Book Summary: Find your focus.

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results

by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

The ONE Thing answers the question, what’s the path to success? Opportunities are everywhere, but that abundance is overwhelming. Plus, we swim against the tide of myths about success that keep us playing small. This book explains how focusing on your ONE Thing allows you to do less while having more, achieve exceptional results, and live an extraordinary life.

The key tool is the “focusing question:” What’s the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary? It’s a disarmingly simple question that can have a profound impact when applied. It has the power to keep you laser-focused on what matters most — for your long-term goals and any area of your life.

This leads to what the authors call the “domino effect” – actions lead to results which lead to success which leads to more decisive actions, and so on. It’s like a line of progressively larger dominoes. Your job is to find the lead domino and knock it over – daily. To help you do that, the book provides practical advice on time blocking, outlines the three necessary commitments, and covers how to manage the four thieves of productivity.

The premise: Pursuing your ONE Thing every day, every week, every month, and every year builds an extraordinary life.

The authors: Gary Keller is cofounder and chair of the board at Keller Williams Realty International. He built the company from a single office in Austin, Texas, to the largest real estate company in the world. Professionally, Gary’s ONE Thing is teaching. Jay Papasan is the executive editor and vice president of publishing at Keller Williams Realty. He worked on bestsellers like Body for Life by Bill Phillips and Go for the Goal by Mia Hamm at Harper-Collins in New York. More recently, Jay has coauthored numerous award-winning or bestselling titles, including the Millionaire Real Estate series.

This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: eBook | Audiobook | Print

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s authors.

The authors’ website has resources and training available:


Narrow Your Focus for Greater Impact

Recognize that not everything matters. The best way to succeed is to narrow your focus to those things that matter most.

Ignore most of what you could do. To scale your achievements, you have to subtract, not add.

Go after the smallest possible action that will produce the most significant result. Narrowing your focus keeps you on point. And the point is your ONE Thing.

Do fewer things with more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.

Leverage the Domino Effect

Success comes sequentially, one thing at a time like a line of dominos. The ONE Thing helps you find the lead domino and knock it down – daily.

Success leads to greater success — it’s linear and geometric. Just as each domino can topple the next, even if it’s 50% larger, the right action can have outsized results. Do the right thing, then the right thing again and the results accumulate, unleashing success’s geometric potential.

Identify Your One Product, One Person, One Passion and One Skill

Successful companies have one signature product or service that makes them famous and profitable. KFC’s secret chicken recipe. Intel’s microprocessors. Sometimes it’s indirect. Starbucks has coffee, but their “third-place” cafes made them famous. Customers buy Apple products because they work together in an ecosystem and are simple. Star Wars movies made merchandise possible. Google has advertising thanks to search.

Successful people have one person who makes all the difference. Walt Disney had his business person-banker brother Roy. Walmart’s Sam Walton’s father-in-law helped him get started in retail. Max Talmud was Einstein’s first mentor. Oprah Winfrey’s media empire began with advisor Jeffrey Jacobs convincing her to start her own company rather than work for others. The Beatles had legendary record producer George Martin.

Successful people have one passion or learned ability defines and drives them. Passionate people practice more. Increased practice time improves skill, which improves results. Better results leads to more passion, practice time, and enjoyment. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Applying the ONE Thing to your work and life is the simplest and smartest thing you can do to propel yourself toward success.

Six Myths About Success that Mislead and Derail Us

We must address the myths and misinformation about success so we can approach the ONE Thing with an open mind.

Success Myth #1: Everything Matters Equally

The truth is most success can be attributed to just a handful of things.

When everything feels important, it lures us into busyness. But busyness doesn’t necessarily lead to productivity or success. Almost everything you want will come from a minority of your actions. This should be the basis for all decisions about where to invest your energies.

To-do lists packed with everything will lead you down many side paths unrelated to your success. Instead of to-do lists, create success lists. To-do lists are usually long; success lists are short.

Use the Pareto 80/20 Principle to turn your to-do list into a success list. Among the things that matter, there’s always one thing that matters most. Continue to take 20 percent of the 20 percent until you reach the most important thing — your ONE Thing.

The most important things don’t always scream the loudest. — Bob Hawke

Success Myth #2: Multitasking Can Make Us More Productive

The truth is while you can do two things at once, you can’t focus – effectively – on two things simultaneously.

Multitasking leads to more errors, poorer decisions, and increased stress. We’re always tempted to do too much at the same time. When you’re doing one thing you’re just 14 seconds away from thinking of another thing.

Multitasking costs us 28 percent of our workday. We get interrupted every 11 minutes on average. Bouncing between activities we lose time as our brain reorients. All those seconds add up. Distractible settings make us more distracted.

Multitasking creates loose ends. Our chances of getting back to the original task sink as spend more time at the new task. This causes loose ends.

Success Myth #3: You’ll Need More Discipline

The truth is we don’t need more discipline than we already have. We just need to manage it better. Habits help.

Habit creation is a short sprint fueled by discipline until the habit takes over. Habit-creation is self-training long enough for an action to become a habit. Success requires picking the right habit and applying enough discipline to make it stick and for long enough until it sticks.

Success is about doing the right thing, not trying to do everything right. Doing the right thing frees us from having to monitor everything.

Don’t give up too soon. It takes, on average, about 66 days to form a new habit. (The research says between 18 and 254 days but this is the average.) Give yourself as much time and discipline as needed to develop the right ones.

Success Myth #4: You Can Power through with Willpower

The truth is you can’t always count on willpower. It runs down during the day.

The more we use our minds, the less power we have to mind. Early in the day, we all have more willpower.

Do what matters most when your willpower is at its highest. You get the most out of your day if you do your ONE Thing before your willpower runs out.

Success Myth #5: Life Can Be Balanced

The truth is striving for a balanced life means compromising on everything.

The notion of balance is an unreachable ideal. A successful life is about meaning, purpose, and significance. It’s negotiating your time that yields extraordinary results in professional and personal life. It requires leaving some things undone.

An attempt to do it all shortchanges everything. The key to getting exceptional results is choosing what matters most and giving it all the time it deserves. It requires leaving some things undone, so choose your priorities carefully.

Success requires focused time, not overtime. Selecting what matters most and dedicating time to it means other areas will get out of balance. But the magic never happens in the middle; it happens at the extremes. Wisdom is knowing when to pursue the middle and when to chase the extremes, and avoiding long stretches of inattention to other areas.

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.

Success Myth #6: Big Is Bad

The truth is big action and big results are the product of big thinking.

When we fear “big,” we either consciously or subconsciously work against it. We either run toward lesser outcomes and opportunities or we run away from the big ones. If courage isn’t the absence of fear, but moving past it, then thinking big isn’t the absence of doubts, but moving past them.

When big is deemed bad, small thinking rules the day. When you believe in big, you can ask different questions and follow different paths. Success results from action, and action results from thought.

You’ll either be empowered or restricted by what you build today. What you think determines what you do, so how big you think becomes the launching pad for what you achieve.

The Simple Path to Productivity

Success depends on being appropriate in the moment. Amazing possibilities for your life become possible if you can honestly say, “This is where I’m supposed to be right now, doing what I’m doing.” Success isn’t determined by what we do, but what we do well.

Tap the Power of the Focusing Question

Powerful questions give us life-changing answers. The quality of the question determines the quality of the answer. Extraordinary outcomes rarely occur by accident. They result from our decisions and actions — the answers to the questions we ask ourselves.

The 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’s power is easily overlooked because it’s so simple.

  1. WHAT’S THE ONE THING I CAN DO… This motivates. It calls for a single answer. It directs you. It calls for action.
  2. SUCH THAT BY DOING IT... This part connects doing with a reason.
  3. EVERYTHING ELSE WILL BE EASIER OR UNNECESSARY? This defines the question’s leverage.

The Focusing Question can be used “big picture” and “small focus.” Regardless of the level of decision, it reduces all questions to one. It forces you to decide. Many things don’t need to be done when you do the right thing — the ONE Thing.

How we phrase the questions we ask ourselves determines the answers that eventually become our life.

The Success Habit

Make the Focusing Question your success habit. You can use it in any situation to clarify the connections and get all of your dominoes lined up.

  • Use the basic question to clarify your priorities. Start with the big items and see where it leads you.
  • Apply it to different areas of your life: “In “X,” what’s the one thing that I can do such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
  • Add a timeframe to give your answer the appropriate time horizon: “What’s the one thing that I can do [today/this year] such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

Combine them: [For project X] what’s the one thing that I can do [this week] such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

The Path To Great Answers

The Focusing Question can help you identify your ONE Thing in any situation. It will help you define your goals in the key areas of your life and then home in on the specific actions you need to take to achieve them. It’s a straightforward process: first, ask a great question, then look for a great answer.

The best questions, like the best goals, are big and specific. They push you, stretch you, and target big, specific answers. And since they’re measurable, there’s no guesswork about how the results will look. Think big and specific.

SpecificNot challenging; you’ll get incremental gains at bestGreat questions! Calls you to stretch and think different
BroadResults in brainstorming questions not achievement questionsProvides too many options. Where to start?

A big, specific question leads to a big, specific answer, which is absolutely necessary for achieving a big goal.

Find a great answer. The challenge of asking a great question is that, once you’ve asked it, you’re now faced with finding a great answer. Answers come in three categories: doable, stretch, and possible.

  • Doable. The easiest answer. It’s already within reach of your knowledge, skills, and experience. You probably already know what to do and how to do it. You won’t have to change much to get it. It’s likely to be achieved.
  • Stretch. While this is still within your reach, it can be at the farthest end of your range. You’ll most likely have to do some research and study what others have done to come up with this answer. Doing it can be iffy since you might have to extend yourself to the very limits of your current abilities. It’s potentially achievable and probable, depending on your effort.
  • Possible. A step well beyond “stretch.” A new answer that leaps over all existing answers.

“Possible” answers are found in two steps: benchmarking and trending.

  1. Find the best research and benchmark the people who’ve achieved the most. The same action as needed for a “stretch” answer. Reviewing the research and experience of others is the best place to start. With this knowledge, you can establish a benchmark for what is currently known and being done.
  2. Trend the results. Look for the next thing you can do, either in the same direction as the best performers or in an entirely new direction.

New answers usually require new behaviors, so don’t be surprised if you change along the way.

Unlocking the Possibilities Within You

The simple formula for implementing the ONE Thing and achieving extraordinary results: purpose + priority + productivity = profit (results). Productivity and profit/results are always supported by the substance that serves as the foundation of the organization: purpose and priority. Every organizational leader wants productivity and profit/results, but far too many fail to recognize that the best way to achieve them is through purpose-driven prioritization.

Personal productivity is the foundation for all business profits/organizational results. Great organizations are built one productive person at a time.

Live with Purpose

Ebenezer Scrooge’s redemptive transformation is one of the best examples of how decisions determine our destinies. Scrooge experienced the transformative power of a new purpose after Marley’s intervention, which changed Scrooge’s most important priority and shifted where his productivity was focused.

Five factors contribute to happiness: positive emotion and pleasureachievementrelationshipsengagement, and meaning according to Dr. Martin Seligman. He also said that engagement and meaning are the most important factors. Our daily actions can fulfill a greater purpose when we engage more in what we do, leading to a greater sense of satisfaction and happiness.

Live by Priority

Our goals and plans serve one purpose: they enable us to respond appropriately in the moments that matter in our lives. Success is about stringing powerful moments together – one at a time, one after the other. This is the reason that most people never reach their goals – they don’t connect today to all the tomorrows it takes to achieve their goals.

Priority empowers purpose. Purpose can only shape our lives if it’s connected to our priorities. Without priorities, purpose is meaningless.

Beware of our “present bias” for immediate rewards. People prefer immediate rewards over future ones, even when the future rewards are much larger. Economists call it “hyperbolic discounting.” The further a reward is in the future, the less immediate motivation we have to achieve it. Imagine the devastating impact on your future self of living this way each day as the present bias overrides logic and allows a bigger future to slip away.

“Goal Setting to the Now” is an antidote to the present bias. It’s a simple process that links one goal to the next over time until you not only know the most important thing you need to do right now, but how it’s linked to your biggest goals. You think big but act small as you line up all of your dominoes.

How to do “Goal Setting to the Now”

This exercise links your goals right down to the ONE Thing you should do right now to accomplish your goals. The results of this exercise will give you a clear line of sight from this moment all the way up to your “someday” goal.

  • What is the ONE Thing I can do in the NEXT FIVE YEARS to put me on track to achieve my someday goal?
  • Based on my five-year goal, what is the ONE Thing I can do THIS YEAR to stay on track to achieve my five-year goal and eventually my someday goal?
  • Based on my goal for this year, what is the ONE Thing I can do THIS MONTH to keep on track to achieve my goal for this year, my five-year goal, and my someday goal?
  • Based on my goal for this month, what is the ONE thing I can do THIS WEEK to keep myself on track to meet my goal for this month, my goal for this year, my five-year goal, and my someday goal?
  • Based on my goal for this week, what is the ONE thing I can do TODAY to stay on course to meet my goals for this week, this month, this year, my five-year goal, and my someday goal?
  • Based on my goal for today, what is the ONE thing I can do RIGHT NOW to keep myself on track to accomplish my goal for today, my goal for this week, my goal for this month, my goal for this year, my goal for five years, and my someday goal?

Most people are overly optimistic about what they can accomplish—what researchers refer to as the “planning fallacy.” Visualizing the process—breaking down a big goal into attainable steps—helps to engage the strategic thinking needed to plan for and achieve exceptional results.

Visualizing the process is better than visualizing the outcome. Dr. Gail Matthews found that students who visualized the process rather than the outcome performed better overall—they studied earlier and more often and got higher grades and their peers who only visualized the outcome.

Writing down goals increased achievement rates by 39.5% in the Matthews study. And those who sent weekly progress reports to an accountability partner achieved nearly all of their goals.

Live with purpose and you know where you want to go. Live by priority and you’ll know what to do to get there.

Live for Productivity

The most successful people are also the most productive. Productive action changes people’s lives. Creating a life of extraordinary results is simply a matter of getting the most out of what you’re doing when what you’re doing matters most.

Time blocking is a way to ensure what needs to be done gets done. If one activity yields disproportionate results, give it disproportionate time. Time block these three things in this order for extraordinary results:

  1. Your time off. Planning your time off in advance allows you to schedule your work around your downtime.
  2. Your ONE Thing. Next, block four hours a day for your One Thing. No typo. Four hours daily.
  3. Your planning time. Block an hour each week to review your annual and monthly goals. Plan your annual goals late enough to know where you stand but early enough to get a jump on the next year.

If time is money, a time-management system may be best described by what it’s earning you. Are you using a $50,000-a-year system? A $100,000-, $500,000-, or $1,000,000-plus system?

Ask this Focusing Question for your blocked time every day: “Today, what’s the ONE Thing I can do for my ONE Thing such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” The answer will be your most important activity for your most important work.

Divide your work into two buckets: “Maker time”—large blocks for building and creating (viewed in half-day increments) and “manager time”—short blocks for overseeing or directing (viewed in hours or less). To achieve extraordinary results, be a maker in the morning and a manager in the afternoon.

Your calendar tracks appointments but doesn’t care who they’re with. Once you identify your ONE Thing, block the time to work on it.

Don’t break the chain. Knocking down your biggest domino daily is magical. Avoid breaking the chain—keep a streak going one day at a time to create your new time-blocking habit.

Think of your time blocks as immovable. For time blocks to work, they must be protected.

Overworked and overbooked, you may struggle to stick to a time block. When so much time is spent on one thing, it may be hard to imagine how all the other things will get done. Vividly anticipate the next domino falling and what it means for your future.

  • Find a bunker. A place to work that will minimize disruptions.
  • Store provisions. Keep supplies, snacks, and drinks in your bunker so you only have to leave for bathroom breaks.
  • Sweep for mines. Close your browser, email, and phone.
  • Enlist support. Inform those who may look for you about your activities and availability.

When you’ve completed your ONE Thing of the day, you can turn your attention to everything else. Use the Focusing Question to identify your next task. Rinse and repeat.

The most productive people, the ones who experience extraordinary results, design their days around doing their ONE Thing.

The Three Commitments

Commitment #1: Adopt the mindset of someone seeking mastery.

  • Recognize that mastery is a journey, not a destination. Mastery becomes more achievable when you view it as a journey rather than a place. Mastering your ONE Thing can help you do other things faster and easier. The path to mastery involves not only doing the thing the best you can but also striving to do it the best it can be done.

Commitment #2: Constantly seek the very best methods.

  • Don’t let the ceiling become your “OK plateau.” No matter the task, all natural abilities have an achievement ceiling, which is the level that productivity and success eventually peak. It varies from person to person and task to task, but we all have a natural limit for everything we do in life. The question is, what do we do when we hit our ceiling?
  • We begin our days in one of two ways: entrepreneurially or purposefully. When we only think “entrepreneurially,” we limit ourselves. We keep bumping against our ceiling. Unless we do something different, it can become our “OK plateau.”
  • When it comes to your ONE Thing, any ceiling on achievement must be challenged. Your One Thing requires a purposeful approach. When we think purposefully, we see the same ceiling differently. We search out options – new approaches, methods and skills. Use the Focusing Question to help you choose the next step.
  • Often it’s necessary to do what is “unnatural” to achieve extraordinary results.

Commitment #3: Hold yourself accountable for accomplishing your ONE Thing.

  • Work with an accountability partner. Of the three commitments, accountability is the most crucial. Without it, the challenges you encounter may cut short your journey to mastery. Accountability is best provided by a designated accountability partner—someone to whom you agree to be truly accountable.
  • Consider engaging a coach. Anders Ericsson’s research on deliberate practice found “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.”
  • Accountable or unaccountable—it’s your only choice. Accountable people overcome setbacks and obstacles. They don’t defend ineffective actions, skill levels, models, systems, or relationships. They strive to bring their best to whatever they do.

Accountable people achieve results others only dream of.

The Four Thieves of Productivity

  1. Inability to say “no.” If you want to stay productive, say no to anyone or anything that could derail you. You should understand what you’re saying no to before saying yes to anything.
  2. Fear of chaos. Accept that pursuing greatness is guaranteed to bring chaos. But when you know what matters most, you know what makes sense.
  3. Poor habits. Extraordinary results and significant achievement require a lot of energy. A silent thief of productivity is the mismanagement of personal energy. You can get through the day much more easily when you invest the early hours energizing yourself.
  4. An environment that doesn’t support your goals. If you want to achieve extraordinary results, you must have people and surroundings that support your goals. Nobody succeeds or fails on their own. Be aware of the people around you.

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.”

The Journey

Pursuing your ONE Thing every day, every week, every month, and every year builds an extraordinary life. But making it happen is up to you.

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.

Book details and where to buy it:

Get the book on Amazon: eBook | Audiobook | Print (affiliate links*)
Amazon rating: 4.7 of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.1 of 5 stars
Page count: 240
Publication date: April 1, 2013
Author website:
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