The One Thing

The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan


If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.
— Russian Proverb

We overthink, overplan, and overanalyze our careers, our businesses, and our lives.

We put in long hours that are neither virtuous nor healthy. We usually succeed in spite of what we do, not because of it.

We can’t manage time very well. The key to success isn’t in doing many things. It's in the handful of things we do really well.

The ONE Thing explains the importance of focusing on only one thing. On achieving greatness by building habits to knock over the first domino. I cover these topics as well as the myths to success.

The second half of this book develops many other ideas around success and living a life of purpose, I will not cover those topics in this summary.

The One Thing

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

On the road to success you'll create many lists of things to do. These lists can quickly enter double digits and beyond. You may complete many of the list items but not necessarily the items that matter most. 

Those who have great success report having a narrow concentration. They focus on just one thing. When their success wavered, it was a result of a lack of focus. Your results are directly related to how narrowly you can make your focus.

To maximize your focus and your chance at success: 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.

Big success comes when we do a few things well. If you try to do too much in the end you'll accomplish too little. 

When you spread yourself out, you end up spread thin.
You must be single-minded. Drive for the one thing on which you have decided.
— General George S. Patton
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.
It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.
— Og Mandino

Focusing on one thing is something all successful people have in common. It's a fundamental truth.

Focusing on one thing is the starting point for achieving extraordinary results.

The Domino Effecct

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Every great change starts like falling dominoes.
— BJ Thornton

Lorne Whitehead, in 1983, discovered that a domino can knock over not only itself but a domino 50% larger. Importantly, this is a chain that can continue.

An experiment in 2001 produced this by creating 8 dominos from plywood. The first was two inches tall and each domino after was 50% larger than the one before.

The first was only two inches tall and the final one was almost three feet tall. If this continued, the

  • 10th domino would be as tall as an NFL quarterback. The
  • 18th would rival the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The
  • 23rd would be larger than the Eiffel Tower. The
  • 31st would be taller than Mt. Everest. And the 
  • 57th would be the distance from the Earth to the moon.
Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life.
Success demands singleness of purpose.
— Vince Lombardi

Extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous. Sucess comes over time... One thing at a time. 

To be successful, find the lead domino, and whack away at it until it falls.

How to Find the Lead Domino:

Ask yourself:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

To stay on track for success, you must keep asking yourself this question.

Ask it again, and again, and again. Each time you ask it, you see your next priority.

There can only be one most important thing. Many things may be important, but only one can be the most important.
— Ross Garber

The Lies of Success

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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

Pursuing your one thing, or your lead domino, can be very challenging because we've believed many other "truthy" things that get in the way of your success.

"Truthiness" is a word that Stephen Colbert coined on the debut episode of his show The Colbert Report. Stephen defines "truthiness" as “truth that comes from the gut, not books.”

Success comes from solutions hiding in plain sight. Unfortunately, the truth has been covered by junk information masquerading as "common sense."

Over time, myths and mistruths get thrown around so often they eventually feel familiar and start to sound like the truth.

The Six Lies Between You and Success:

  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

Everything Matters Equally

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

To-do lists are a staple in the world of achievement. While to-do lists can help organize us, they can also tyrannize us with trivial, unimportant tasks that we feel obligated to finish simply because it's on our list. The truth is that not all to-dos matter equally.

To-do lists keep us active and busy but it doesn't necessarily move us any closer to success. To ensure you're moving closer to where you want to be you need to include on your list only the things that will propel you forward.

The 80 / 20 Principle

“The 80/ 20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards.” - Richard Koch

The majority of what you want will come from the minority of what you do.

This relates back to the lead domino example. Don't push down the second domino first if you'll have to go back and push down the first domino anyway.

When you're looking at your to-do list whittle down the list to the critical few items, and make a note of the essential one item. The one thing that would make the list a success, even if everything else didn't get finished.


Multitasking has become so mainstream that people believe it's something they should do as often as possible, and many boast their multitasking as a badge of honor.

To do two things at once is to do neither.
— Publilius Syrus

However, countless studies have shown that although multitaskers think they are great at it, they aren't. Multitasking is neither efficient nor effective.

When you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or won’t do either well.

Importantly, you can do two things at once, but you can't focus on two things at once. You can walk and talk at the same time or chew gum and read a book, but you can't focus on two activities simultaneously. 

Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.
— Steve Uzzell

It may feel like you're focusing on two tasks at once but you're actually just switching your attention back and forth between two things. 

Here are some of the effects of multitasking:

  1. Diving your attention into multiple slices will cost you in time and effectiveness.
  2. Switching tasks leaves you more likely to finish tasks creating loose ends.
  3. Bouncing between tasks costs your brain the time it takes to reorient to the new task. The average worker loses 28% of their workday due to multitasking ineffectiveness.
  4. 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.
  5. Multitaskers make more mistakes than non-multitaskers. Including favoring new information over old even if the older information is more valuable.
  6. Multitaskers experience more stress.
You can actually give attention to two things, but that is what’s called “divided attention.” And make no mistake. Take on two things and your attention gets divided. Take on a third and something gets dropped.

Why would we ever tolerate multitasking when we’re doing our most important work?

“The people we live with and work with on a daily basis deserve our full attention. When we give people segmented attention, piecemeal time, switching back and forth, the switching cost is higher than just the time involved. We end up damaging relationships.” - Dave Crenshaw

A Disciplined Life

It’s one of the most prevalent myths of our culture: self-discipline.
— Leo Babauta
Contrary to what most people believe, success is not a marathon of disciplined action. Success is actually a short race— a sprint fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in and take over.

The days of high achievers are not filled with ultra-high levels of discipline. A lot of discipline was required to start a habit but as the habits developed, less discipline was required each day.

Success is about doing the right things, not about doing everything right.

Doing the hard stuff in the beginning, focusing your discipline on creating the right habits, can liberate you from having to monitor everything.

The hard stuff becomes habit, and habit makes the hard stuff easy.

Stick with it. Researchers at the University College of London in 2009, found that it takes an average of 66 days to acquire a new habit.

If you are what you repeatedly do, then achievement isn’t an action you take but a habit you forge into your life. You don’t have to seek out success. Harness the power of selected discipline to build the right habit, and extraordinary results will find you.


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

Willpower is critically important to success but putting willpower to good use requires understanding how to manage it.

The Marshmallow Experiment

Walter Mischel, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, studied over 500 four-year-olds at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School.

Kids were offered one of three treats— a pretzel, a cookie, or the now infamous marshmallow.

The researcher said they had to step out of the room for 15 minutes. If the child could wait to eat the treat until the researcher returned they would receive a second treat. One treat now or two later.

Following these individuals over time shows that the children who were able to resist instant gratification by exerting willpower generally achieved higher levels of success and happiness.

These students had higher general academic achievement, SAT test scores that were on average 210 points higher, higher feelings of self-worth, and better stress management.

The Limitations of Willpower

A good analogy is to think of willpower as a battery in your cell phone.

Willpower is limited. However, like batteries, it can be recharged with some downtime.

We act as though our supply of willpower were endless. And this can get us into trouble. Using willpower leaves left in the battery and with lesser reserves we make poorer decisions.

For example, if you have a very long and stressful day that uses up a lot of your willpower you're more likely to make rash or impulsive decisions when you get home, like late-night snacking or procrastinating.

Do The Most Important Things First

On the road to success, make doing what matters most a priority when your willpower is its highest. You'll need a full battery of willpower to ensure you're giving your best effort to the things that matter most. 

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. Since your self-control will be sapped throughout the day, use it when it’s at full strength on what matters most.

A Balaned Life

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

In the past decade it seems everyone is searching for "work-life" balance. But the pursuit for balance can be dangerous.

Balance is talked about as a noun when in reality it's a verb. Balance is not something we attain. Balance is something we continuously do.

Balance is talked about as a moderate middle between two extremes. The desire for this makes sense. We want enough time for everything.

The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.
Extraordinary results require focused attention and time. Time on one thing means time away from another. This makes balance impossible.

Living in the middle means you're not making big commitments to anything. In an effort to do all things, everything gets shortchanged and nothing gets its due.

Knowing when to pursue the middle and when to pursue the extremes is in essence the true beginning of wisdom. Extraordinary results are achieved by this negotiation with your time.

Enter the concept of counterbalancing. Sometimes work will require a 100% commitment. Other times your personal life will require 100%. Counterbalancing is the idea that sometimes you'll have to sacrifice family time to make leaps and bounds with business but afterwards you'll have to spend extra time with family, allowing some work things to not get done.

Counterbalancing done well gives the illusion of balance.

The idea of counterbalancing is that you never go so far that you can’t find your way back or stay so long that there is nothing waiting for you when you return.

In Work:

It’s not about how much time you put in; success is focused effort over time. You must choose what matters most and give it all the time it demands. This requires getting out of balance in relation to all other work issues with only infrequent counterbalancing to address them.

In Personal Life:

In your personal life, nothing gets left behind. At work it’s required.

In his novel Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas, James Patterson artfully highlights where our priorities lie in our personal and professional balancing act: “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.”

The question of balance is really a question of priority. When you change your language from balancing to prioritizing, you see your choices more clearly and open the door to changing your destiny.

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

Big is Bad

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

Though the two words are after used together, big isn't bad.

It’s quite possibly the worst lie of all, for if you fear big success, you’ll either avoid it or sabotage your efforts to achieve it.

No one knows their ultimate ceiling for achievement, so worrying about it is a waste of time.

the only actions that become springboards to succeeding big are those informed by big thinking to begin with.

Everyone has the same amount of time, and hard work is simply hard work. As a result, what you do in the time you work determines what you achieve.

What you build today will either empower or restrict you tomorrow.

Don’t fear big. Fear mediocrity. Fear waste. Fear the lack of living to your fullest.

Only living big will let you experience your true life and work potential.

Where to Buy

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Buy the book on AmazonBarnes and NobleBAM, or just Google it. (I receive no kickback or commission for these links or summaries. See my disclosure for more.)

Even more great stuff in this book:

  • Dozens of photos and diagrams that simplify themes
  • How the food we eat affects our willpower
  • Using the ONE Thing to think about relationships
  • How to narrow down your to-do list
  • Variations of the 80/20 Rule
  • What to do when your ONE Thing changes
  • How to ask good questions to pursue good goals
  • How "The tip of the iceberg" relates to productivity and purpose
  • How to overcome hyperbolic discounting
  • Jerry Seinfeld's method: "Don't break the chain"
Erik Cianci