The One Thing Summary: How Going Small Leads To Big Results

Book: The One Thing summary

A summary of The One Thing

I wrote this post as a summary of The One Thing, by best-selling author Gary Keller and co-author Jay Papasan, because I think it offers some of the best advice on goal setting.

But, before I go into specifics, I’ll boil the whole book down into one sentence, which the authors call the “focusing question”:

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

The entire book focuses on this single question and uses it to teach you how to “drill down” to your one thing, why it’s important to focus on one thing, and what it will take to achieve your one thing.

According to their uncommon approach to productivity, there should be only one thing you’re focused on at any moment in time. But, your one thing isn’t your only thing, and it’s not necessarily your biggest thing.

You can have one thing for each area of your life (career, family, finances, spiritual, etc.), and it will usually be one small piece of the bigger picture. It will also change depending on different factors.

The key to success is figuring out which one thing you need to focus on right now and then giving it your undivided attention.

By using the focus question stated above, you come to an answer that:

  • is necessary, important, and the key priority
  • you understand and believe will make a difference
  • either defines your long-term objective or short-term goals
  • will help you achieve what matters most to you
  • will give you the greatest personal productivity
  • will achieve extraordinary results
  • connects today to all your tomorrows
  • will contribute to your life purpose

This book reminded me that it’s not about doing more, it’s about doing what matters.

Now, let’s get into The One Thing summary, and learn from this best-selling self-help book, so you can start creating your most extraordinary life.

The key ideas of The One Thing summary

The book has 16 chapters and is divided into 3 sections.

Here are some key ideas that the authors write about:

  • “going small” begins a domino effect that leads to extraordinary results
  • there are “truthy” lies our culture has convinced us are true but get in the way of our success
  • the real truth is that the path to success is a simple one if you make it a habit to ask the focusing question
  • identifying your big ONE thing (purpose) and focusing on your small ONE thing (priority), will increase your productivity
  • by carrying out the“three commitments” and avoiding the“four thieves of productivity”, you can ensure you will be living your most purposeful life

The Domino Effect

Big success does not mean big focus. Actually, it starts with a narrow focus. The authors call this “going small“, and although it’s a simple idea, it may not be easy to apply at first.

It’s easy to get sucked into the belief that in order to be productive, you need to be busy.

Long to-do lists, packed schedules, time-consuming tasks, and complicated plans can make you *feel* like you’re getting ahead. But, simple truth be told, it usually results in feeling overloaded and overwhelmed – and still not getting the results you want.

The answer lies in freeing yourself from the false belief that starting small means thinking small. Narrowing your focus doesn’t indicate you’re not dreaming big enough. The book argues quite the opposite.

“Going small” means separating the coulds from the shoulds, the urgent from the important, and the busy stuff from the productive. It means identifying the ONE thing to focus on right now that will get you closer to reaching your ultimate goals.

Imagine a bunch of dominos lined up. By giving your full attention to the smallest priority, it’s like knocking down the lead domino that then creates a chain reaction. That first domino leads to increasingly larger achievements – or, what the book calls a geometric progression.

The domino analogy is a picture of the sequential attribute of success: each ONE thing you accomplish adds up over time, creating enough momentum to eventually topple over your biggest goals.

And it all starts with “going small”.

Truthy Lies

We all have basic principles we live by, ones that drive our decisions and influence our actions.

Unfortunately, sometimes we accept ideas because we trusted the source. Or, we’ve heard them so many times that we identify them as true statements.

The authors of the ONE thing have identified 6 “truthy” lies that may be leading you down the wrong path and keeping you from achieving your goals:

TRUTHY LIE #1: Everything matters equally

Productivity starts with prioritizing.

If you have a long survival list of tasks with checkboxes, then everything seems important. All of these “equally important” tasks then scream for your attention and end up filling your whole day.

These survival lists don’t prioritize your goals or purposefully take you in a specific direction, so they don’t result in high productivity. Usually, it’s just busywork.

The authors encourage us to adopt success lists instead. A success list is focused, short, and important.

They’re also one way to prove the Pareto Principle, which states that 80% of a system’s output is determined by 20% of its input. The majority of what we achieve can actually come from the minority of what we do.

Start by brainstorming a list of everything that could potentially help you reach your goal. Then apply the Pareto Principle by choosing 20% of the highest-priority tasks that you think will have the greatest impact on taking care of business.

Normally you would make this 20% your sole focus until it’s complete. But Keller and Papasan take this idea to the extreme, challenging you to not stop there.

Instead, go even “smaller” by identifying the top 20% of that 20%,

then find 20% of that 20%,

then 20% of that 20%, etc.,

until you’ve drilled down to




This is the ONE thing you need to do right now. Scratch everything off your list.

TRUTHY LIE #2: Multitasking works

I consider myself a master of multitasking, so I was a little skeptical when the authors started to debunk the widely-held belief that multitasking results in higher productivity.

Turns out there are smarter people than me that have figured out multitasking is ineffective and ends up *wasting* time. 

On top of that, calling it “multi-tasking” isn’t even accurate. Our brains can’t focus effectively on two things at one time. Instead, it separates simultaneous tasks into different channels. This is called “task switching“.

This all results in a less effective approach to productivity – more mistakes, greater distractions, and no mastery.

TRUTHY LIE #3: Discipline is required

Why do some people have a disciplined life and others don’t? Where do they get all that self-control?

The ONE Thing claims that the belief that we have to be disciplined to reach our goals is a *lie*.

Actually, the authors tell us that we don’t need constant discipline to achieve these things, we just need enough discipline to build the positive habits that will get us there.

Once the habits “kick in and take over”, discipline is no longer needed.

The trick to success is figuring out the right habit to focus on and being disciplined enough to develop it into an automatic behavior.

The authors claim this can take about 66 days, according to research studies. The key is to identify the one habit that will lead you to the extraordinary success you want, then channel all of your energy into disciplining yourself to develop that one habit.

The authors call this selected discipline, and it allows you to be less disciplined in everything else.

Then, once the habit has become automatic, you identify the next habit that best supports your goal and discipline yourself just enough to develop that one.

This frees you from trying to be disciplined in everything. You only need enough to develop the right habit until it’s an automatic behavior. One discipline, one habit at a time.

TRUTHY LIE #4: Willpower is a mindset

Willpower is very important in achieving goals. Unfortunately, it’s not at your beck and call.

The brain, like a muscle, gets tired from extended use. You only have so much strength you can use before your brain shuts down.

We use up our physical energy with exercise, but we use up our willpower with decisions.

However, the *level* of both energy and willpower is highly affected by what we eat. Food is like the fuel in our body and mind tanks.

So, if you make too many tough decisions that go against your “default” behaviors, you’ll eventually run out of willpower.

And, if you don’t put enough “fuel” in your tank, you’re going to run out more quickly. That’s when your willpower turns into “won’t power”.

The trick is knowing what you need to fuel up your gas tank, then using it only to get closer to your goals.

Imagine you had a full fuel tank to get to your hotel which is 400 miles away, and you have no money to add more. Would you take little detours to go sightseeing along the way? Would you drive the scenic route even though it’s longer? Would you take the surface streets instead of the freeways?

The right answer would be no because you’d be wasting gas and may not make it to your final destination.

Same with willpower.

The ONE Thing tells us that our willpower is a limited resource, and can get depleted throughout the day with a variety of big and small decisions we make.

If you don’t reserve your tank of willpower for the ONE thing you’re trying to achieve, you’ll be running on fumes before you know it.

TRUTHY LIE #5: A balanced life is ideal

“A balanced life is a lie.” – Gary Keller & Jay Papasan

I think we all want to feel balanced. When we give too much to one area of our lives, then we know we’re not giving enough to another.

The authors call this middle mismanagement, referring to how balance is maintained in the middle.

If you’re too far away from the middle then you become unbalanced, which usually looks like spending disproportionate time on one thing. When this happens we feel we have to “redistribute” our commitments so we give every area of our lives its fair share.

Unfortunately, extraordinary results rarely happen in the middle.

So, what do you do? Maybe you want to build a business so you can give your family the biggest life possible, but in order to do that you’d have to neglect the very reason that motivates you.

The ONE Thing says to stop striving for work-life balance, and instead work towards counterbalancing your professional goals and personal life.

The idea is to be in a state of imbalance just long enough to do what needs to be done without causing irreparable damage.

In your professional life, you should choose extreme imbalance, giving the ONE thing that matters most your complete focus within the usual period of time you’re given at work.

Choose focused time, not overtime. You can infrequently counterbalance that with other less important work responsibilities as necessary. The authors call this “going long“.

With your personal life, it’s all about awareness. Being conscious of your health, your relationships, and your personal needs.

You must counterbalance these more tightly (“going short“) because none of them can be neglected for too long without serious consequences. From time to time, you can choose activities that combine several areas in your personal life, so you don’t always have to focus on just one. This helps you to “move them along together”.

The ONE Thing tells us that a balanced life is a myth. To get extraordinary results, there will always be a sense of imbalance and sacrifice. The key is figuring out how imbalanced you should be in each area of your life.

Keller and Papasan offer the idea to go long in your work life as you focus on mastering ONE thing and go short in your personal life in order to stay connected to those things that matter most to you.

If you don’t want “middle of the road” results, choose a counterbalanced life.

TRUTHY LIE #6: Big is bad

Many people have a limiting belief about how much they’re capable of achieving. The authors call this “shrinking thinking“.

If you think about it, when was the last time you really met your limitations? Do you truly know your potential achievement if you never gave up?

If you’re honest with yourself, the answer is probably no. So, shutting down the idea of attempting a goal that seems unrealistic is actually irrelevant. Saying it’s too big is not a valid reason for inaction.

Since we typically don’t know our limitations, this means we’ve never reached our full potential. What would that look like?

Certainly not what you look like today. So don’t imagine the “today” you when you envision achieving your biggest dreams.

Like the authors say, “big is about who you can become“. You don’t know what your true life potential is yet, so making limited assumptions about yourself is a waste of time. You may just surprise yourself.

But, what exactly is thinking “big”?

The ONE Thing encourages its readers to adopt a growth mindset, which is the belief that you are not limited by your natural intelligence and abilities.

Through hard work and effort, you are capable of achieving things in the future that you can’t presently accomplish.

In other words, you believe you can grow into someone who can attain the big success that’s out of your reach today.

When you have a growth mindset, you have bigger goals.  You think outside the box. You adopt the actions of successful people.

You’re not afraid of failure.  Instead, you fear mediocrity.

So don’t cut yourself short.  Give yourself the freedom to think big and trust that you have what it takes to get there, even if you haven’t found it yet.

The Focusing Question

The #1 barrier that keeps many from reaching their goals is analysis paralysis. In other words, they think too much and don’t do enough.

Often this boils down to too many choices. Fear of making the *wrong* choice keeps people stuck.

The ONE Thing says that in order to have your dream life, stop asking so many questions and answer only one: The Focusing Question.

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

The authors claim we don’t need to make success such a complicated and daunting journey. It can really be as simple as asking the Focusing Question at each intersection.

It can be used as a map for your big vision of success and a compass for your next step. Each time you ask it (and you should ask it frequently) you drill down to what truly matters. It helps to identify your priorities, and then get them in order.

On a macro level, the focusing question will help you develop the big picture for each area of your life, and lead you to the best actionable task you should do right now

Of course, that all-important question will look different based on your objective.

When you consider each of your life categories, various time frames, and what you want to accomplish, you can construct a focusing question that applies to any goal:

  1. Choose an area you want to work on. This might be health, finance, relationships, career, personal, etc.
  2. What is your objective in this area? What do you want to accomplish?
  3. What time frame do you want to target? You could take a wide-angle approach and choose 5 years or 1 year. Then continue to narrow your focus with a 3-month, 1-month, 1-week, or 1-day target.

Once you’ve decided these three things, build your unique focusing question:

For [insert life area], What’s the ONE Thing I can do to [insert objective] in [insert time frame] such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

For example,

For my finances, what’s the ONE thing I can do to develop a money tracking system this week, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Once I have my answer for this week, I could drill down farther to today and then to right now.

Knowing what to do right now is important. Otherwise, you’ll always be putting it off.

But, this answer will change every time you knock down a domino, so asking the question needs to be a foundational habit.

Every day, determine your direction by asking your focusing question. The authors also encourage you to set up reminders and affirmations so you don’t get distracted.

Give it 66 days, and you’ll have developed what The ONE Thing calls the Success Habit.

It’s really that simple. It all starts with asking the right question.

But, don’t stop there.

To ensure you are going to end up with extraordinary results, you must make sure your question addresses a BIG goal and a SPECIFIC outcome.

Remember the Big is Bad myth? Don’t limit yourself by what you’re capable of today, because that’s irrelevant.

Give yourself room to grow by dreaming big. You don’t even know what your limits are, so there’s no point in drawing boundaries.

This means you don’t settle for what’s just doable, or even what stretches you. Both of these only require your current abilities.

Instead, reach for what is possible – beyond your comfort zone, and beyond others’ achievements. Use other peoples’ experiences and successes to lift you higher so you can have a clear view of what amazing possibilities lay ahead.

When you ask a question that’s big & specific, and answer it with what’s possible, you are on your way to incredible results.

Purpose, Priority & Productivity

The authors talk about serial success seeking, which is something I can relate to – and maybe you can, too.

When you jump from path to path, continually striving for that one accomplishment that will make you feel like you’ve made it, you’ve developed the bad habit of serial success seeking.

Serial success seeking is the result of pursuing opportunities that are not aligned with your life’s purpose, and it keeps you from focusing on the big picture for your life.

The ONE Thing tells us that purpose is the cure for both a small-picture perspective and lack of motivation. When you know your purpose in life, even the smallest decisions are connected to something bigger – bigger than just today, or this week, or this month.

You have a sense that the choices you make today really matter because each one will ultimately contribute to what you were made to do and be. And, when life goes wonky and things don’t turn out as you had planned, you’re not swayed from staying the course.

As long as you stay connected to what your purpose is, you will never run out of inspiration and motivation to keep striving towards it. Like a compass, it will guide you through all the detours that life brings.

However, without priority, purpose won’t get you anywhere.

When you know where you’re going, you must make getting there of utmost importance. That means making every step count.

Separating the shoulds from the coulds.

Knowing what your ONE thing is right now, and focusing on that until it’s complete.

Knocking down that most important domino day after day leads to the ultimate prize: living your purpose.

Goal Setting to the Now

The authors devised a strategy for accomplishing this called Goal Setting to the Now, which helps reveal the most important ONE thing for your long-term objective.

By starting at the finish line and working backward, you ensure that every small ONE thing you do is connected to your big ONE thing:

  1. Create a Focusing Question for a “big picture” goal, for like 5 years from now or longer.
  2. Working backward, determine Focusing Questions for various time frames – 1 year, 6 months, 1 month, 1 week, etc. – that are all connected and help you to stay on track with your big picture goal.
  3. Keep drilling down until you get to the ONE thing you can do right now that will help you achieve your goal today, so you’re on track to keep your goal tomorrow, this week, this month, this year, etc.

This process makes your purpose a priority. 

But, you must take action. You must be productive.

There’s a big difference between being a productive person and being busy. Busyness can make you feel like you’re running but getting nowhere.

But, being productive gives you the satisfaction that you’re moving in the right direction.

The distinction between the two is – you guessed it – purpose.

Productivity is the result of prioritizing purpose.

And what you prioritize, you have to plan. Otherwise, busyness will gobble up all your time.

Time blocking

The ONE Thing promotes time blocking as the most effective time-management system to use when focusing on your top priority.

Time blocking is basically scheduling blocks of time to get the important stuff done. Some might say it’s dedicating adequate time to your to-do list. But, because you give focused attention to ONE thing, there is no laundry list of stuff to get done.

Instead, there are just 3 things you need to block off specific amounts of time for:

  1. Time off
  2. Your ONE thing
  3. Planning

These are numbered in the order you schedule them.

First, schedule blocks of time for vacation days. This comes before your ONE thing because you need to rest and refuel in order to give your best to your ONE thing.

Second, the authors challenge us to dedicate a minimum of 4-hour blocks every workday to your ONE thing.

Yes. Four hours. Five days a week. Minimum. And if you can do more, even better. 

Start as early as possible, and guard your time with a vengeance. Make it the most important appointment on your schedule. Remove all distractions and give your full focus and energy to your ONE thing.

The goal is not to work more hours, but to get more done in the hours you work.

Third, schedule planning time. This is a block of time for you to reflect on the progress you’ve made and where you’re going next. It’s when you review your annual and monthly goals to make sure you’re on track and make any adjustments if you’re not.

Connecting purpose, priority, and productivity in your life puts you on the shortest path to productivity and achieving the greatest results.

Strive for extraordinary results

Once you’ve figured out your purpose (your big ONE thing), made it a priority (with small ONE things), and then time-blocked those priorities so you can be productive, there are still barriers that will hold you back.

Remember, it’s not just about moving forward. What you really want is extraordinary results.

This part of the book tells us how to approach those blocks of time with the most effectiveness.

First, you must commit to these three disciplines that will help you achieve your ONE thing:

  1. A mastery mindset
  2. Being purposeful instead of just entrepreneurial
  3. Being held accountable

Second, you need to learn how to withstand these four “thieves” that will try to rob you of the results you’re seeking:

  1. Saying “yes” to more than you should
  2. Being unwilling to allow for chaos
  3. Personal energy mismanagement
  4. Your surroundings don’t support your goals

COMMITMENT #1: Achieving mastery

Mastery can be an intimidating concept, but the authors encourage us to make it our goal anyway.

Mastery is like a mindset that guides your actions over time. It’s a process.

The authors tell us that:

Mastery is giving the best you have to become the best you can be at your most important work.

In other words, mastery in itself isn’t the goal – it’s mastering the right thing.

COMMITMENT #2: Being purposeful

You can’t say you’ve mastered something based on your opinion of your own ability. Mastering something is based on how well it’s been done by anyone.

So, once you feel like you’re a champ at a particular skill, you still need to look around and see how you measure up to others with that skill.

It’s not just about doing your best but trying to surpass others’ best as well.

This is what the authors call moving from “E” to “P”, where “E” stands for Entrepreneurial and “P” stands for Purposeful.

The book equates being entrepreneurial with using our natural abilities. Approaching a challenge with enthusiasm, but letting our natural “ceiling of achievement” determine our results. Once we’ve done all we can naturally do, we give our efforts a thumbs up and move on.

Those who are purposeful don’t let this ceiling stop them from getting better results.

They have the mindset that achievement isn’t limited to current skills and knowledge. Taking the time to look for more options and learn better systems enables them to accomplish things far beyond their natural ceiling for achievement.

This commitment is a great example of the growth mindset – believing you’re not bounded by what you’re capable of right now. You become a lifelong learner and grow in intelligence and ability through perseverance and purpose.

To reach your ONE thing and your life purpose, you cannot limit yourself, and you must not settle for good enough. Commit yourself to mastery and growth and you’ll be reaching your full potential.

You will inevitably come up against challenges that test your commitment, and this is where the third discipline comes in: accountability.

COMMITMENT #3: Accountability

Accountable people create habits that give them a greater chance of achieving their goals, such as taking ownership of their actions and backing up their decisions. 

Accountability habits foster commitment, perseverance, responsibility, and honesty. It could be the most important component of your goal-setting strategy. Without it, you will undoubtedly be tempted to quit at the first sign of adversity.

The authors encourage us to find an accountability partner who is more of a mentor or coach than a friend. The nature of the relationship will make a difference in how objective, frank and honest that person feels the freedom to be.

With the three commitments, you’ll be setting yourself up to reach your productivity potential.

But, there are still some “thieves” that will steal your time and keep you from reaching your future goal if you’re not careful.

THIEF #1: Saying “yes” to more than you should

Unfortunately, many people have difficulty saying no to unimportant tasks that don’t contribute to the dream life they’re striving for.

Saying no is a communication skill that you can learn (and should) so you can guard the time you want to devote to more important things.

You need to determine how committed you are to your ONE thing. Saying yes to things that are separate from your ONE thing will keep you separated from accomplishing it.

To get results above and beyond “ordinary” and “acceptable”, you’ll need to learn either how to say no more often, or how to say yes without taking too much time away from your ONE thing.

THIEF #2: Being unwilling to allow for chaos

To get extraordinary results, you must dedicate large blocks of time to your priorities. This means other things won’t get done. 

The ONE Thing tells us that chaos is inevitable when you are fully committed to what’s most important to you.

A powerful question to ask yourself with each task is: what is the worst thing that can happen if I don’t do this task right now?

Then, give yourself permission to let it go. Don’t make it more of a priority than your ONE thing.

Be at peace with the chaos, and trust that the time investment you put into your ONE thing will pay off someday so you can afford someone else to clean up the mess.

THIEF #3: Personal energy mismanagement

Despite the high commitment and extensive focus it takes to achieve your most important goals, you still need to take care of your mental, physical, and spiritual health. 

A healthy diet will optimize your mental energy. It will also help your emotional energy work for you and not against you.

The authors also encourage renewing your spiritual energy with meditation or prayer, and relational connection – all before you even look at your calendar for the day. That way, you’re fueled up and ready to give your best to your ONE thing.

Remember to take a break for lunch, and be home for dinner so you can reconnect with your loved ones. Then be sure to get a full 8 hours of sleep.

If any of these components are missing in your personal energy management plan, make adjustments now. Your body will be more cooperative.

THIEF #4: Your surroundings don’t support your goals

You may have all the motivation, inspiration, enthusiasm, and determination in the world, but if you’re not in a supportive environment, then you could still fail at reaching your goals.

Your environment includes your physical space as well as the people you surround yourself with.

It’s hard enough some days to keep moving forward, especially if progress is slow or you hit some disappointments. The last thing you need is someone telling you that dreams are for sleeping.

That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with those who will support you, encourage you, and cheer you on. People that believe in what you’re doing. People that believe in you.

The other half of a supportive environment is your physical surroundings. Just like certain people can distract and deter you from your priorities, so can the space you’re working in.

For example, if your kids are watching TV and your spouse is cooking in the kitchen, you might want to look for a separate, quieter space. 

Even if you’re the only one home you can still be distracted. Do what you need to do to stay on track. Hide the remotes, take the house phone off the hook, leave the paper on the porch. If you’re at work, don’t open your email, forward your calls to voicemail, and avoid the designated gossip centers.

You have work to do, so get to it!

The One Thing book review in summary

The book ends with words of inspiration and encouragement, and a challenge to reflect on your life.

To give you some perspective, the authors suggest you look into the future and consider what regrets you may have at the end of your life.

What advice would your 80-year-old self give you?

Another way is to imagine that your doctor just told you that you have 30 days to live. How do you think you’d spend the rest of your days? You’d probably do a lot of soul searching. Make amends. Write some letters. Tie up loose ends. Love on your family.

And, think about all those things you’d dreamed about or planned for, but never did.

The ONE Thing is all about living a successful life that minimizes regret. Knowing what matters most, and giving your all to that. Having faith in the purpose you know you’re meant for. Dreaming big, but going small, one domino at a time.

We all have one life to live. You can either go through the motions, or live with purpose.

You can float through your days, giving attention to whatever’s in front of you, or live by priority.

You can put limits on yourself and accept what is “good enough”, or live for productivity.

The choice is yours. Make a good one.

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The One Thing Summary: How Going Small Leads To Big Results

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