The ONE Thing (Gary Keller)

What is the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

This was an extremely gratifying and fast read, to the point. If you chase two rabbits at the same time, you won’t have a chance at getting either of them.

This book cleans up with one central myth: that doing more at the same time will be more productive.

Tom Hopkins wrote a similar book in the 1980s: “The Official Guide to Success”.  It taught us the Golden Rule of success:

“The ONE Thing” is similar – and takes Hopkins’ advice further by showing us how to stretch ourselves to get bigger as we initially thought possible.

The notion to abandon any complex, elaborate plans and focus on one simple step at a time – in the example above the first small domino stone – can also be found in Jeff Olson’s Slight Edge.

The book is divided into four parts:

– Introduction into the basic concepts.
– The lies that deceive and mislead us.
– The truth – the simple path to productivity.
– Extraordinary results – unlocking the possibilities within you.

Whereas the first two parts discuss widespread concepts of productive work and their weaknesses, the next section shows us the principles of becoming more productive, while the last part shows how we can apply the productivity principles to our own life.



1: The ONE Thing

“Be like a postage stamp – stick to one thing until you get there.” – Josh Billings

People get lost trying to do too much and in the end accomplish too little. Over time they lower their expectations, abandon their dreams, and allow their life to get small. This is the wrong thing to make small.

Our life should be big. To achieve that, we need to narrow our focus down to ONE thing.

If we work on fewer items, we can yield a stronger effect. One thing after the other. See also Benjamin Franklin‘s approach to instill moral guidelines for his life. He would not stop until he had one rule completely internalized, then move on to the next.

2: The DOMINO Effect

“Every great change starts like falling dominoes.” – BJ Thornton

When we think about success, we should shoot for the moon. The moon is reachable if we prioritize everything and put all of our energy into accomplishing the most important item. The domino effect means that one small step into the right direction is comparable to a small domino knocking over a slightly larger one. This larger one can then bring down an even bigger one, and so forth. Getting extraordinary results is all about creating such a domino effect in our life.

3: Success leaves clues

The ONE Thing

“It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.” – Og Mandino

Most successful companies – Starbuck’s, Coors, KFC, Apple etc. – focus on ONE thing that is the base of their success.

If we start with ONE Thing, we set a ripple effect in motion – further down the line, we can topple dominoes that are significantly larger than the one with which we started!

Success builds on success. It proceeds sequentially, but the yields can increase geometrically.
We have to find the lead domino and whack away at it until it falls.


PART #1 – THE LIES. They mislead and derail us.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

Too many lies and half-truths bury our life’s purpose.

Six lies stick out.

4: Everything Matters Equally (Lie #1)

 “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

How do we decide what to focus on? We don’t make a to-do list – we make a success list.

Vilfredo Pareto discovered in the 19th century that 80% of land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people.

Pareto’s Principle, first introduced by General Motors manager Joseph M. Juran in his Quality Control Handbook means that:

A small amount of causes creates most of the results.

– a few ideas give us the most results;
– some clients are more valuable than others;
– a small number of people creates most of the business success;
– a handful of investment puts most of the money into our pocket;

How, then, do we make sure we focus our efforts? We trim our to-do list down to the most important steps and then shorten that list by eliminating all but one item. That is the item that we need to do under any circumstance. This one thing is the item that really makes most other points obsolete

The author describes one example from his own life: at the age of 40, he wanted to learn the guitar, but had only 20 minutes per day to practice. So he decided to only practise scales – and soon thereafter, he could actually play many solos from Eric Clapton to Billy Gibbons.

5: Multitasking (Lie #2)

“To do two things at once is to do neither.” – Publilius Syrus

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.

Juggling is an illusion – the balls are simply thrown in a rapid succession. One ball at a time – jugglers are skilled in “task switching”.

But what happens when we try switching tasks in our everyday life? We constantly interrupt our work flow and spend time reorienting our priorities.

The ONE Thing

We always have to spend time to reorient ourselves. Of course we can do one thing on autopilot and focus on another – e.g. talking to a client while driving – but we will neither become a better driver nor will we get the optimal result for our client (that we could have gotten – had we been free of any distraction).

Sometimes multitasking is a necessary evil, but if you want to get the best results, you better devote yourself completely.

6: A Disciplined Life (Lie #3)

“It’s one of the most prevalent myths of our culture: self-discipline.” – Leo Babauta

This may come as a surprise. Am I not advocating living a disciplined life as a solution to become more efficient? Yes.

There is an important point though: We need to be disciplined in anything until it becomes a routine habit. By then, we are working this on autopilot.

The good news though is: we only need to push ourselves for 66 days (on average) to exclusively focus working on hour craft, and then we will do it automatically. From then on, we will automatically focus and not use up any more energy to “get ourselves going”. No self-discipline necessary once we have instilled a habit.

Interestingly, Benjamin Franklin, who applied his own 13 moral codes to his life, also decided to focus on one virtue at a time until it had become habit. He did not try to do all 13 at once.

My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judg’d it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone thro’ the thirteen (…).

7: Willpower Is Always On Will Call (Lie #4)

“Odysseus understood how weak willpower actually is when he asked his crew to bind him to the mast while sailing by the seductive Sirens.” – Patricia Cohen

You cannot tax your willpower forever. Israeli judges who had to decide on granting parole to offenders were more “merciful” at the beginning of their shift and directly after taking a break. Apparently, going through several cases in a row taxed their willpower and made the easiest decision more likely: leave the defendants in jail.

Having a distraction, e.g. snacks, directly at home makes it more likely to break a healthy habit (in this example, a clean diet). I could withstand the temptation to eat a piece of chocolate, but that subtracts from my energy and willpower for other activities.

Implementing new behaviors, filtering distractions, resisting temptation, suppressing impulses and selecting long-term over short-term rewards taxes our willpower enormously. Therefore, we should make it as easy as possible on us. If we eliminate distractions from the get go, our mind does not have to deal with them.

To be productive, we have to find the time of the day when we are most refreshed and start focusing on our ONE thing right then. For most of us, that time may actually be the morning. Working out, writing a book, talking to some clients on the phone from the comfort of our own home may make us a much more efficient person than trying to squeeze the required time for these activities into the evenings when we are exhausted from work.

If we have to do work, we should place menial tasks at the time when we feel most drained for energy.

Let’s observe ourselves. If we don’t get much done after 8 pm, why not sleep from 9 pm to 4 am? 7 hours of sleep, and we get 4 hours of work done before our day really starts at 8 am! Whatever time  works bets for you use THAT for your ONE Thing.

8: A Balanced Life (Lie #5)

The ONE Thing

“The Truth is, balance is bunk. It is an unattainable pipe dream… The quest for balance between work and life, as we’ve come to think of it, isn’t just a losing proposition; it’s a hurtful, destructive one.” – Keith H. Hammonds

Work-life balance is a myth. During industrialization, large numbers of people started working for someone else. Thus, grassroots movements sprang up to protect workers efforts and limit the time they were working. Then, in the 1980s, more and more women were joining the work force, and we went from a society with one breadwinner and one homemaker to two breadwinners and no homemaker. Hence, more and more people felt the need to balance working and spending time at home, and the word “Work-Life balance” was born.

“Work-Life Balance” implies we need to give equal time to different tasks. The danger, however, is that we end up doing nothing properly.

To achieve an extraordinary result we 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.

In other words, we chose our ONE thing, focus on that and “cruise” on the other, less important things. We do the bare minimum that is necessary to keep them alive. Of course, if we also select the ONE thing that is central to maintaining the less important things, we might become successful in them as well. See above, where the author describes how he learnt guitar on just 20 minutes per day.

Just in the picture below, where several stones are in balance, even though their sizes differ: Sometimes it may be necessary to work through the weekend on our main focus of activity, with just an hour or so for the less important things. Once we have finished our main work, we can take a little more time for all our other tasks. We just have to make sure we can still go back to them.

The ONE Thing

9: Big Is Bad (Lie #6)

“We are kept from our goal, not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.” – Robert Brault

To achieve big results, we need to think big. If we only have small goals, we will only achieve small success. Think big from the get go.

The way we do this is to start at our desired end result in the time frame we want and then break it down into smaller goals – yearly, monthly, weekly, daily.

How do we change our perspective to think bigger than we might imagine right now? We double our goals. For example, if our goal is ten, we ask “How can we reach twenty?” If we set our goal so far above our current expectations, we will be building a plan that practically guarantees our original goal.


PART #2 – THE TRUTH. The simple path to productivity.

10: The Focusing Question

“There is an art to clearing away the clutter and focusing on what matters most. It is simple and it is transferable. It just requires the courage to take a different approach.” – George Anders

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.

There is a poem by J. B. Rittenhouse that impressively captures this relation.

My Wage

I bargained with Life for a penny,
And Life would pay no more.
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store.

For Life is a just employer,
He gives you what you ask.
But once you have set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.

I worked for a menial’s hire,
Only to learn, dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of Life,
Life would have willingly paid.

So what is the question, therefore, to ask any wage that “Life would have willingly paid”?

What is the ONE Thing I can do right now such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

This question sparks focused action (“what is the ONE Thing right now?”); it points at the big picture by demanding leveraged action “…everything else will be easier or unnecessary”; and it has a bridge that connects both parts (“…such that by doing it…”). “What is the ONE Thing” points at your big picture, and “right now” instills focus.

11: The Success Habit

“Success is simple. Do what’s right, the right way, at the right time.” – Arnold H. Glasow

We don’t need to use our focusing question for every area of our life. We can decide on a few key areas. For the authors, these areas are: spiritual life, physical health, personal life, key relationships, jobs, business and financial life.

It reminds me of Chose Yourself by James Altucher – for him, it’s spiritual health (focus on the presence and happenings in our environment), physical health (walk 20 minutes a day), emotional health (connect two people with each other) and mind (write down 10 ideas).

In my own life, the areas are spiritual health (the Happiness Habit), physical health (Calisthenics), emotional health (talk to at least one friend each day) and work/career (this blog and my lab work).

The best habit to train the Success Habit is to ask ourself the focussing question in all of our main areas at the beginning of each day.

12: The Path To Great Answers

“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.” – F. M. Alexander

How do we identify the Focusing Question to ask? How do we find a way to go beyond what we think is possible? Never forget: what we find “normal” today – trains, air travels, cars, electronics – was once thought impossible. Since we are all children of our time, we can easily be trapped in limiting beliefs.

Thus, we need to expand our horizon and find a way to break through our self-imposed limits.

Our “one-two punch” for great results is to ask a big and specific question and then find a great answer through research and role modeling.

Why big and specific question?

Let’s say we want to become a writer and have just started our own blog.
– If our question is small and broad, we will not likely take any action, nor will we push ourselves further. Example: What can I do to write in my blog?
– If our question is specific, but small, we will not get an extraordinary result. Example: What can I do to write two blog posts this year? Easily doable, but lackluster in its outcome.
– If our question is big and broad, we will challenge our mind, but we are not likely to take action. Example: What can I do to write a book? More challenging, but do we want to write this within one year (challenging) or within the next fifty years (easier)?
– If our question is both big and specific, we will be able to put it into motion. Example: What can I do to write a book in 6 months? It is not easy to write a book, and it is challenging to do it in a time frame of six months.

We could even go further and ask what we can do to write a book in about 2 months or less. Some authors do that. If we want great advice on how to train ourselves to write books and earn money in the process, Robert Koch at 30 Days to X has great advice on this subject. True and tested.

If we want to be successful, we want to look at the outer limits of achievement. Our ultimate question is not what is doable. We use that as the starting point, from which we stretch ourselves to ask what is possible. For a great answer, we skip all the answers that are already out there and arrive at a new one.

This is where our research comes into place. Find role models, present or past, that were looking to find similar answers to us. Then, ask them or identify their sources and “build our actions on the back of their lessons”. Is there something they did not ask? Maybe they could not ask it because they did not have the tools that are available to us now?

As the authors say: the benchmark is today’s success – the trend is tomorrow’s. However, there are already people out there who identified trends for the future of our society. Ludvig Sunström has talked about Alexander Bard, who has reflected on the future of success – you can check out a book with extensive notes Ludvig made from a meeting with Bard – item #3 on this list.


PART #3 – EXTRAORDINARY RESULTS. Unlocking the possibilities within you.

13: Live With Purpose

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” George Bernard Shaw

I might add another idea here: Life is about testing yourself.

Purpose seems to be a controversial subject. For example, James Altucher mentions that it implies that somewhere in the future we will be happy, once we have found your purpose. Instead, you can already find something now that makes you happy. I like that thought, because it sparks action right now.

I personally find “purpose” is very close to – and maybe just a different word for – determination.

Mark Cuban once said: Don’t follow your passion, follow your effort.

In that vein, if you ask your focussing question and become determined to get to the answer – without asking first for purpose and passion -, you will build your drive on larger and larger successes and thus become passionate about it.

“Follow your heart, and the money will follow.”
This little sentence has been both ridiculed by people that focus on taking action first and religiously followed by those that felt themselves inspired first.

Mark Cuban’s opinion bridges both. Find a good market and demand for your product, work at it and over time you will come to love it. You will follow your heart. And then the money will follow indeed.

By the way, this approach also includes taking every idea into account and seeing whether it works for you.

Indeed, Gary Keller suggests: “Pick a direction, start marching down that path, and see how you like it. Time brings clarity, and if you find you don’t like it, you can always change your mind. It’s your life.” For him, his purpose is to “help people live their greatest life possible through my teaching, coaching and writing”. Consequently, he has been a teacher and consultant over 30 years.

14: Live By Priority

“Planning is bringing the future into the present so that yo can do something about it now.” – Alan Lakein

To find our priority in life (note that it is not “priorities“), we have to break down our big idea, the “someday goal”, into smaller parts: five-year goal, one-year goal, monthly goal, weekly goal, daily goal, right now.

If we ask the focussing question: What is the ONE Thing I can do right now such that by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary? for every time frame, we will find our priority.

This will force us to visualize the complete process, not just the end goal. And if we write our goals down, we internalize them further.

 15: Live For Productivity

“Productivity isn’t about being a workhorse, keeping busy or burning the midnight oil… It;’s more about priorities, planning, and fiercely protecting your time.” – Margarita Tartakovsky

How do you become more productive? By blocking time off, for…
1. holidays;
2. your ONE thing;
3. your planning time.
In this order.

Yes, this includes holidays. As mentioned above (#7), our willpower is finite. We need time to recover. And if we block this time at the beginning of the year, we will force ourselves to work as productively and efficiently as we can in the remaining time.

Let’s take our time blocks serious. If we finish our ONE Thing for the day before our time block is over, we then ask our Focusing Question again to find what else we can accomplish in the remaining time.

A good rule of thumb seems to be to block at least 4 hours each day to do our ONE Thing. Protect that time block with all our power!
– We need to say “no”. We can do that by agreeing to a task someone asks us to do, but defer it to later. If we find we can not decline the request, we then reschedule our ONE Thing time block.
– Find a place where we can work undisturbed.
– Turn off distractions. Have provisions ready, in case we get hungry.
– Tell people about our reserved time blocks, and tell them when we will be available. People will most likely be supportive.

16: The Three Commitments

“Nobody who ever gave his best regretted it.” – George Halas

The three commitments are:
1. Mastery
2. Commit to our purpose
3. Accountability

1. Mastery
This is a process, a journey. We continuously work on our craft and focus only on our ONE Thing. Whenever there is time.

2. Purpose/Determination
If we never challenge ourselves by asking the big question – instead doing what comes naturally, we might have a “can-do” approach to things, but the danger here is that we hit a ceiling. We are disappointed because we see that there could be more, but we don’t find a way to break through. Resignation follows disappointment, we start with a new idea, work on it and then again bump against the ceiling.

On the other hand, if we resolve to do what comes un-naturally – in other words, if we challenge ourselves beyond our comfort zone, we will have to break down our approach more thoroughly. We aim to push through that ceiling. Therefore, we must first commit to focussing, then we look at role models and larger systems that we can emulate, look at which direction these systems are trending and then take action on this defined path to break through.

Mike Cernovich from Danger and Play has suggested that there are two different types of people:
– people that are driven by momentum and focus on taking immediate action, figuring out their direction afterwards;
– people that are using leverage to define first what they want to do and then work on it.
Gary Keller seems to suggest that the best approach is to indeed first try define a strategy, and then to completely focus on getting towards your goals. It is not leverage vs. momentum – it is leverage mindset first, then momentum.

3. Accountability
We have to own your passion, our ONE Thing. If we are in the driver’s seat of our life, we will take action to improve. We will ask how we can become better, and we will not see ourselves as a victim to whom life is happening.

One way to become accountable is to have a public journal or tell our friends about what we are going to do. Another way is to have a coach who will guide us and provide the necessary push; and a third way is to have a Mastermind group, a circle of friends who help each other in their mission.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career is such an example. He wanted to be the strongest man alive, so he first focussed on working out in the gym – his ONE Thing. Back in the 1970s, fitness was very much a niche topic, and there weren’t really any public figures that could serve as easy role models. That did not faze Arnold, however. He did whatever he could to work out and go to fitness conventions – one time even fleeing his military training to perform at a bodybuilding show, then using whatever equipment was available to work out non-stop every free second he got.
He also contacted famous bodybuilders and used them as role models. That way, he and his friends pushed each other further and further.

That’s how he made his career. He made his first money by using his achievements and trophies to attract people to his gyms. He sold supplements. Over time, he became more and more well-known and eventually famous.
Thus, while starting with an entire focus on working out, he eventually became:
– Bodybuilder
– Businessman
– Author
– Actor
– Politician

Ludvig Sunström has a more detailed summary on how “Arnie” advanced in life and became famous. Sure, he made the right connections, and at the bottom of it all is his bodybuilding.

17: The Four Thieves

“Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do.” – John Carmack

Productivity has many thieves.

1. Inability to say “no”

There is always opportunity cost. A popular saying is “One ‘yes’ must be defended over time by a thousand ‘no’s.” Only say “yes” when it serves your ONE Thing.

I still remember the 1990s, when Apple seemed to be a dying breed. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he took the company from 350 products to 10. That’s 340 products that he abolished. His success shows that this strategy delivers.

2. Fear of chaos

When we focus on one thing, we will neglect several others. That means, we simply have to learn to live with chaos. Find a way around it rather than try dealing with it.

3. Poor health habits

We can’t get productivity out of our mind and body if we neglect both. The centerpiece of James Altucher’s Chose Yourself is basically health. Become healthy first, and if you make this your first priority, you get pulled through the rest of the day. Just as making your bed will help you keep the rest of your apartment and day in order.

4. Environment doesn’t support your goals

Surround yourself with supportive people. Make your physical environment conducive to your ONE Thing.

18: The Journey

The ONE Thing

“To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.” – Chinese Proverb

One of the most common regrets dying people have is

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Time waits for no one, and when you never find the courage to do what you really want to do, you will look back in regret.
Yes, if you always set in motion what you want to achieve, you will fail a lot of times. But the immediate pain of failure or rejection will not last long, because you will remember the positive experiences first and foremost. Simply knowing that you did what you wanted will make you happy.

Rejection weighs ounces, regret weighs tons.

What is a good mindset to focus on your ONE Thing?

Gary Keller tells a story. There was a little boy once whose father tore a magazine page with a picture of the world into little pieces. Then he told his son to put this puzzle back together, so they would go play afterwards. The father had done this little trick to buy himself some time for finishing his own activities. The son, however, was done with the puzzle in no time. When the astonished father asked him how he did it, his son told him that the pieces fell down on the glass table, and when he looked from underneath, there was a picture of a man on the other side – and thus, he could easily put the puzzle together.

Get our act together, make sure we do what brings us forward, and everything else will fall into place.

Additional thoughts

I just realized there will be a webinar for the ONE Thing on Wednesday, 04/22/15. Guest will be Pat Flynn, and the webinar is about using focus for your business and making money online.

It’s free, you can check it out here.

You can buy the book here.

To get back to the book club page, click here.

To get back to the home page, click here.