The ONE Thing by Gary Keller22 min read

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The ONE Thing gives you a very simple approach to productivity, based around a single question, to help you have less clutter, distractions and stress, and more focus, energy and success.

I learned about this book from Tai Lopez, who did a video on it in 2014 (see my comment?). After watching another one of his videos on speed reading, I thought this would be a good book to try it with.

Gary Keller has been running one of the world’s largest real estate companies in the world for the past 30 years. Apparently, that wasn’t enough, so he had to write a New York Times bestseller.

It’s called The ONE Thing and here are the 3 biggest takeaways from it:

You can figure out your long- and short-term priorities and goals with a single question.

In order to get focused, you have to learn how to say no.

Never sacrifice your personal life for work.

Lesson 1: You only need one question to figure out yourpriorities, both long-term and short-term.

If you only take away a single sentence from this book, let it be this one:

“What’s the ONE thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary?”

That’s what Keller calls the focusing question and it’s the core concept around which the entire book is built. Much like Tim Ferriss, Keller is a big fan of the 80/20 or Pareto principle, where 20% of the input gives you 80% of the results.

Not all items on your to-do list are created equal, so in order to make the biggest leaps in the shortest amount of time, you’d be best off ruthlessly prioritizing them.

The beauty of the way this question is asked is that sets you up for focus on a single thing, while simultaneously picking the priority from the top of the food chain.

Keller suggests to ask this question on two levels: macro and micro.

If your ultimate goal in life is to fly a plane across the Atlantic, then the answer to the focusing on a macro level would most likely be to get a pilot’s license – it will make actually flying a plane a lot easier.

But on a micro level, i.e. “What’s the ONE thing I can do right now, such that…”, that would probably mean to sign up for flying lessons.

Once you have found the answer to the focusing question on a macro level, all you have to do whenever you find yourself in “what-should-I-do-next-land”, just ask it again on a micro level, and you’ll know what to do.

One helps you figure out the direction of your life, the other the next action you have to take to get there.

Lesson 2: Getting focused means learning to say no.

I wish I had a dime for every time anyone quoted Steve Jobs on something, because I’d probably be richer than the man himself was within a year.

The man’s advice is just too good. At the 1997 WWDC (Worldwide Developers Conference), Steve said that “you’d think focus means saying yes, but it actually means to say no.”

When he returned to Apple he cut the product lineup from 350 to 10. He said no 340 times. That’s a lot of no’s. But look at what the few Apple products we know today have become, and you’ll see he was right.

Asking the focusing question is the easy part. Saying no to all your other seemingly important and urgent to-do’s is what’s hard.

The best way to make saying no easy is to make yourself unnecessary in the first place. For example if employees bother you with the same questions, create an FAQ and direct people to that.

Try to reduce incoming requests and low-level distractions, so you won’t have to say no as often, and if you do, make sure you give people a time when they’ll have their answer.

Lesson 3: Never sacrifice your personal life for your work.

A great quote to make a great point.

“Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls…are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.” – James Patterson

You can always make another phone call, send another pitch, or catch up on yesterday’s work tomorrow. But you can never undo a missed dance recital, a forgotten date or chronic back pain.

Work priorities number 2, 3, and 17 are always negotiable and can be put off or sometimes not done at all. As long as you are working on your ONE thing, you’re making sure that when you’re working, you’re doing what’s most important.

That more than compensates for having to take off early, allowing yourself enough sleep and taking extra time to buy flowers on the way home.

After all, what good is it to achieve your ONE thing when there’s no one left to share the story of how you got there with?

My personal take-aways

You could argue that this book only has one gear and that you could pull out the focusing question and be done with it. But then you’d miss the point. While the focusing question is the core concept, the chapters around it are like supporting pillars, making the whole thing come together in a big, beautiful picture that makes a lot more sense than the question alone. I think I’d recommend this to productivity newbies over some of the more classic books, because it provides a wholistic approach, including topics like willpower, multitasking, saying no and living with purpose.

The ONE Thing is the best approach to getting what you want.

Success is a result of narrowing your concentration to one thing.

Success is built sequentially, one thing at a time.

The Five Big Ideas

  • Not everything matters equally.
  • Multitasking is a lie.
  • Discipline is a result of habit.
  • Willpower is a finite resource.
  • Big is bad.

Chapter1: The ONE Thing

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

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.

Chapter3: Success Leaves Clues

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   

Everything Matters Equally


A Disciplined Life

Willpower Is Always on Will-Call

A Balanced Life

Big Is Bad

Chapter4: Everything Matters Equally

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

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.

Researchers estimate that workers are interrupted every 11 minutes and then spend almost a third of their day recovering from these distractions.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

Chapter 9: Big Is Bad

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.

“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

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. (To learn more about asking quality questions, read this in-depth guide.)

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.

Anyone who dreams of an uncommon life eventually discovers there is no choice but to seek an uncommon approach to living it.

The Focusing Question is so deceptively simple that its power is easily dismissed by anyone who doesn’t closely examine it.

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

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

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?”

Chapter12: The Path to Great Answers

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.

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.

A new answer usually requires new behavior.

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.

Chapter13: Live with Purpose

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.

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.

Chapter14: Live by Priority

Purpose without priority is powerless.

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.

Chapter15: Live for Productivity

Productive action transforms lives.

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
  • Resting is as important as working.

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).

“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, and because those who oversee or direct tend to have power and authority, “they are in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency.”

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.

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.

Chapter16: The Three Commitments

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.

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 ask, “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.

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.”

Chapter17: The Four Thieves

The Four Thieves of Productivity

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

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.

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

Personal energy mismanagement is a silent thief of productivity.

High achievement and extraordinary results require big energy.

The Highly Productive Person’s Daily Energy Plan

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.

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.

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.

Recommended Reading

If you like The One Thing, you may also enjoy the following books:

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Start with Why by Simon Sinek

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