Summary of The One Thing by Gary Keller

September 13th, 2019


The importance of finding focus isn’t anything new. It’s something aspiring business people talk about all the time. Everyone knows or is aware of its benefits and yet we all find it so hard to practice. Gary Kellers simple read, The One Thing, offers great insight into focussing your mind, setting goals and getting you on a path to achieving extraordinary results.

“If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.”

Keller starts with an old Russian Proverb which hints to the direction of the book. Quite simply, spread yourself across too many things and you’ll struggle to do any of them effectively. We must focus on doing less more effectively. In Kellers words, we must find our “one thing”.

Create a domino effect

Whilst many attest to have the ability to do lots of things at once, Keller is quick to point out that extraordinary success is sequential not simultaneous. Success builds on success. So often, if you do one thing well it leads to the another and another and so on. Keller refers to this as a ‘domino effect’ and that we must create ours by targeting a big goal, and then lining up and prioritising all the small pieces (dominos) one by one to reach this goal.

Success leaves clues

You don’t have to look too hard to find examples of what Keller is eluding to. Extraordinarily successful companies highlight the clues to success. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he famously reduced their product line from 350 down to just 10 products.

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do, It’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.”

With a reduced product line, Apple was able to build on each success, with the Mac leading to the iMac, leading to the ipod, leading to itunes, leading to the iphone. A very clear example of this domino effect. Take a look at almost any great company and you can find one thing they have focussed on and built success on the back of. Google, Starbucks, Amazon, the list goes on.

The lies of success

So the clues are clear but how do we get there? It’s something I trouble myself with all the time. I’m well aware of the benefits of focus, doing one thing at a time and doing it well but I consistently fail to practice this. Keller writes that before we can get on the path to extraordinary results and practice our “one thing”, we must first accept the lies of success, that stop us from accepting the power of this concept.

  1. Everything matters equally

Today everything seems urgent. Whilst many of us keep ourselves occupied, active and busy doesn’t always drive us towards success. To do lists are one of the biggest causes of making everything seem urgent. They focus us on doing as much as possible rather than prioritising and doing the specific things that will make a significant difference. Keller argues that instead of todo lists, we need a success list. Success lists are short and focus on everything that is important. When we don’t focus our todo lists on success they will take us everywhere else but there. One way to help is to apply Paretos principle, also known as the 80/20 principle.

The 80/20 principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs or rewards.

Put another way, we should be building to do lists around the things that will have the biggest impact on what we’re trying to achieve. So we need to stop worrying about how many things we get done and focus more on doing a small number of things incredibly well.

  1. Multitasking

This ‘myth’ certainly hit home for me. I’ve always wondered how I could multitask better and it’s amazing how highly we think of this so called skill. Whilst it appears to be sought after, with companies often seeking it from potential candidates, Steve Uzzell is quick to bring us back down to earth

“Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.”

The point is that anyone who thinks multitasking is effective is living a lie. The concept is misleading. It was initially used to describe the way in which computers completed multiple tasks at the ‘same time’. The problem is that even this isn’t true. Computers switch back and fourth between the tasks that need completing. They never actually do anything at the same time. Whilst we could do this as well, constantly switching between tasks is neither effective or productive.

  1. Disciplined life

“It takes 66 days to form a habit”

Another Myth is this concept of needing more discipline. This is something I find myself thinking about all the time. However, Keller says we don’t need more discipline we just need to be able to direct and manage it better. The real trick is to use just enough discipline to form a habit and then let the automatic nature of that habit take over. We can’t do everything though, so we have to prioritise and choose the right habits.

Keller recites a great story using the example of Michele Phelps, the most successful Olympian of all time. Early on when he was diagnosed with ADHD, his teachers believed he wouldn’t amount to much as he’d never be able to focus on anything. How wrong they were. Phelps had just enough discipline to dedicate his life to the swimming pool. He spent 6 hours in the pool, 7 days a week for years, turning his training into a habit, way ahead of everyone else. No doubt this was incredibly hard to begin with but once you turn something into a habit it soon becomes much easier to do than not at all.

  1. Willpower on will-call

“Where theres a will there is a way”.

A world renowned saying but it isn’t really true. Keller argues that when we tie our success to our willpower without fully understanding what that means, we set ourselves up for failure. Just like our time and energy we have a limited amount of Willpower. It doesn’t come on tap. Once we start using it, we only have so much left before it needs to rest and recharge. Therefore, we must manage it carefully and focus it on our most important tasks first.

  1. Balanced life

“Time on one thing means time away from another, this makes balance impossible”

Historically no-one had a balanced life, work was your life. Everyone was a hunter/gatherer and if you tried to balance that, i.e do less of it, then you wouldn’t survive. Successful people don’t balance their lives, they manage their time incredibly well, moving from one priority to the next. Keller calls this counterbalancing. Trying to balance too many things just won’t work, we have to focus and spend the amount of time each priority requires and no less.

One caveat is that we must approach our personal and business lives differently. Our personal life has a minimum criteria we must meet in order to be happy. Keller talks of the concept of going short on your personal life. Which to me simply means, staying connected, sleeping, healthy eating as going without these will have a detrimental effect. But in your business life you go long, focus on big goals and work towards it at the expense of all the other ‘stuff’.

  1. Big is bad

The final myth is the idea that we shouldn’t think big. Keller argues that this is the biggest lie of all. If we fear big success then we subconsciously avoid it and actually sabotage it. Big is usually linked to complexity, pressure and stress. Big always seems impossible and so we cheat ourselves by focussing on little goals that we feel comfortable achieving. Keller highlights the fact is that we don’t know our limits.

If we don’t know them then how do we know what is big or small. The key is to stretch yourself, and big goals that appear to be unreachable at first often become easier to achieve than we first thought.

“Don’t fear big, fear mediocracy, fear the lack of living to your fullest.”

Once we have accepted these myths we can then begin on our path to Productivity.

Path to productivity

“What is the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier of unnecessary.”

And here it is, the key to success, the big question. Keller argues that to achieve maximum productivity we must constantly ask ourselves this focussing question. Now that you’re thinking big, this focussing question forces you to make a decision and it leads you towards placing your first domino.

Once this question becomes a habit itself, you can tweak it to apply to right now, today, this week, this month and so on. Ask yourself this question again and again and you’ll be able to line up all your priorities (dominos) one by one towards reaching your big goal.

To answer this question, Keller talks about doing your research. Find other people who have been successful before and set that as your minimum. Now you have a benchmark, you can’t just set a simple achievable goal, you must explore what is possible and discover a way to achieve it.

Live with purpose

To follow a path to extraordinary results you must live with purpose. Whilst this may come across a little deep, Keller argues that purpose is the ultimate glue. When you know what your why is, you’ll find it easier to draw out the inspiration and motivation to persevere, even when times are hard. Without a purpose, you’ll find it harder to make decisions and ultimately your productivity will stall.

Live for priority

“Goal setting to the now”.

As humans we have a much stronger preference for rewards right now. This makes it harder to envisage how we get to a big goal and gain all the rewards in the future. Kellers solution. Goal setting to the now. Set your big goal in the distant future and work your way all the way back, domino by domino to right now. Now you can write down all your priorities and line up all your dominos by constantly asking yourself the focussing question around this big goal.

Everyone has heard about setting goals but reading this book highlighted to me again how important they are. How can we achieve extraordinary results if we don’t even know what our priorities are. Write them down and return to them again and again.

Live for productivity

Kellers final point is to live for productivity. Everybody talks about not having enough time to do everything they want, myself included. How is it though, that highly successful people seem to get so much done, with better results and earn so much more for their time than everyone else? Tony Robbins, Seth Godin and Steve Jobs all have one thing in common, they are all incredibly productive. Whilst there are number of reasons why this might be there is no doubt that they all manage their time incredibly well.

Because of this, Keller talks of a solution to try and manage our time better. He calls it Time Blocking. Essentially this means using our calendar to block out all the time we need to complete our one thing. Just like meetings, we block out appointments for the amount of time needed to get our one thing done. Distractions will come along, so it’s on us to block out this time and protect it. An interesting article for some more reading around distractions is Paul Grahams article, Managers Time, Makers time.

The three commitments

The final straight. In order to achieve extraordinary results using this timeblocking method we must follow three commitments:

1. Adopt the mindset of someone seeking mastery

Think of it this way: At some point white belts training to advance know the same basic karate moves black belts know- they simply haven’t practiced enough to be able to do them well.

Reaching mastery isn’t easy and in fact it never really ends. Elite performers don’t reach the highest level over night, they put in hour upon hour dedicated to their one thing. Over time they accumulate a huge number of hours (the 10,000 hour rule) to their one thing. Whatever your focus, approach it with mastery in mind.

2. Moving from E to P

The path of mastering something is the combination of not only doing the best you can do at it, but also doing it the best it can be done.

When we get up in the morning, we can approach our day in one of two ways, Entrepreneurial or Purposeful. The first is our natural instinct, where we go about our tasks with buckets of energy and enthusiasm, instinctively solving the problems as we go. This works for a time but eventually we have to change our ways. We hit the ceiling of our natural ability and our productivity begins to falter. Keller says this is when we must shift to a purposeful approach. Highly productive individuals are able to devote just enough time to reassess their approach, to work out the best possible way of doing something and benefit from a huge increase in productivity. These people are constantly seeking improvements to create breakthroughs that take them far beyond their natural ability.

Sometimes we need to be entrepreneurial and run with something, an idea for example. We just need to get up and running. However, at some point we’ll need to reassess our approach, discover smarter ways of working before our entrepreneurial approach begins to hinder our productivity.

3. Live the accountability cycle

Taking complete ownership of your outcomes by holding no one but yourself responsible for them is the most powerful thing you can do to drive your success.

The final commitment is taking ownership. Keller argues this is probably the most important of the three. Being accountable means you own it and you’re not afraid of the truth. You’ll do whatever it takes to find a solution because you acknowledge that you are the one that has to make the change. Without this accountability, your path to mastery is likely to be short lived. Don’t come along for the ride, live the accountability cycle and seek out solutions to your challenges rather than trying to avoid them.

Final thoughts

And there we have it. My take on the incredibly insightful book, The One Thing. This book packs a punch. It will help you to find the focus you need to increase your productivity, seek out your priorities and break through the barriers to achieve bigger things.

“What is the one thing I can do, right now, such that by doing it everything else will be easier of unnecessary”

By Jonathan Clift, a UX Desginer based in the UK.