The latest in our series that uses the ‘book review’ format as a springboard into a wider conversation about the world of work—and how to do it better.
The ONE Thing, Gary Keller with Jay Papasan
In my last article, I quoted from the movie City Slickers in reference to how leaders should focus on what they need to do to make a transformative difference to their organisations. In some ways, that was a preview of forthcoming attractions. In this piece, I highlight some pragmatic and inspiring points from a book that will help you focus on what cowboy Curly was pointing to.
It took me some time to take up a friend’s recommendation to read The ONE Thing. Here was a book written by a hero of the real-estate market of all things, it was a best seller, and I already knew everything there was to know about focus. After all, wasn’t that the main claim of my speciality, the Theory of Constraints? And then I reminded myself of the chutzpa of Dr Eli Goldratt, who famously said he wasn’t interested in Pareto and his 80/20. He was always on the lookout for the 99/1.
Once I got over my own hubris and picked up the book, I couldn’t put it down. It’s written in a very accessible and engaging style, filled with illuminating quotes and relevant explanatory diagrams. What a treasure trove of practical wisdom the book turned out to be. Just ask the question, every day:
‘What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?’
There are many practical tips and stories around how to achieve extraordinary results by becoming a ‘one-trick pony’, acquiring a ‘one-track mind’ and being ‘single-minded’. All this counterintuitive advice is there to help you go after what really matters and to shed the rest. I loved that they could write about the fact that when in pursuit of the one thing, everything else could get pretty messy and out of order. I also liked the way they punctured the illusion that you can have a work-life balance if you’re in pursuit of anything truly remarkable:
‘The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.’
It’s never balanced if you’re going to achieve great results, but they do introduce the idea of counterbalance:
‘Whatever you’re doing, be fully present. This is the secret of counter-balance: bringing our full attention to the effort at hand.’
One of the central ideas of the book is the ‘domino effect’, which the authors use to illustrate that if a chain reaction was started where every successive domino was half as big again as the one preceding it, then by the 57th iteration, what started at the size of a single domino could reach the distance to the moon. It’s harnessing this power of geometric progression that lies at the heart of the power of the one thing. Focus on what you really want and love and start with a mindset that sees you knocking over the next thing—not the ultimate prize, but just the next thing—metaphorically half as big again as the one that preceded it. And like the dominos, you’ll soon be playing in the big leagues.
There’s no such thing as a balanced life if you are going to achieve greatness.
So, what sits between you and this simple-to-understand pathway to success? Well, Keller reckons there are six lies between you and success:
1. Everything matters equally
The antidote to this is to get serious about Pareto and keep going on your to-do list until there is only the one thing left—a high leverage activity that makes all the other things on your list either go away or become much easier.
The executive function of our brains is very small relative to the rest. If you listen to your monkey mind and switch in and out of different activities, there is a huge transactional cost. Compare how much you get done when working in flow to when you are continuously interrupted.
3. A disciplined life
It’s not that we need to be disciplined across all things all the time. What we need to do is to take the 66 days required to turn a discipline into a habit so that doing the right thing becomes second nature.
4. Willpower is always on will-call
Willpower is a finite resource and should be conserved to do those things which really matter, and not spread too thin. Be aware of how much energy you have and understand that low energy correlates with low will power. So, do what matters most first thing every day, when your willpower is strongest.
5. A balanced life
There’s no such thing as a balanced life if you are going to achieve greatness. There will be times when, in pursuit of your one thing, you will forego all attention to anything else. The remedy for this is to understand the idea of counterbalance. When you inevitably have to go too far one way for a period, you must counterbalance it at other times to ensure you lead the good and fulfilling life.
6. Big is bad
Thinking that ‘thinking big’ is bad, is a bad thought. Do not be encumbered by the limiting nature of your goal, but rather set a big one and figure out what you need to do to get there. In doing so, you get to achieve your lesser goal on the way through to the bigger one. Be crazy enough to think you can change the world, as everyone who ever did was similarly crazy. Have the courage to take on your fears and use the experience of others who have made the breakthroughs as your guide. Don’t fear failure; by definition, you can’t be learning if you’re not failing.
In the section which talks about the art of a powerful question, there is a wonderful poem:
By JB Rittenhouse
I bargained with Life for a penny,
And Life would pay no more,
However I begged at evening
When I counted my scanty store.
For Life is a just employer,
He gives you what you ask,
But once you have set the wages,
Why, you must bear the task.
I worked for a menial’s hire,
Only to learn dismayed,
That any wage I had asked of Life,
Life would have willingly paid.
More than half of a good answer is a powerful question, and it’s worth repeating the question that gives the book its title:
‘What’s the ONE thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary.’
The question is posed in two parts—the big picture and the small focus. The big picture provides you with a vision worthy of your fleeting life, whilst the small focus gets you to pay attention to that one domino which starts the fall of all others. By helping you develop the powerful question through a series of concepts and exercises, Keller shows how the concept can be applied to the whole of an accomplished life, be it business, finances, family, physical health, spirituality or any other aspect of a life well lived. How to make it a habit of mind, practiced every day—full of possibility, benchmarked and routinely monitored.
In the third section of the book, he talks of extraordinary results and the relationship between productivity and purpose. I was reminded of Nietzsche’s famous dictum that if you had a powerful enough ‘why’ you could bear almost any ‘what’. Purpose informs priority, and focusing on priority delivers the productivity required to achieve your goal. And that goal, as described by the authors, is like one of those Russian dolls. It has multiple horizons to it, from the ‘someday goal’ (what’s the ONE thing I want to do some day?) through the five-year goal, the one-year goal, the monthly goal, the weekly goal, the daily goal and the right now goal: ‘Based on my daily goal, what’s the one thing I can do right now to achieve my daily goal?’ And so on back up the ladder of time.
I found the section of the book dealing with ‘time blocking’ especially useful. It just seems logical, the author’s claim, that:
‘If disproportionate results come from one activity, then you must give that one activity disproportionate time.’
How often, after all, do we ask ourselves the question as to the opportunity cost of the use of that irreplaceable and finite resource we all have, called time? What doesn’t get done in accordance with your goal if you spend time doing things which don’t advance you towards its attainment?
Toward the end of the book, Keller stopped me in my tracks with a small section called ‘Move from E to P’. The context was a piece about mastery, in which he defined the concept of mastery as:
‘The path to mastering something is the combination of not only doing the best you can do it, but also doing it the best it can be done.’
The ‘E’ referred to above is the path of the entrepreneur, which Keller argues has a ceiling of achievement and goes through four predictable phases once that ceiling is hit: disappointment, resignation, the search for greener pastures and then the repetition of that cycle. ‘P’ stands for the purposeful approach which calls on you to do what comes ‘unnaturally’. Only then can you break through the natural ceiling of accomplishment through a positive repeating cycle of focus, models, systems and breakthroughs. You can see it in the serial failed entrepreneur versus the business leader who hunkers down and learns to break through. I liken the ‘E’ and ‘P’ approach to Carol Dweck’s insights into what behaviours lead to the development of a ‘fixed’ or ‘growth’ mindset (see my review of Mindset).
Along with the six lies mentioned above, Keller talks of the four thieves of productivity:
1. The inability to say ‘No’
2. Fear of chaos
3. Poor health habits
4. Environment doesn’t support your goals
For each of these thieves, Keller has some very practical ideas as to how to start saying ‘no’, accept chaos, manage your energy and take ownership of your environment. Keller’s optimism and enthusiasm throughout are truly inspiring. As I read, I could feel myself being drawn in by his generosity and wisdom. This, I thought, is a book written by a man who lives fully in the mindset of abundance.
And, just in case you think it’s all about work, in the part on time blocking about how to organise your time to give you the opportunity to focus on the one thing, I loved the fact that they start by asking you to plan your annual calendar by considering first when and where you’re going to take your vacation. That was the first entry in my diary once I completed the book.
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We’d love to run it with you. To learn more:
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