The One Thing

by Gary Keller

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: February 23, 2024
 17 min read
The One Thing
The One Thing

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What are the big ideas?

  1. Focusing on one main goal leads to greater success.
  2. Achieving big results comes from doing small, important tasks one at a time.
  3. Working with others and having a singular focus are key to success.
  4. Saying 'no' and managing health and environment are crucial for productivity.
  5. Mastery, accountability, and learning from others drive extraordinary results.

Summary

Chapter 1: The ONE Thing

The Power of Focusing on One Thing for Achieving Success

  • The ONE Thing is the best approach to getting what you want.
  • Where Keller has had huge success, he had narrowed his concentration to one thing, and where his success varied, his focus had too.
  • When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, your approach should always be the same. Go small.
  • It’s realizing that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.
  • You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.

Chapter 2:  The Domino Effect

Achieving Extraordinary Results Through Sequential Success and the Domino Effect

  • Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life.
  • The key is over time. Success is built sequentially. It’s one thing at a time.

Chapter 3: Success Leaves Clues

The Importance of Collaboration and Singular Focus in Achieving Success

  • No one is self-made. And no one succeeds alone. No one.
  • The ONE Thing shows up time and again in the lives of the successful because it’s a fundamental truth.
  • The ONE Thing sits at the heart of success and is the starting point for achieving extraordinary results.

The Six Lies Between You and Success   

  1. Everything Matters Equally
  2. Multitasking
  3. A Disciplined Life
  4. Willpower Is Always on Will-Call
  5. A Balanced Life
  6. Big Is Bad

Chapter 4: Everything Matters Equally

Prioritizing for Productivity and Success

  • When everything feels urgent and important, everything seems equal. We become active and busy, but this doesn’t actually move us any closer to success. Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.
  • “The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.” — Bob Hawke
  • Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.
  • Most to-do lists are survival lists—getting you through your day and your life, but not making each day a stepping-stone for the next so that you sequentially build a successful life.
  • Instead of a to-do list, focus on a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.
  • If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.
  • The majority of what you want will come from the minority of what you do. Extraordinary results are disproportionately created by fewer actions than most realize.
  • No matter the task, mission, or goal. Big or small. Start with as large a list as you want, but develop the mindset that you will whittle your way from there to the critical few and not stop until you end with the essential ONE.
  • There will always be just a few things that matter more than the rest, and out of those, one will matter most.
  • Doing the most important thing is always the most important thing.

Chapter 5: Multitasking

The Myth and Inefficiency of Multitasking

  • Multitasking is a lie.
  • When you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or won’t do either well.
  • It’s not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it’s that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have.
  • When you switch from one task to another, voluntarily or not, two things happen. The first is nearly instantaneous: you decide to switch. The second is less predictable: you have to activate the “rules” for whatever you’re about to do.
  • Task switching exacts a cost few realize they’re even paying.
  • You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once.
  • Every time you try to do two or more things at once, you’re simply dividing up our focus and dumbing down all of the outcomes in the process.

The Impact of Distractions and Interruptions on Productivity

  • Researchers estimate that workers are interrupted every 11 minutes and then spend almost a third of their day recovering from these distractions.
  • Researchers estimate we lose 28 percent of an average workday to multitasking ineffectiveness.
  • Why would we ever tolerate multitasking when we’re doing our most important work?

Chapter 6: A Disciplined Life

The Relationship Between Discipline, Habit, and Success

  • Success is actually a short race—a sprint fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in and take over.
  • When you discipline yourself, you’re essentially training yourself to act in a specific way. Stay with this long enough and it becomes routine—in other words, a habit.
  • You can become successful with less discipline than you think, for one simple reason: success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.
  • The trick to success is to choose the right habit and bring just enough discipline to establish it.
  • When you do the right thing, it can liberate you from having to monitor everything.
  • It takes an average of 66 days to acquire a new habit.
  • It takes time to develop the right habit, so don’t give up too soon. Decide what the right one is, then give yourself all the time you need and apply all the discipline you can summon to develop it.
  • Those with the right habits seem to do better than others. They’re doing the most important thing regularly and, as a result, everything else is easier.

Chapter 7: Willpower Is Always on Call

The Limitations of Willpower in Achieving Success

  • When we tie our success to our willpower without understanding what that really means, we set ourselves up for failure.
  • Willpower is always on will-call is a lie.
  • The more we use our mind, the less minding power we have.
  • You make doing what matters most a priority when your willpower is its highest.
  • So, if you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work—your ONE Thing—early, before your willpower is drawn down.

Chapter 8: A Balanced Life

The Myth of a Balanced Life and Prioritizing for Extraordinary Results

  • A balanced life is a lie.
  • In your effort to attend to all things, everything gets shortchanged and nothing gets its due.
  • When you gamble with your time, you may be placing a bet you can’t cover.
  • No matter how hard you try, there will always be things left undone at the end of your day, week, month, year, and life. Trying to get them all done is folly. When the things that matter most get done, you’ll still be left with a sense of things being undone—a sense of imbalance. Leaving some things undone is a necessary tradeoff for extraordinary results.
  • To achieve an extraordinary result you must choose what matters most and give it all the time it demands. This requires getting extremely out of balance in relation to all other work issues, with only infrequent counterbalancing to address them.
  • When you act on your priority, you’ll automatically go out of balance, giving more time to one thing over another.

Balance as an Active Choice, Not a Static State

  • Viewed wistfully as a noun, balance is lived practically as a verb.

Chapter 9: Big Is Bad

Challenging the Perception of Big Goals and Achievements

  • Big is bad is a lie.
  • When big is believed to be bad, small thinking rules the day and big never sees the light of it.
  • No one knows their ultimate ceiling for achievement, so worrying about it is a waste of time.
  • When you allow yourself to accept that big is about who you can become, you look at it differently.
  • Believing in big frees you to ask different questions, follow different paths, and try new things.
  • The only actions that become springboards to succeeding big are those informed by big thinking to begin with.
  • What you build today will either empower or restrict you tomorrow.
  • Achievement and abundance show up because they’re the natural outcomes of doing the right things with no limits attached.
  • Only living big will let you experience your true life and work potential.

Rethinking Success, Effort, and Life Management

  • “I was truly beginning to think that the secret to success was to get as tightly wound up as possible each morning, set myself on fire, and then open the door and fly through the day, unwinding on the world, until I literally burnt out. And what did all of this get me? It got me success, and it got me sick. Eventually, it got me sick of success.”
  • We overthink, overplan, and over-analyze our careers, our businesses, and our lives; that long hours are neither virtuous nor healthy; and that we usually succeed in spite of most of what we do, not because of it. We can’t manage time. The key to success isn’t in all the things we do but in the handful of things we do well.
  • Success comes down to being appropriate in the moments of your life. If you can honestly say, “This is where I’m meant to be right now, doing exactly what I’m doing,” then all the amazing possibilities for your life become possible.

Chapter 10: The Focusing Question

The Power of Asking the Right Questions

  • Answers come from questions, and the quality of any answer is directly determined by the quality of the question. Ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer. Ask the right question, get the right answer. Ask the most powerful question possible, and the answer can be life-altering.
  • Voltaire once wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”
  • One of the most empowering moments of Keller’s life came when he realized that life is a question and how we live it is our answer.
  • How we phrase the questions we ask ourselves determines the answers that eventually become our life.
  • The Focusing Question is so deceptively simple that its power is easily dismissed by anyone who doesn’t closely examine it.

The Impact of the Focusing Question on Achieving Extraordinary Results

  • The Focusing Question can lead you to answer not only “big picture” questions (Where am I going? What target should I aim for?) but also “small focus” ones as well (What must I do right now to be on the path to getting the big picture? Where’s the bulls-eye?).
  • Extraordinary results are rarely happenstance. They come from the choices we make and the actions we take.
  • The Focusing Question always aims you at the absolute best of both by forcing you to do what is essential to success—make a decision.
  • To stay on track for the best possible day, month, year, or career, you must keep asking the Focusing Question.
  • The Focusing Question collapses all possible questions into one: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
  • Most people struggle to comprehend how many things don’t need to be done if they would just start by doing the right thing.

Chapter 11: The Success Habit

Implementing the Focusing Question for Strategic Goal Setting

  • The Focusing Question is the foundational habit Keller uses to achieve extraordinary results and lead a big life.
  • The Focusing Question can direct you to your ONE Thing in the different areas of your life.
  • You can also include a time frame—such as “right now” or “this year”—to give your answer the appropriate level of immediacy, or “in five years” or “someday” to find a big-picture answer that points you at outcomes to aim for.
  • Say the category first, then state the question, add a time frame, and end by adding “such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” 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?”

Starting with Significant Goals for Maximum Impact

  • Start with the big stuff and see where it takes you.

Chapter 12: The Path to Great Answers

Categories of Answers and the Path to Extraordinary Results

  • Answers come in three categories: doable, stretch, and possibility.
  • Extraordinary results require a Great Answer.
  • If you want the most from your answer, you must realize that it lives outside your comfort zone.
  • A Great Answer is essentially a new answer.
  • A new answer usually requires new behavior.

Leveraging Research and Experience for Success

  • When moving toward a goal, the first thing to do is ask, “Has anyone else studied or accomplished this or something like it?”
  • Short of having a conversation with someone who has accomplished what you hope to achieve, in Keller’s experience books and published works offer the most in terms of documented research and role models for success.
  • The research and experience of others is the best place to start when looking for your answer.

The Formula for Implementing the ONE Thing

  • There is a natural rhythm to our lives that becomes a simple formula for implementing the ONE Thing and achieving extraordinary results: purpose, priority, and productivity.
  • Your big ONE Thing is your purpose and your small ONE Thing is the priority you take action on to achieve it.
  • Great businesses are built one productive person at a time.

Chapter 13: Live with Purpose

The Interplay of Purpose, Priority, and Productivity

  • Our purpose sets our priority and our priority determines the productivity our actions produce.
  • Who we are and where we want to go determine what we do and what we accomplish.

Understanding Happiness and Fulfillment in Life

  • How circumstances affect us depends on how we interpret them as they relate to our life.
  • Once we get what we want, our happiness sooner or later wanes because we quickly become accustomed to what we acquire.
  • Happiness happens on the way to fulfillment.
  • Dr. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, believes there are five factors that contribute to our happiness: positive emotion and pleasure, achievement, relationships, engagement, and meaning.
  • To be financially wealthy you must have a purpose for your life. In other words, without purpose, you’ll never know when you have enough money, and you can never be financially wealthy.
  • Happiness happens when you have a bigger purpose than having more fulfills, which is why we say happiness happens on the way to fulfillment.

Chapter 14: Live by Priority

The Necessity of Aligning Purpose with Priority

  • Purpose without priority is powerless.

The Process of Achieving Success

  • The truth about success is that our ability to achieve extraordinary results in the future lies in stringing together powerful moments, one after the other.
  • The farther away a reward is in the future, the smaller the immediate motivation to achieve it.
  • Connect today to all your tomorrows. It matters.
  • Visualizing the process—breaking a big goal down into the steps needed to achieve it—helps engage the strategic thinking you need to plan for and achieve extraordinary results.
  • In one study, those who wrote down their goals were 39.5 percent more likely to accomplish them.

Chapter 15: Live for Productivity

The Importance of Productive Action in Achieving Success

  • Putting together a life of extraordinary results simply comes down to getting the most out of what you do, when what you do matters.
  • The most successful people are the most productive people.
  • If disproportionate results come from one activity, then you must give that one activity disproportionate time.
  • To achieve extraordinary results and experience greatness, time block these three things in the following order: Time block your time off, Time block your ONE Thing, Time block your planning time.

Strategies for Effective Time Management and Productivity

  • The most productive people, the ones who experience extraordinary results, design their days around doing their ONE Thing.
  • Block time as early in your day as you possibly can.
  • Keller’s recommendation is to block four hours a day.
  • Normal business culture gets in the way of the very productivity it seeks because of the way people traditionally schedule their time.
  • Paul Graham, from Y Combinator, divides all work into two buckets: maker (do or create) and manager (oversee or direct).

The Role of Rest and Reflection in Productivity

  • Resting is as important as working.
  • “Maker” time requires large blocks of the clock to write code, develop ideas, generate leads, recruit people, produce products, or execute on projects and plans. This time tends to be viewed in half-day increments.
  • “Manager time,” on the other hand, gets divided into hours. This time typically has one moving from meeting to meeting.
  • To experience extraordinary results, be a maker in the morning and a manager in the afternoon.
  • Block an hour each week to review your annual and monthly goals.

Overcoming Challenges to Stay Focused on Priorities

  • There is magic in knocking down your most important domino day after day.
  • The best way to protect your time blocks is to adopt the mindset that they can’t be moved.
  • Your own need to do other things instead of your ONE Thing may be your biggest challenge to overcome.

Chapter 16: The Three Commitments

Commitments Essential for Achieving Extraordinary Results through Time Blocking

  • Achieving extraordinary results through time blocking requires three commitments. First, you must adopt the mindset of someone seeking mastery. Second, you must continually seek the very best ways of doing things. And last, you must be willing to be held accountable to doing everything you can to achieve your ONE Thing.

The Journey and Benefits of Mastery in Personal and Professional Development

  • When you can see mastery as a path you go down instead of a destination you arrive at, it starts to feel accessible and attainable.
  • More than anything else, expertise tracks with hours invested.
  • The pursuit of mastery bears gifts.
  • When coaching top performers, Keller often asks, “Are you doing this to simply do the best you can do, or are you doing this to do it the best it can be done?”
  • The path of mastering something is the combination of not only doing the best you can do, but also doing it the best it can be done.

The Role of Accountability and Learning in Achieving Success

  • Accountable people achieve results others only dream of.
  • Highly successful people are clear about their role in the events of their life.
  • Anders Ericsson observed that “the single most important difference between these amateurs and the three groups of elite performers is that the future elite performers seek out teachers and coaches and engage in supervised training, whereas the amateurs rarely engage in similar types of practice.”

Chapter 17: The Four Thieves

Recognizing and Overcoming the Four Thieves of Productivity

  • Inability to Say “No”
  • Fear of Chaos
  • Poor Health Habits
  • Environment Doesn’t Support Your Goals

The Importance of Saying 'No' to Maintain Focus and Productivity

  • The way to protect what you’ve said yes to and stay productive is to say no to anyone or anything that could derail you.
  • When you say yes to something, it’s imperative that you understand what you’re saying no to.
  • Saying yes to everyone is the same as saying yes to nothing.
  • You can’t please everyone, so don’t try.
  • A request must be connected to my ONE Thing for me to consider it.

Embracing Chaos as a Part of the Journey Toward Greatness

  • When you strive for greatness, chaos is guaranteed to show up.

The Role of Personal Health in Enhancing Productivity

  • Personal energy mismanagement is a silent thief of productivity.
  • High achievement and extraordinary results require big energy.
  • Meditate and pray for spiritual energy.
  • Eat right, exercise, and sleep sufficiently for physical energy.
  • Hug, kiss, and laugh with loved ones for emotional energy.
  • Set goals, plan, and calendar for mental energy.
  • Time block your ONE Thing for business energy.
  • When you spend the early hours energizing yourself, you get pulled through the rest of the day with little additional effort.

The Significance of a Supportive Environment in Achieving Goals

  • Your environment must support your goals.
  • For you to achieve extraordinary results, the people surrounding you and your physical surroundings must support your goals.
  • No one succeeds alone and no one fails alone. Pay attention to the people around you.
  • When you clear the path to success—that’s when you consistently get there.

The Power of Focusing on One's ONE Thing and Living Without Regrets

  • At any moment in time there can be only ONE Thing, and when that ONE Thing is in line with your purpose and sits atop your priorities, it will be the most productive thing you can do to launch you toward the best you can be.
  • A life worth living might be measured in many ways, but the one way that stands above all others is living a life of no regrets.
  • When you know what matters most, everything makes sense. When you don’t know what matters most, anything makes sense.

Questions

  1. How can focusing on just ONE Thing streamline my path to success?
  2. In what ways can I adopt a mindset of mastery to enhance my personal and professional growth?
  3. What are some key strategies to manage my energy effectively for high productivity?
  4. How can saying 'no' to distractions aid in achieving my most important goals?
  5. What steps can I take to create an environment that supports my goals?
  6. How does understanding the limitations of multitasking improve my efficiency?
  7. In what ways can I prioritize tasks to ensure I'm focusing on what truly matters?
  8. How can adopting the practice of time blocking enhance my daily productivity?

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