That’s a hell of a title. I was pretty skeptical the book could deliver on the premise. It did. This is a book that challenges you. This is a book about decisionmaking, it’s about productivity, and it’s about the search for one’s values. That’s a lot to discuss. And somehow, it’s all decompressed from a single question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
Ultimately, the decision-making, productivity, and value-search come from focus. Why focus? Well, what is focus even for? Focus is “recognizing that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most….It’s realizing that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.”
Focus is a forcing move that has several positive consequences. Focusing requires decision-making. Making decisions is about making choices. You must make choices based on what you value. Focusing on the One Thing necessarily forces you to make choices based on your values.
What this book advocates for then, is extreme focus. Focus is strategic: it allows you to determine what task will have the maximum impact towards your goals. Focus is tactical: doing a lot of things prevents you from discovering which really mattered; any success you experience is overdetermined. And as any serious analysis of outsized success in any field reflects, excellence is a process, not an outcome. It is a product of time. And therefore, you must choose how to use that time.
The central concept is an extension of the well-discussed Pareto’s law, except that Keller is an extremist and forces you to take a position on the One Thing that matters the most: “Allow what matters most to drive your day. 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. Say no. … If we believe things don’t matter equally, we must act accordingly… The truth is that things don’t matter equally and success is found in doing what matters most.”
The book also makes the interesting point that it would be more or less impossible to always have a “balanced” life – we have to attend to the most important parts of life, which can be work or play or rest. So Keller proposes “counterbalance” – built in regulators for cutting off overextensions. For me, this reminds of me something I realized in yoga. In taking on expansive movements like moon pose or dancer’s pose, we can extend ourselves as long as we remain centered; being centered is what permits us to extend ourselves at all. So while when we’re focusing on the One Thing, we are necessarily putting the rest out of “balance”.
Focus doesn’t mean you have to be working towards small goals, in fact, focus goes hand in hand with big, specific goals. Because “No one knows their ultimate ceiling for achievement”. It’s a powerful tool because it’s scalable: as Keller explains, “The Focusing Question can lead you to answer not only ‘big picture’ questions (Where am I going? What target should I aim for?) but also ‘small focus’ ones as well (What must I do right now to be on the path to getting the big picture? Where’s the bull’s-eye?).” And “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. And since what you do is determined by what you think, how big you think becomes the launching pad for how high you achieve.”
With this context, we can revisit the Focusing Question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
What’s the one thing I can do…: you must make a choice. And you must choose something you can do – not something you should do or could do.
…such that by doing it…: our choice reflects a purpose – we are doing this for a reason.
…everything else will be easier or unnecessary: it’s hard to grasp the truth that we don’t really consider whether the things we do in a day will really get us closer to our aims in life. It’s easy to delude ourselves and focus on the signal instead of the substance.
You can apply the One Thing to any domain. What must I do to sustain and grow my ___? Here are my answers. Some are obvious answers – obviously I go to the gym to keep up with my health. But the simplicity belies the depth of the commitment – some of these these are powerful habits that are so tied to my everyday life it takes a wrenching force to pull me away from them.
Physical health: gym
Mental health: meditate
Relationship: supporting the physical health of my SO.
Work: writing -> writing about books
It’s interesting to consider whether there are different answers for “what must I do to sustain ___?” and “what must I do to grow ___?”. I also wonder if these have to be activities – I do think that the value of supporting my girlfriend’s physical health (and her mine) is a deep bond we share.
Keller spends some time discussing how we can leverage this tool to challenge ourselves. It’s provocative to think about – frank.y, I have no idea what is the biggest idea I could be working towards. But he offers some great tools for the exploration: “Great questions, like great goals, are big and specific.” And to find a Great Answer, an easy heuristic is to “research and study the highest achievers. Anytime you don’t know the answer, your answer is to go find your answer. In other words, by default, your first ONE Thing is to search for clues and role models to point you in the right direction. The first thing to do is ask, ‘Has anyone else studied or accomplished this or something like it?'” And then you must skate to where the puck is heading.
Keller also shows how our values must drives our decisions for what to focus on, and how to focus. Our values come from purpose, we decide what to focus on by prioritizing, and when we have done so we must be productive.
Purpose. Finding one’s purpose sounds intractable and insoluble. But Keller has a heuristic: “Think of it as simply the ONE Thing you want your life to be about more than any other. Try writing down something you’d like to accomplish and then describe how you’d do it.”
Priority. Try this exercise to find your priorities:
“Based on my someday goal, what’s the ONE Thing I can do in the next five years to be on track to achieve it? Now, based on my five-year goal, what’s the ONE Thing I can do this year to be on track to achieve my five-year goal, so that I’m on track to achieve my someday goal? Now, based on my goal this year, what’s the ONE Thing I can do this month so I’m on track to achieve my goal this year, so I’m on track to achieve my five-year goal, so I’m on track to achieve my someday goal? Now, based on my goal this month, what’s the ONE Thing I can do this week so I’m on track to achieve my goal this month, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this year, so I’m on track to achieve my five-year goal, so I’m on track to achieve my someday goal? Now, based on my goal this week, what’s the ONE Thing I can do today so I’m on track to achieve my goal this week, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this month, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this year, so I’m on track to achieve my five-year goal, so I’m on track to achieve my someday goal? So, based on my goal today, what’s the ONE Thing I can do right NOW so I’m on track to achieve my goal today, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this week, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this month, so I’m on track to achieve my goal this year, so I’m on track to achieve my five-year goal, so I’m on track to achieve my someday goal?”
It’s key to note that thinking this is a habit – applying the One Thing is a habit. And this habit helps us conquer the otherwise intractable.
Productivity. Block off the time. And be prepared to spend plenty of time: “If disproportionate results come from one activity, then you must give that one activity disproportionate time.”
How do we allocate time? Most importantly, allocate time to purposeful rest – schedule those vacations. Then, Keller proposes 4 hours a day (citing to On Writing). From there, build out time to plan. Block an hour each week to review your annual and monthly goals.
For a service worker like myself, an obvious and immediate objection is the demands of my clients. But Keller has a smart take on this: “The toughest part is navigating a high-level request. How do you say no to anyone important—your boss, a key client, your mom—who asks you to do something with a high sense of urgency? One way is to say yes and then ask, “If I have that done by [a specific time in the future], would that work?” Most often, these requests are more about an immediate need to hand a task off than about a need for it to be done immediately, so the requester usually just wants to know it will get done.”
Keller has some additional notes on efficacy. We must become masters. “Most assume mastery is an end result, but at its core, mastery is a way of thinking, a way of acting, and a journey you experience.””Since there is always another level to learn, mastery actually means you’re a master of what you know and an apprentice of what you don’t. In other words, we become masters of what is behind us and apprentices for what is ahead. This is why mastery is a journey.” “The path of mastering something is the combination of not only doing the best you can do at it, but also doing it the best it can be done.”
We obtain mastery through deliberate practice, and we are accountable. Accountable people seek reality, acknowledge reality, take ownership, find solutions, and sees the task through. “Taking complete ownership of your outcomes by holding no one but yourself responsible for them is the most powerful thing you can do to drive your success.” Seek coaches and teachers to keep you accountable and growing.
This book is a quick read, and I am confident you will find it provocative and in some way it will inspire you to develop more intentional relationship with your time.