If there was ONE Thing that would transform your business, what would it be?

One of the worst questions my wife ever asks me at the end of a workday is “Did you get everything done.” When you run your own business, you never get everything done.

There is a marketing revamp on the go. I have three other books in the queue for review. I have three books on my reading list for the next book I’m writing. It’s unlikely I have hit Inbox 0. I’m sure there are tasks for clients I need to do.

You never get everything done. This fact is also the bane of business owners because it means there is always a huge list of things to do. Picking which one to do at any given moment is overwhelming. You have many competing priorities and parties that want your time.

Sorting through this quagmire of tasks is where The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan comes in. Its purpose is to help you decide what the one most important thing is. The most direct way to do this is to ask their ONE question.

What’s the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?

It’s important to recognise up front that this question is useful everywhere, not just in business contexts. What is the ONE Thing you can do today to let your wife know you love her that would make all other things unnecessary? What about with your kids?

What is the ONE Thing you can do this week to bring in clients that would make all else easier or unnecessary?

It can be hard to think of just ONE Thing though because we see others do so many other things. They’re successful with varied attention…right? The question to ask yourself is, how varied was their attention when they were at your stage? How did they build to the point they’re at now?

When you see someone who has a lot of knowledge, they learned it over time. When you see someone who has a lot of skills, they developed them over time. When you see someone who has done a lot, they accomplished it over time. When you see someone who has a lot of money, they earned it over time.
The key is over time. Success is built sequentially. It’s one thing at a time.

They got to that point by continual application of force over time. There is almost no overnight success. You keep focusing down on the one thing that is most important. With focus comes production and forward progress.

After the initial introduction chapters to get us all on the same page, Keller and Papasan break up the book into three sections. Part one is about the lies that stand between us and the success we want. Part two is about the truth we need to live if we want that success. Part three is designed to teach us the productivity views that will be needed to get us the results we want.

Part 1: The Lies

According to Keller and Papasan, there are six lies that get between success and us.

  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

The six lies are beliefs that get into our heads and become operational principles driving us the wrong way. Highways that end as bunny trails.

Almost nothing you have on your plate is mandated. You don’t have to clean your room like you did when you lived with your parents. You could write that blog post, or not. You could go to that networking meeting, or not. You could talk to people at the event, or stand in the corner.

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 business rarely takes care of business.

Because everything feels urgent and important, we ask ourselves that ONE Thing question. By knowing what will make everything else easy or irrelevant, we know what the single thing is that we should be doing.

But so much of the world around us wants to pull us away from our ONE Thing and into…cat videos…gifs of random crap…things that don’t matter.

There is no such thing as multitasking. You switch between tasks fast and build up attention residue1 which means you do many things progressively poorly.

When you try to do two things at once you either can’t or won’t do either well. If you think multitasking is an effective way to get more done, you’ve got it backward.

We get ourselves into this mess because we’re not willing to say no even though it’s the most productive word in our vocabulary.

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.

We continue to say yes to every little thing that comes across our plate because it might maybe have some benefit at some point. In Deep Work2 Cal Newport calls this the Any Benefit Mindset.

The Any-Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection: You’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it. – Deep Work

The alternative presented to multitasking by Keller and Papasan is a disciplined life.

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

Note that you don’t have to exert your willpower forever, you sprint for say 60 days until it becomes a habit. You no longer have to think about it.

Put up with the discipline long enough to turn it into habit, and the journey feels different. Lock in one habit so it becomes part of your life, and you can effectively ride the routine with less wear and tear on yourself. The hard stuff becomes habit, and the habit makes the hard stuff easy.

Assuming that you can exert willpower forever misses the fact that you have a limited amount of decision power to draw from each day. You get decision fatigue3. If you spend 30 minutes analysing your wardrobe, you’re more likely to snack on the cookies you know you shouldn’t have because you have used up some of your willpower.

Willpower has a limited battery life but can be recharged with some downtime.

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath, talk about making decisions easier on willpower by scripting your decisions. When you get up you eat the same things, say three eggs, which means you don’t have to wrestle with the idea of eating the Fruit Loops because you eat eggs in the morning.4

Balance is another thing that Keller and Papasan don’t quite believe in, and I’m on board.

The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.

I believe in seasons. Right now I’m in a season where I get out a bunch more to local events to meet local business owners. I’ll be out tonight. I’ve got two middle of the day coffee meetings planned, and a Friday morning 6 am breakfast.

My evening meetings leave my wife putting the kids to bed solo, but we agreed that I’d be out more as I build my coaching business.

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, with only infrequent counterbalancing to address them.

I’m taking more calls and letting some of the random emails languish because email is not in my ONE Thing right now. Inbox 0 is great and all, but you are getting to a similar spot by deciding that some parts of email just don’t matter.

Some of you may be wondering what this means for your personal life. According to Keller and Papasan, you ‘counterbalance’ differently in your personal life and business life.

What that means is you may ignore email for a time and then give it one day of focus to ‘counterbalance’ the ignoring. With family/friends, you put much more effort into counterbalance. Say you’re out a bunch like me right now, I also endeavour to make sure every night I’m home I’m fully there for my wife and take as much of the duties with the kids as I can.

The final lie in The ONE Thing is that big is bad.

Big is bad is a lie.
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.

This ties in closely with your Upper Limit Challenge from The Big Leap5. According to Dr Gay Hendricks, when you have success you don’t feel you deserve you cause yourself pain/failure in another area to balance out the success you feel you deserve.

I feel that The Big Leap does a better job on this topic, but it’s a whole book devoted to the lies surrounding Big is Bad, so it would make sense that it has a deeper treatment of them.

Part 2: The Truth: The Simple Path to Productivity

The second section of the book is all about the Simple Path to Productivity, as noted right in its title. It starts out by driving home the ONE question they want us to ask which they call The Focusing Question.

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

Note they don’t say should do or could do. Both of those words can easily leave you in a dream world where you should land a contract with a Fortune 500 even though it’s your first day running your own business. They focus on what you can do because it’s within your reach.

Keller and Papasan want you to build this question into a habit in your life, and they provide a huge number of variations on their focusing question.

Here are a few of them. Remember, at the end, you add such that by doing it everything will be easier or unnecessary.

For my Physical Health
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to achieve my diet goals…?
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure that I exercise…?

For my Personal Life
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my skill at _____?_
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to find time for myself…?

For my Key Relationships
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my relationship with my spouse/partner…?
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to show my appreciation to my parents…?

For my Job
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure I hit my goals…?
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to help my team succeed…?

For my Business
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make us more competitive…?
– What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make us more profitable…?

Looking at the areas of your life and asking this question will provide lots of clarity with the actions you need to take. Don’t bother will all the other ‘nice sounding’ things, focus on the ONE Thing that will have the most impact.

Those questions bring us to their final section, which is all about productivity.

Part 3: Extraordinary Results Unlocking the Possibilities within you

A business can’t have unproductive people yet magically still have an immensely profitable business. Great businesses are built one productive person at a time.

While they don’t go into this aspect in detail6, a single bad team member can kill an entire team. You need everyone bought into the direction and ONE Thing for your team7.

For ourselves, we need to live with purpose8.

When our daily actions fulfill a bigger purpose, the most powerful and enduring happiness can happen.

For me, that means I help men run the business they dreamed of while being intentional about their kids and spouse. Every time I help someone repair broken relationships or solve an income problem, my day brightens up so much.

Because what I do matches with my purpose, I wake up ready to go to “work” even though it never feels like work.

That means when I focus on meeting with guys to talk about what’s going on in their business and family I’m doing the ONE Thing that matters most. Talking to people and helping them.

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

The conversations I have with people that bring change are the best marketing for my coaching services.

Keller and Papasan also recommend what I keep calling The Mullet Productivity Schedule.

To experience extraordinary results, be a maker in the morning and a manager in the afternoon.

In the morning I spend 3 hours (6 am – 9 am) reading, writing, researching, creating. I dive in deep and focus. I don’t allow distractions. I check no email. I don’t take calls. I focus.

In that time I take care of my ONE Thing and then I’m free with a productive day to deal with email or other random tasks that come along.

The ONE Thing finishes off with two more thoughts. First is that there are four thieves to your productivity.

The first thief is your inability to say no.

People will ask for your advice and help. Co-workers will want you on their team. Friends will request your assistance. Strangers will seek you out. Invitations and interruptions will come at you from everywhere imaginable. How you handle all of this determines the time you’re able to devote to your ONE Thing and the results you’re ultimately able to produce.

The second thief is your fear of chaos. By focusing on ONE Thing, you will be letting go of other parts of your business. You’ve got to learn to live without Inbox 0.

Focusing on ONE Thing has a guaranteed consequence: other things don’t get done. Although that’s exactly the point, it doesn’t automatically make us feel any better about it.

Third, is your health. Not sleeping well only proves that you’re an idiot. Eating poorly and bad (or no) exercise is in the same boat. You may think you’re making time for other work, but you’re robbing yourself of energy.

When people don’t understand the power of the ONE Thing, they try to do too much — and because this never works over time, they end up making a horrific deal with themselves. They go for success by sacrificing their health. They stay up late, miss meals or eat poorly, and completely ignore exercise. Personal energy becomes an afterthought; allowing health and home life to suffer becomes acceptable by default.

Fourth is your environment, specifically the people you surround yourself with. If everyone that you surround yourself with says that writing a book is too hard, it’s more likely it will be too hard for you.

For you to achieve extraordinary results, the people surrounding you and your physical surroundings must support your goals.

This also goes with your physical environment. If your environment isn’t built to let you focus on ONE Thing, you won’t. If you’re constantly interrupted, you will never be doing your best work.

No one succeeds alone and no one fails alone. Pay attention to the people around you. Seek out those who will support your goals, and show the door to anyone who won’t.

The second main thought is that it’s a journey to get to success. There is no overnight success. It’s 10 years of doing the work and then suddenly you’re an overnight success.

Actions build on action. Habits build on habit. Success builds on success. The right domino knocks down another and another and another. So whenever you want extraordinary results, look for the levered action that will start a domino run for you.

When you’re feeling frustrated with where you’re at, remember this. It is a journey. I write fast because I have over 1200 blog posts. I’ve published more than 140k words in 2017 alone. In 2016 I published at least 140k. It’s only with this practice that I’ve developed the skills to write quickly.

You need to be willing to take the steps on the journey to get here as well.9

Recommendation

I know you don’t want to be average because average is a mortgage and car payments and living paycheque to paycheque. It’s dad that works lots and spends some time with the kids…sometimes. That time with the kids is punctuated with work email and phone calls and so many things that take away from quality bonding time.

You want to live an extraordinary life. A life that has purpose and brings value to the world. So let’s leave you with this final quote from The ONE Thing.

Anyone who dreams of an uncommon life eventually discovers there is no choice but to seek an uncommon approach to living it.

If you’re ready to live an uncommon life, then read The ONE Thing and most importantly put it into action. The best book I know to help you put it into action is The 12 Week Year10.

Get The ONE Thing on Amazon.

photo credit: yutakaseki cc


  1. Leroy, S. (2009). Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(2), 168-181. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597809000399 
  2. I reviewed Deep Work as well 
  3. Decision Fatigue 
  4. We’ll be looking at Switch in a few weeks. I’m just reading it for the second time. It’s going to be a recommended book. 
  5. I have a long look at The Big Leap and your Upper Limit Challenge 
  6. Multipliers does a much better job looking at how a single team member can kill a team. I’ve reviewed it
  7. Again, watch for my upcoming look at Switch if you want to know how to bring a team on board with your ideas. 
  8. In The Art of Work Jeff Goins does a great job walking us through finding our purpose. I wrote about it here
  9. If you want to achieve mastery I wrote a book about it 
  10. I’m sure you’re surprised to know that I reviewed the 12 Week Year