THE ONE THING, By Gary Keller

Gary Keller

Think big but go small

When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything, your approach should always be the same: go small. Going small is ignoring all the things you “could do” and doing what you “should do” now. It is recognising that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most. We have plans and goals for only one reason: to be appropriate at this moment. For Gary, “Goal setting to the NOW” is the best way to set a future goal and then methodically drill down to what you should be doing right now: your first step of a journey, your first piece of domino to knock down. In this regard, Gary quotes the popular insight of Mark Twain: “The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks and then starting on the first one”.


Priority and effectiveness

Regular and deliberate time on task, over time, eventually beats talent every time. However, it is also important to recognise that activity is often unrelated to productivity. Achievers always work with a clear sense of priority. After all, you run on limited resources. You only have so much time and energy: when you spread yourself out, you spread thin. Instead of a to-do list, it is important to create a “success-list”, purposefully created (weighted) around key results. We ultimately want to focus on doing the “right thing” (effectiveness) instead of doing things right (efficiency).

Pareto’s principle of unequal distribution is a great method to embrace, but for Gary, it can be taken to the next level: once we have identified the 20% that produce the 80% of results, we can further narrow it down to one major idea out of 100: this is thinking big but going very small. We reach it by asking what matters most until there is only one thing left.


The right question

Life is a question, and how we live, it is our answer. Clarity must come from us: we must envision our own journey, make our own mass and create our own compass. We have to invent the right questions to get the answers we seek. Gary proposes to always use this focusing question: “What is the ONE THING I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” This two levels question comprises a big picture map (purpose) and a small focus compass (levered action). Your BIG THING is your purpose, and your small one THING is the priority you take action on to achieve it. It is helpful to start with the purpose as the guiding force to determine the priorities and helps you find the “first Domino”.

Once you knock it over, you will discover a line of dominos behind it, either ready to fall or already down. Gary clarifies that extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous; it starts sequentially and linear and soon embraces a geometric growth (it compounds).


Gary shares this warning: until your ONE THING is done, everything else is a distraction. Life is full of distractions disguised as opportunities, urgencies and emergencies. However, leaving something undone is a necessary trade-off for extraordinary results. In the words of William James, “the art of being wise is knowing what to overlook. This is difficult because “the things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest” (Bob Hawke). Gary suggests time blocking your ONE THING time every day and protecting it; while getting everything else done may help you sleep better at night, it won’t make you master your skills and ultimately succeed.


Once we have identified our priorities, the trick to achieving results is to choose the right behaviour and make it a habit by bringing just enough discipline to establish it for 66 days. The payoff from correct behaviour is two-fold:

  • it gets you the success you are searching for, and
  • it simplifies your life. Your life gets clearer and less complicated because you know what you have to do well and you know what you don’t.


Without a clear purpose, you don’t know your priorities. When your life is on purpose, living by priority takes precedence. For Gary asking what drives you makes you realise your purpose. For Gary, success is ultimately an inside job. Once you put yourself together, the world falls into place; once you have a clear purpose in life, you know your priorities, and you can achieve them. Extraordinary results become possible when where you want to go is completely aligned with what you do every day.

Faith and attitude

Gary’s wisdom covers the importance of faith and a positive attitude toward your purpose and priority. On this point, he tells a parable.  An old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside all people. He said, “My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us. One is Fear. It carries anxiety, concern, uncertainty, hesitancy, indecision and inaction. The other is faith. It brings calm, conviction, confidence, enthusiasm, decisiveness, excitement and action. The grandson thought about it for a moment and then asked his grandfather: Which wolf wins? The old Cherokee replied, “The one you feed”.

Until next time. Focus on your big thing and sweat your assets!

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