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Book Notes: "The One Thing" by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan


The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan (2013) is one of my absolute favorite books on the subject of goal-setting and productivity. The crux of the book is the Focusing Question: “What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?” The question’s singular goal is to help you set your priority and take action. Over the course of the book, Keller and Papasan teach the reader to apply this question both to identify big life goals and to identify the small steps that need to be taken to achieve those goals.

The One Thing is written in three parts. Part 1 details the “Six Lies” that are keeping you from living a successful life. Part 2 explains how to use the Focusing Question and identify your goals and how to create new habits. Part 3 describes some of the tactics you can use to effectively implement the system. Readers might be put off by the simplicity of the system, but sometimes the most profound truths can be unnervingly straight-forward. Our inability to accept and integrate the “obvious” idea is a big impediment to personal success.

Pros: Focused content that doesn’t meander. If you can look below the seeming simplicity of the core idea, there’s a lot of wisdom here.

Cons: None: This is one of the best books available on this topic.

Verdict: This is a great book, right up there with Greg McKeown’s “Essentialism” and Cal Newport’s “So Good They Can’t Ignore You." I revisit and reread this book every other year. Score: 9/10.

Notes & Highlights

Introduction - Chapter 1: The One Thing

[Famous scene from the film City Slickers]
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
Mitch: No. What?
Curly: This. [He holds up one finger.]
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sht.
Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the “one thing”?
Curly: That’s what you’ve got to figure out.
  • “The ONE thing is the best approach to getting what you want.”
  • Key question: “What’s the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
  • Go small. “Going small is ignoring all the things you could do and doing what you should do. It’s recognizing that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most. It’s a tighter way to connect what you do with what you want. It’s realizing that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.”

Chapter 2: The Domino Effect

  • The domino metaphor: a single domino can start an incredible chain reaction of surprising power (geometric progression means each successive domino can topple an even larger domino).
  • “Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life.”
  • “Every day [highly successful] people line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it until it falls.”
  • “Extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous. What starts out linear becomes geometric. You do the right thing and then you do the next right thing. Over time it adds up…”

Chapter 3: Success Leaves Clues

  • “Extraordinary successful companies always have one product or service they’re most known for or that makes them the most money.”
  • “Passion for something leads to disproportionate time practicing or working at it. That time spent eventually translates to skill, and when skill improves, results improve. Better results generally lead to more enjoyment, and more passion and more time is invested. It can be a virtuous cycle all the way to extraordinary results.”

Part 1: The Lies — They Mislead and Derail Us

  • “The problem is we tend to act on what we believe even when what we believe isn’t anything we should. As a result, buying into The ONE Thing becomes difficult because we’ve unfortunately bought into too many others—and more often than not those ‘other things’ muddle our thinking, misguide our actions, and sidetrack our success.”
  • The six lies between you and success
1. Everything Matters Equally 2. Multitasking3. A Disciplined Life4. Willpower is Always on Will-Call5. A Balanced Life6. Big is Bad

Chapter 4: 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.”
  • “Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.”
  • “Most to-do lists are actually just 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, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.”
  • “To-do lists tend to be long; success lists are short.”
  • “The majority of what you want will come from the minority of what you do.” [Pareto principle aka 80/20 Rule]
  • Once you edit your to-do list down to the should-do success list (the vital few), you want to further refine your list down to ONE Thing.
  • “Doing the most important thing is always the most important thing.”

Chapter 5: Multitasking

  • Clifford Nass’ 2009 Stanford University study on multitasking came to the conclusion that “Multitaskers were just lousy at everything.”
  • “Multitasking is a lie.”
  • “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.”
  • Task switching is costly: You interrupt your previously workflow, switch to the new task and then need to reorient yourself to the new task. After you complete the task, you need to switch and reorient to the original task. The switch/reorient transition is a big time-waster compared to a focused workflow.
  • Consider the cumulative loss in time and productivity over a lifetime of distractions.

Chapter 6: A Disciplined Life

  • “You don’t need to be a disciplined person to be successful. In fact, 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.”
  • “The right discipline goes a long way, and habits are hard only in the beginning. Over time, the habit you’re after becomes easier and easier to sustain.”
  • According to a University College of London study in 2009 it takes an average of 66 days to acquire a new habit.

Chapter 7: Willpower is Always on Will-Call

  • “Everyone accepts that limited resources must be managed, yet we fail to recognize that willpower is one of them. We act as though our supply of willpower were endless. As a result, we don’t consider it a personal resource to be managed, life food or sleep…when we need our willpower the most, it may not be there.”
  • “When our willpower runs out, we all revert to our default settings. This begs the question: What are your default settings?”
  • “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

  • “If you think of balance as the middle, then out of balance is when you’re away from it. Get too far away from the middle and you’re living at the extremes. The problem with living in the middle is that it prevents you from making extraordinary time commitments to anything. In your effort to attend to all things, everything gets shortchanged and nothing gets its due.”
  • “Magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.”
  • Aim to “counterbalance” other parts of your life (instead of seeking “balance’). The gist of this idea is that you periodically attend to the minimum needs in those areas in order to maintain those aspects of your life.
  • “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 the other work issues, with only infrequent counterbalancing to address them.”

Chapter 9: Big is Bad

  • Robert Brault: “We are kept from our goal, not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.”
  • “Thinking big is essential to extraordinary results. Success requires action, and action requires thought. But here’s the catch—the only actions that become springboards to succeeding big are those informed by big thinking to begin with.” (e.g. big actions = big outcome)
  • “What you build today will either empower or restrict you tomorrow.”
  • “[Stanford psychologist Carol] Dweck’s work with children revealed two mindsets in action—a ‘growth’ mindset that generally thinks big and seeks growth and a ‘fixed’ mindset that places artificial limits and avoids failure. Growth-minded students…employ better learning strategies, experience less helplessness, exhibit more positive effort, and achieve more in the classroom than their fixed-minded peers.”
  • “A good rule of thumb is to double down everywhere in your life. If your goal is ten, ask how you can reach 20. [Reminds me of Grant Cardone’s 10x Rule]

Part 2: The Truth—The Simple Path to Productivity

  • “We overthink, overplay, and overanalyze 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.
  • “The key to success isn’t in all the things we do but in the handful of things we do well.”

Chapter 10: The Focusing Question

  • Famous Andrew Carnegie quote from 1885: “[The saying] ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’ is all wrong. I tell you ‘put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.’”
  • Mark Twain [probably spurious]: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret to getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting the first one.”
  • “What focus on a question when what we really crave is an answer? It’s simple. Answers come from questions, and the quality of any answer is directly determined by the quality of the question.”
  • “How we phrase the question 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 ONE Thing’s 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 is a “big-picture map and small-focus compass”. Big Picture = What’s my one thing; Small Focus = What’s my one thing right now?

Chapter 11: The Success Habit

  • We unknowingly acquire and develop new habits all the time. We have a choice about whether we will mindfully create new habits and which ones we will foster.
  • Use the Focusing Question regularly to identify what needs to be done. Do this frequently enough and it will become a habit.
  • The Focusing Question can be applied to the different dimensions of your life: Business, work, relationships, personal life, physical health, spiritual life, finance.
  • You can then narrow the question for a given aspect of your life. Example: What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make my business more profitable? What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure that I exercise?

Chapter 12: The Path to Great Answers

  • The Great Question Matrix: Consists of 4 quadrants: Big & Broad, Big & Specific, Small & Broad, Small & Specific
  • Your goal is the Big & Specific Question. Example: “What can I do to increase sales?” is considered small and broad. Alternatively “What can I do to double sales in six months?” Is considered big and specific.
  • “Low goals don’t require extraordinary actions so they rarely lead to extraordinary results.”
  • “The research and experience of others is the best place to start when looking for your answer.”
  • “Answers come in three categories: doable, stretch and possibility.” (From least difficult to most difficult)
  • “Short of having a conversation with someone who has accomplished what you hope to achieve…book and published works offer the most in terms of documented research and role models for success.”
  • In order to meet your new answer, you’ll likely have to change your behavior.

Part 3: Extraordinary Results

  • Simple formula for implementing the ONE Thing: purpose, priority, and productivity.
  • Purpose is your big ONE Thing.
  • Priority is the small ONE Thing action you take to achieve your big goal.
  • Productivity happens when you treat the big thing as a compass which guides your small thing actions.

Chapter 13: Live with Purpose

  • George Bernard Shaw quote: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
  • “Our purpose sets our priority and our priority determines the productivity our actions produce.”
  • “Happiness happens on the way to fulfillment. We all want to be happy, but seeking it isn’t the best way to find it.”

Chapter 14: Live by Priority

  • “Purpose has the power to shape our lives only in direct proportion to the power of the priority we connect it to. Purpose without priority is powerless.”
  • “People prefer big rewards over small ones, they have an even stronger preference for present rewards over future ones—even when the future rewards are MUCH BIGGER. It’s an ordinary occurrence, oddly named hyperbolic discounting—the further away a reward is in the future, the smaller the immediate motivation to achieve it.”
  • Goal-setting counteracts hyperbolic discounting and helps deal with the activities you should be doing in the present now to get to the future goal.

Chapter 15: Live for Productivity

  • Time block your ONE Thing by going to your calendar and blocking off all the time you need to accomplish your ONE Thing. You are effectively making an appointment (commitment) with yourself to work on it.
  • “If disproportionate results come from one activity, then you must give that one activity disproportionate time.” (Revisit this thought by asking yourself the focusing question every day)
  • Author recommends 4 hours a day for your ONE Thing.
  • Time block your planning time: “Block an hour each week to review your annual and monthly goals.”
  • You must be active about protecting your time blocks. Author provides 4 strategies: 1) Build a bunker: Find a place where you cannot be interrupted; 2) Store provisions: Have supplies, materials and snacks on hand to minimize downtime/interruptions to avoid leaving your bunker; 3) Sweep for mines: Turn of your phone, avoid email, close your web browser; 4) Enlist support: Let others know what you are doing and when you’ll be available.

Chapter 16: The Three Commitments

1. Follow the Path of  
2. Move from “E” to “P”
3. Live the Accountability Cycle
  • “Commit to be your best. Extraordinary results happen only when you give the best you have to become the best you can be at your most important work.” This is the Path to Mastery.
  • Be purposeful about your ONE Thing. Find the systems that will get you there: be open to new thinking and new skills. Don’t quit when you hit a ceiling, try something new.
  • Take ownership of your outcomes and avoid a victim mentality.

Chapter 17: The Four Thieves

  • Inability to say “no”: “When you say yes to something, it’s imperative that you understand what you’re saying no to.” Is the request connected to your ONE Thing?
  • Fear of chaos: Pursuing your ONE Thing will result in other aspects of your life being neglected. Learn to deal with it.
  • Poor health habits: You must manage your energy. Exercise, sleep, good food are all essential to maintain focus and productivity.
  • Environment doesn’t support your goals: Align your physical and personal environment to support your ONE Thing.

Chapter 18: The Journey

One evening an elder Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us. One is Fear. It carries anxiety, concern, uncertainty, hesitancy, indecision and inaction. The other is Faith. It brings calm, conviction, confidence, enthusiasm, decisiveness, excitement and action.” The grandson thought about it for a moment and then meekly asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee replied, “The one you feed.”
  • “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.”

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