The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results

The ONE Thing

Gary Keller, Jay Papasan

What’s the most important thing I should be working on? It’s a question we don’t ask ourselves often enough. This book is a good reminder to constantly refocus on the most important task that you should be working on rather than the first thing on your todo list.

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Key points

Highlights and notes

Extraordinarily successful companies always have one product or service they’re most known for or that makes them the most money. Colonel Sanders started KFC with a single secret chicken recipe.

“You must be single-minded. Drive for the one thing on which you have decided.” -General George S. Patton

"Success demands singleness of purpose. -Vince Lombardi

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

“truthiness,” a word comedian Stephen Colbert coined as “truth that comes from the gut, not books”


  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

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

As Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” Knocking out a hundred tasks for whatever the reason is a poor substitute for doing even one task that’s meaningful

“The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.” — Australian prime minister Bob Hawke

Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.

Left in its raw state, as a simple inventory, a to-do list can easily lead you astray. A to-do list is simply the things you think you need to do; the first thing on your list is just the first thing you thought of. To-do lists inherently lack the intent of success. In fact, 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. One pulls you in all directions; the other aims you in a specific direction.

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. The imperative ONE. The ONE Thing.

  1. Go small. Don’t focus on being busy; focus on being productive. Allow what matters most to drive your day.
  2. Go extreme. Once you’ve figured out what actually matters, keep asking what matters most until there is only one thing left. That core activity goes at the top of your success list.
  3. Say no. Whether you say “later” or “never,” the point is to say “not now” to anything else you could do until your most important work is done.
  4. Don’t get trapped in the “check off” game. If we believe things don’t matter equally, we must act accordingly.

But it turns out that high multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy. They were outperformed on every measure. Although they’d convinced themselves and the world that they were great at it, there was just one problem. To quote Nass, “Multitaskers were just lousy at everything.”

Chronic multitaskers develop a distorted sense of how long it takes to do things. They almost always believe tasks take longer to complete than is actually required.

Multitaskers make more mistakes than non-multitaskers. They often make poorer decisions because they favor new information over old, even if the older information is more valuable.

There is this pervasive idea that the successful person is the “disciplined person” who leads a "disciplined life. It’s a lie. The truth is we don’t need any more discipline than we already have. We just need to direct and manage it a little better.

Success is actually a short race-a sprint fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in and take over.

As this habit becomes part of your life, you’ll start looking like a disciplined person, but you won’t be one. What you will be is someone who has something regularly working for you because you regularly worked on it. You’ll be a person who used selected discipline to build a powerful habit.

Your life gets clearer and less complicated because you know what you have to do well and you know what you don’t.

When we tie our success to our willpower without understanding what that really means, we set ourselves up for failure.

When you gamble with your time, you may be placing a bet you can’t cover. Even if you’re sure you can win, be careful that you can live with what you lose.

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.

“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-family, health, friends, integrity—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”

When you act on your priority, you’ll automatically go out of balance, giving more time to one thing over another

This will cause you to give disproportionate time to your ONE Thing and will throw the rest of your work day, week, month, and year continually out of balance. Your work life is divided into two distinct areas what matters most and everything else. You will have to take what matters to the extremes and be okay with what happens to the rest. Professional success requires it.

Start leading a counterbalanced life. Let the right things take precedence when they should and get to the rest when you can. An extraordinary life is a counterbalancing act.

And here is the prime condition of success, the great secret concentrate your energy, thought and capital exclusively upon the business in which you are engaged. Having begun on one line, resolve to fight it out on that line, to lead in it, adopt every improvement, have the best machinery, and know the most about it. The concerns which fail are those which have scattered their capital, which means that they have scattered their brains also. They have investments in this, or that, or the other, here, there and everywhere. “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.” Look round you and take notice; men who do that do not often fail. It is easy to watch and carry the one basket. It is trying to carry too many baskets that breaks most eggs in this country.

The Focusing Question: What’s the ONE Thing I can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary?

To stay on track for the best possible day, month, year, or career, you must keep asking the Focusing Question. Ask it again and again, and it forces you to line up tasks in their levered order of importance.

Powered by the Focusing Question, your actions become a natural progression of building one right thing on top of the previous right thing. When this happens, you’re in position to experience the power of the domino effect.

When you do this ONE Thing, everything else you could do to accomplish your goal will now be either doable with less effort or no longer even necessary.

The Focusing Question asks you to find the first domino and focus on it exclusively until you knock it over.

The Big-Picture Question: “What’s my ONE Thing?” Use it to develop a vision for your life and the direction for your career or company; it is your strategic compass.

The Small Focus Question: “What’s my ONE Thing right now?” Use this when you first wake up and throughout the day. It keeps you focused on your most important work and, whenever you need it, helps you find the “levered action” or first domino in any activity

the Focusing Question is the most powerful success habit we can have.

Ask the Focusing Question in different areas of your life:

Until my ONE Thing is done-everything else is a distraction.

What is productivity? It’s how effectively you can make progress towards a goal. To be productive, you need to be clear about your goal and you need to identify the right things to work on. Getting a lot of tasks done isn’t productive if those tasks are meaningless. True productivity is driven by setting yourself to accomplish a clear purpose and identifying the most important tasks that will move you towards that goal.

If disproportionate results come from one activity, then you must give that one activity disproportionate time

My recommendation is to block four hours a day. This isn’t a typo. I repeat: four hours a day. Honestly, that’s the minimum. If you can do more, then do it.

Be a maker in the morning and a manager in the afternoon

Extraordinary results become possible when where you want to go is completely aligned with what you do today

The best way to make your ONE Thing happen is to make regular appointments with yourself. Block time early in the day, and block big chunks of it-no less than four hours! Think of it this way: If your time blocking were on trial, would your calendar contain enough evidence to convict you?

Time blocking works only when your mantra is “Nothing and no one has permission to distract me from my ONE Thing.”

Your time block is the most important meeting of your day, so whatever it takes to protect it is what you have to do.

"Focus is a matter of deciding what things you’re not going to do. —John Carmack


  1. Inability to Say “No”
  2. Fear of Chaos
  3. Poor Health Habits
  4. Environment Doesn’t Support Your Goals

Seth Godin says, “You can say no with respect, you can say no promptly, and you can say no with a lead to someone who might say yes. But just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

“yes” must be defended over time by 1,000 “nos.”

A request must be connected to my ONE Thing for me to consider it.

There will always be people and projects that simply aren’t a part of your biggest single priority but still matter. You will feel them attention. When you strive for greatness, chaos is guaranteed to show up. In fact, other areas of life may experience chaos in direct proportion to the time you put in on your ONE Thing. It’s important for you to accept this instead of fighting it.

Depending on your situation, your time block might initially look different from others’. Each of our situations is unique. Depending on where you are in your life, you may not be able to immediately block off every morning to be by yourself.

If you have to beg, then beg. If you have to barter, then If you barter. If you have to be creative, then be creative. Just don’t be a victim of your circumstances. Don’t sacrifice your time block on the altar of “I just can’t make it work.”

Leo Rosten pulled everything together for us when he said, “I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.”

The challenge is that living the largest life possible requires you not only to think big, but also to take the necessary actions to get there.

Extraordinary results require you to go small.