the one, right thing, it leads to bigger things—you build energy in a geometric progression like Whitehead’s progressively larger dominoes. To keep doing the math:
- The tenth domino would be nearly as tall as NFL QB Payton Manning.
- The eighteenth would be comparable to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
- The twenty-third would be taller than the Eiffel Tower.
- The thirty-first would surpass Mount Everest by 3,000 feet.
- The fifty-seventh would be comparable in height to the distance between earth and moon.
To achieve success, aim for the moon. Getting there is doable when you create a domino effect in your life.
Success Is Sequential
Exceptional success, like a domino fall, is sequential, not something you achieve by multitasking or doing a lot of things simultaneously. You line up your priorities and focus on the first domino until you topple it. You begin with a linear process that becomes geometric; you build momentum as you do the first right thing, followed by the next and the next.
A wealthy person doesn’t become wealthy in a day; a champion athlete doesn’t start winning on day one. Money, skills, expertise, and accomplishments are built over time. Success builds on success, sequentially, as you move from One Thing to another until you reach the highest level possible.
Despite our potential for huge success, most of us believe a number of myths we’ve been taught about it, which keep us from focusing on One Thing:
Myth 1) Everything is equally important and we must do it all. We’re flooded with new information and input constantly. Everything feels urgent and important, so we try to do everything, using an ever-increasing to-do list that gives every item equal weight. However, without prioritization, it’s merely a “survival” list. All things are not equally important. Research shows that a minority of our effort (20%) produces the majority (80%) of our results, which means** focusing on the few, highest-impact things is the key to creating extraordinary results**.
Myth 2) Multitasking gets more done. Multitasking is a myth—our brains can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What looks like multitasking is actually task-switching as our brains go back and forth between tasks. Rather than increasing our efficiency, this process is a huge time-waster. Researchers estimate that employees are interrupted every eleven minutes and spend a third of their day recovering from interruptions. It also takes longer to do things. Depending on the complexity of the task, switching can add 25% to 100% more time to completing it. You won’t succeed in your work or life unless you figure out what matters most in the moment and give it your undivided attention.
Myth 3) Only people with superhuman discipline succeed. Most people have all the discipline they need to succeed. Success isn’t a result of ongoing discipline. It results from applying discipline long enough for a new habit to stick and become automatic. When you exercise discipline, you’re training yourself to act in a certain way. When you do it long enough—research shows it takes 66 days to establish a habit—the new behavior becomes routine. You become successful when you’ve strategically applied discipline to the right thing—establishing a powerful new habit.
Myth 4) Willpower is unlimited. Willpower is like the battery power of your phone. As you draw on the available power, the supply diminishes. You make difficult challenges harder when you don’t reserve enough willpower to help you with them. Things that sap willpower include: resisting temptation, doing a task you dislike, and suppressing emotions. The key to having willpower when you need it is to:
- Plan your day so that you’re doing your most important tasks when your willpower is at its highest level.
- Conserve willpower for when you know you’re going to need it.
- Recharge your willpower by resting or feeding your brain with complex carbs and protein.
Myth 5) You must live a balanced life. A balanced life in which no area is neglected—for instance work, health, or relationships—is a myth. Trying to maintain balance will keep you from achieving extraordinary success because success requires allowing some things to remain unaddressed, at least temporarily, so you can focus on what’s most important. The key is counterbalancing the way a ballerina does—by making constant adjustments with her toes and ankles.
In your work, when you focus on the most important thing, accept that other things will fall by the wayside; in your personal life, be aware of personal and family needs and constantly counterbalance to address them. To live a counterbalanced life, let the right things take precedence and tackle the rest when you can.
Myth 6) Don’t overreach by thinking big. Many people fear “going big” or pursuing exceptional achievement in their professional lives because it sounds difficult or like “pie in the sky.” Lowering your sights seems more prudent and realistic. However, how big you think determines your level of success, so aim high:
- Avoid incremental thinking. Stretch in every area of your life—if your goal is 10, aim for 20.
- Order off the menu. Instead of choosing from the available options, imagine new options.
- Act boldly and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is a stepping stone to exceptional results when you learn from mistakes.
Ask the Focusing Question
If the key to getting extraordinary results is focusing on the right One Thing, then you need a way of figuring out what that thing is. The way you determine it is by asking the Focusing Question:** “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”**
The focusing question takes two forms—a big-picture and a small-focus question: 1) “What’s my One Thing?” and 2) “What’s my One Thing right now.” You ask the first to determine your purpose and the second to determine the most important immediate action toward attaining it.
You can apply it to every area of your life—spiritual, health, personal, relationships, job, and finances—to ensure that you’re doing what matters most. Customize the focusing question by inserting your area of focus; you can also include a time frame (this year/month). For instance— for my health, what’s the One Thing I can do to ensure I exercise (today, this week, this year) such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Implement Your One Thing
There are three components to implementing your One Thing and achieving exceptional results: purpose, priority, and productivity. Your big One Thing is your purpose, and your small One Thing is your priority—what you do now—to achieve it.
Purpose, priority, and productivity are like three parts of an iceberg. Productivity is the tip or part you see, priority is directly under the surface, and purpose is deeper. Your purpose determines your priority, and both purpose and priority drive productivity. How well you connect your purpose, priority, and productivity determines your personal level of success**.**
1) Purpose is the one thing you want your life to be about more than any other.
Following are some tips for discovering your purpose.
- Write down a handful of activities you’re passionate about—for example, activities involving family, work, community, or a hobby.
- List several outcomes you’re passionate about.
- Pick one activity and one outcome most important to you.
- Combine your activity and outcome to answer the question, “What’s the One Thing I can do that would mean the most to me, such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
Post your One Thing where you’ll see it often. Try it for a while, even if you’re not completely satisfied with it. You can always revise it or develop a better one later.
2) Priority: Your purpose specifies where you want to go. Your priority is what you do now to get there. Because of the way humans are wired, it can be hard to connect the present—what we’re doing now—with the future. The way to do it is to think in steps, each building on the previous step to reach your final goal/purpose. It’s like lining up your dominoes, so a small action sets off a chain of related actions leading to the result you want. Train your mind to drill down from your big goal, like opening a set of Russian nesting dolls one at a time until you know the most important thing to do in the present.
3) Productivity: Once you know your purpose plus your immediate and future priorities for getting there, you need to use your time productively to achieve the results you want. The key to productivity is scheduling or blocking time on your calendar to focus on your priority and treating that time as sacrosanct.
There are four steps to time blocking:
- Block off your vacation time for the year.
- Time block your One Thing (block off at least four consecutive hours of uninterrupted time to focus on it each day).
- Block an hour each week for planning time.
- Protect your blocked time.
Beware of four things that can undercut your productivity:
- Inability to say no: Saying yes to (or focusing on) your One Thing is your priority. This means you have to protect what you’ve said yes to by saying no to everything else that impinges on your time block. To put it another way, one yes must be defended over time by a thousand nos.
- Fear of chaos: When you focus on your One Thing, it’s a given that other things will be delayed or won’t get done. Knowing there are loose ends and unfinished work can be distracting, but you need to develop a tolerance for such messiness or you’ll never accomplish what matters most.
- Poor health habits: When you strive for success at the expense of your health, you won’t have the energy to be productive each day and you’ll eventually burn out. Instead, you need to adopt habits and practices that build your energy. Ways to build energy include: Meditate and pray; eat, sleep, and exercise; spend time with loved ones; and plan your day for mental energy.
- A distracting environment: The people you associate with and your physical surroundings can either help or hinder your productivity. If those around you are negative and have bad habits, their negativity will rub off on you and distract you from your goals. Instead, surround yourself with people who support and motivate you to be your best. In your physical environment, take steps to eliminate distractions as well—for instance, by shutting down browsers, email, and phones during your time block.
Things Fall into Place
When you dream big and then make that dream your goal, you’re on the way to exceptional success. Of course, getting there requires working backward from your goal to determine the specific steps you need to take. Then, build momentum toward your goal by focusing on each One Thing until you master it.
Studies have found that what people regret most at the end of life are the things they didn’t do. The way to avoid this is to make sure that each day you do what matters most, so that everything else falls into place. You are the engineer of your success and are the first domino.
Full Summary of The One Thing
Chapter 1: The One Thing
In The One Thing, author and real estate entrepreneur Gary Keller argues that the key to extraordinary success is focusing daily on the “One Thing” that will make the biggest difference in achieving your goal.
Keller, founder of the world’s largest real estate company Keller Williams, acknowledges this is counterintuitive in our multitasking world. But he argues that success comes from doing the right things sequentially, each connected to and building on the previous one, rather than doing a lot of disparate things simultaneously. **Extraordinary focus on One Thing each day is what leads …
Read the rest of the “The One Thing” summary at my new book summary product, Shortform.
Here’s what you’ll find in the full The One Thing summary:
- Chapter 1: The One Thing
- Chapter 2: The Domino Effect
- Chapter 3: Success Stories
- Exercise: The ‘One Thing’ in Your Life
- Part 1 | Chapter 4: Myth 1—Everything is Equally Important
- Chapter 5: Myth 2—Multitasking
- Exercise: One Thing at a TIme
- Chapter 6: Myth 3—A Disciplined Life
- Chapter 7: Myth 4—Just Use Your Willpower
- Exercise: Managing Your Willpower
- Chapter 8: Myth 5—Strive for Balanced Life
- Chapter 9: Myth 6—Don’t Think Too Big
- Part 2 | Chapters 10-12: The Focusing Question
- Exercise: Practice the Focusing Question
- Part 3 | Chapters 13-15: Implementing the One Thing
- Exercise: Block Your Time
- Chapter 16: Make the Most of Your Time Block
- Chapter 17: Four Productivity Hurdles
- Exercise: Learn to Say No
- Chapter 18: Live Large
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