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The One Thing book summary

The One Thing book cover

Key takeaways

The whole premise behind this book is focus as the key to success. The focusing question to determine your short term and long term priorities is “What’s the ONE thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary?”.

The Pareto principle is a big factor behind this concept, whereby the author argues that 80% of the impact comes from 20% of the things you do. To find the 20%, you need to be ruthless with your todo list.

Once you’ve determined what your top most priorities are, the next step is learning to say “no” to the things that are not on the priority list.

The author stresses that the focusing question should not just apply to your professional life, but all aspects of life. After all, the point of prioritising and doing the one thing is to provide you with more free time to spend on your hobbies, with your loved ones and with your community.

Summary of chapters

Chapter 1: The One Thing

  • The key to success is to focus on the one thing that matters the most.

  • The most successful people have a clear understanding of their one thing.

  • Highlights:

    • “Be like a postage stamp–stick to one thing until you get there.”
    • “Going small” is ignoring all the things you could do and doing what you should do. It’s recognising that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most. It’s a tighter way to connect what you do with what you want. It’s realising that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.
    • You have only so much time and energy, so when you spread yourself out, you end up spread thin. You want your achievements to add up, but that actually takes subtraction, not addition. You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects. The problem with trying to do too much is that even if it works, adding more to your work and your life without cutting anything brings a lot of bad with it: missed deadlines, disappointing results, high stress, long hours, lost sleep, poor diet, no exercise, and missed moments with family and friends—all in the name of going after something that is easier to get than you might imagine.

Chapter 2: The Domino Effect

  • Small success leads to bigger success.

  • Success is built sequentially, not simultaneously.

  • By identifying and focusing on the one thing, you can start a domino effect of success.

  • Highlights:

    • Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life.
    • The key is over time. Success is built sequentially. It’s one thing at a time.

Chapter 3: Success Leaves Clues

  • Success is not a mystery, it leaves clues. Find people who have achieved what you want and model their behaviour.
  • Learn from their mistakes and successes.

Chapter 4: The Journey

  • Success is a journey, not a destination.
  • Focus on the journey, not just the destination.
  • Be grateful for the journey and the progress you make.

Chapter 5: The Six Lies Between You and Success

  • There are six common lies that hold people back from achieving success. Identify and overcome these lies to reach your full potential.

    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
  • Highlights:

    • 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 busyness rarely takes care of business.
    • Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.
    • Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.
    • Pareto points us in a very clear direction: the majority of what you want will come from the minority of what you do.
    • How to focus
      1. Go small. Don’t focus on being busy; focus on being productive. Allow what matters most to drive your day.
      2. 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.
      3. Say no. Whether you say “later” or “never,” the point is to say “not now” to anything else you could do until your most important work is done.
      4. Don’t get trapped in the “check off” game. If we believe things don’t matter equally, we must act accordingly. We can’t fall prey to the notion that everything has to be done, that checking things off our list is what success is all about. We can’t be trapped in a game of “check off” that never produces a winner. The truth is that things don’t matter equally and success is found in doing what matters most. Sometimes it’s the first thing you do. Sometimes it’s the only thing you do. Regardless, doing the most important thing is always the most important thing.

Chapter 6: The Myth of Multitasking

  • Multitasking is a myth and a productivity killer.

  • Focus on one thing at a time to achieve better results. Give your full attention to the task at hand.

  • Highlights:

    • 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.
    • Distraction is natural. Don’t feel bad when you get distracted. Everyone gets distracted.
    • Multitasking takes a toll. At home or at work, distractions lead to poor choices, painful mistakes, and unnecessary stress.
    • Distraction undermines results. When you try to do too much at once, you can end up doing nothing well. Figure out what matters most in the moment and give it your undivided attention.

Chapter 7: The Truth About Willpower

  • Willpower is finite and can be depleted.

  • Create habits and routines to conserve willpower.

  • Make your one thing a habit to eliminate the need for willpower.

  • Highlights:

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

    • You can become successful with less discipline than you think, for one simple reason: success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.

    • The trick to success is to choose the right habit and bring just enough discipline to establish it. That’s it. That’s all the discipline you need.

    • It takes an average of 66 days to acquire a new habit. The full range was 18 to 254 days, but the 66 days represented a sweet spot—with easier behaviours taking fewer days on average and tough ones taking longer.

    • You know about habits. They can be hard to break—and hard to create. But we are unknowingly acquiring new ones all the time.

    • Habit building:

      1. Don’t be a disciplined person. Be a person of powerful habits and use selected discipline to develop them.
      2. Build one habit at a time. Success is sequential, not simultaneous. No one actually has the discipline to acquire more than one powerful new habit at a time. Super-successful people aren’t superhuman at all; they’ve just used selected discipline to develop a few significant habits. One at a time. Over time.
      3. Give each habit enough time. Stick with the discipline long enough for it to become routine. Habits, on average, take 66 days to form. Once a habit is solidly established, you can either build on that habit or, if appropriate, build another one. If you are what you repeatedly do, then achievement isn’t an action you take but a habit you forge into your life. You don’t have to seek out success. Harness the power of selected discipline to build the right habit, and extraordinary results will find you.
    • Willpower has a limited battery life but can be recharged with some downtime. It’s a limited but renewable resource. Because you have a limited supply, each act of will creates a win-lose scenario where winning in an immediate situation through willpower makes you more likely to lose later because you have less of it.

      1. Don’t spread your willpower too thin. On any given day, you have a limited supply of willpower, so decide what matters and reserve your willpower for it.
      2. Monitor your fuel gauge. Full-strength willpower requires a full tank. Never let what matters most be compromised simply because your brain was under-fueled. Eat right and regularly.
      3. Time your task. Do what matters most first each day when your willpower is strongest. Maximum strength willpower means maximum success.

Chapter 8: The Four Thieves of Productivity

  • Four common distractions that steal your productivity:

    1. Inability to say no
    2. Fear of chaos
    3. Poor health habits
    4. Environment that doesn't support your goals
  • Identify and eliminate these distractions to improve your productivity.

  • Highlights:

    • Saying “no.” Always remember that when you say yes to something, you’re saying no to everything else. It’s the essence of keeping a commitment. Start turning down other requests outright or saying, “No, for now” to distractions so that nothing detracts you from getting to your top priority. Learning to say no can and will liberate you. It’s how you’ll find the time for your ONE Thing.
    • Accept chaos. Recognise that pursuing your ONE Thing moves other things to the back burner. Loose ends can feel like snares, creating tangles in your path. This kind of chaos is unavoidable. Make peace with it. Learn to deal with it. The success you have accomplishing your ONE Thing will continually prove you made the right decision.
    • Manage your energy. Don’t sacrifice your health by trying to take on too much. Your body is an amazing machine, but it doesn’t come with a warranty, you can’t trade it in, and repairs can be costly. It’s important to manage your energy so you can do what you must do, achieve what you want to achieve, and live the life you want to live.
    • Personal energy mismanagement is a silent thief of productivity.
      1. Meditate and pray for spiritual energy.
      2. Eat right, exercise, and sleep sufficiently for physical energy.
      3. Hug, kiss, and laugh with loved ones for emotional energy.
      4. Set goals, plan, and calendar for mental energy.
      5. Time block your ONE Thing for business energy. Here’s the productivity secret of this plan: when you spend the early hours energising yourself, you get pulled through the rest of the day with little additional effort. You’re not focused on having a perfect day all day, but on having an energised start to each day.
    • Take ownership of your environment. Make sure that the people around you and your physical surroundings support your goals. The right people in your life and the right physical environment on your daily path will support your efforts to get to your ONE Thing. When both are in alignment with your ONE Thing, they will supply the optimism and physical lift you need to make your ONE Thing happen.

Chapter 9: The Focusing Question

  • The focusing question is "What is the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?"

  • Use this question to determine your one thing and prioritise your actions.

  • Highlights:

    • The Focusing Question is a double-duty question. It comes in two forms: big picture and small focus. One is about finding the right direction in life and the other is about finding the right action.
    • The Big-Picture Question: “What’s my ONE Thing?” Use it to develop a vision for your life and the direction for your career or company; it is your strategic compass. It also works when considering what you want to master, what you want to give to others and your community, and how you want to be remembered. It keeps your relationships with friends, family, and colleagues in perspective and your daily actions on track.
    • The Small-Focus Question: “What’s my ONE Thing right now?” Use this when you first wake up and throughout the day. It keeps you focused on your most important work and, whenever you need it, helps you find the “levered action” or first domino in any activity. The small-focus question prepares you for the most productive workweek possible. It’s effective in your personal life too, keeping you attentive to your most important immediate needs, as well as those of the most important people in your life.

Chapter 10: The Success Habit

  • Success is built on habits, not willpower.

  • Create a habit around your one thing to make it a part of your daily routine.

  • The habit of focusing on your one thing will lead to greater success over time.

  • Highlights:

    • Tap into your purpose and make the time to take active steps to doing THE thing.
      • Connect the dots. Extraordinary results become possible when where you want to go is completely aligned with what you do today. Tap into your purpose and allow that clarity to dictate your priorities. With your priorities clear, the only logical course is to go to work.
      • Time block your ONE Thing. The best way to make your ONE Thing happen is to make regular appointments with yourself. Block time early in the day, and block big chunks of it—no less than four hours! Think of it this way: If your time blocking were on trial, would your calendar contain enough evidence to convict you?
      • Protect your time block at all costs. Time blocking works only when your mantra is “Nothing and no one has permission to distract me from my ONE Thing.” Unfortunately, your resolve won’t keep the world from trying, so be creative when you can be and firm when you must. Your time block is the most important meeting of your day, so whatever it takes to protect it is what you have to do. The people who achieve extraordinary results don’t achieve them by working more hours. They achieve them by getting more done in the hours they work.
    • Commit to be your best
      • Extraordinary results happen only when you give the best you have to become the best you can be at your most important work. This is, in essence, the path to mastery—and because mastery takes time, it takes a commitment to achieve it.
      • Be purposeful about your ONE Thing. Move from “E” to “P.” Go on a quest for the models and systems that can take you the farthest. Don’t just settle for what comes naturally—be open to new thinking, new skills, and new relationships. If the path of mastery is a commitment to be your best, being purposeful is a commitment to adopt the best possible approach.
      • Take ownership of your outcomes. If extraordinary results are what you want, being a victim won’t work. Change occurs only when you’re accountable. So stay out of the passenger seat and always choose the driver’s side.
      • Find a coach. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who achieves extraordinary results without one.

Other themes

On balance in life

  • We hear about balance so much we automatically assume it’s exactly what we should be seeking. It’s not. Purpose, meaning, significance—these are what make a successful life. Seek them and you will most certainly live your life out of balance, crisscrossing an invisible middle line as you pursue your priorities. The act of living a full life by giving time to what matters is a balancing act. Extraordinary results require focused attention and time. Time on one thing means time away from another. This makes balance impossible.
  • The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.
  • There are two types of counterbalancing: the balancing between work and personal life and the balancing within each. In the world of professional success, it’s not about how much overtime you put in; the key ingredient is focused time over time. 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. In your personal world, awareness is the essential ingredient. Awareness of your spirit and body, awareness of your family and friends, awareness of your personal needs—none of these can be sacrificed if you intend to “have a life,” so you can never forsake them for work or one for the other.
  • When you act on your priority, you’ll automatically go out of balance, giving more time to one thing over another. The challenge then doesn’t become one of not going out of balance, for in fact you must. The challenge becomes how long you stay on your priority.
  • Think about two balancing buckets. Separate your work life and personal life into two distinct buckets—not to compartmentalise them, just for counterbalancing. Each has its own counterbalancing goals and approaches.
  • Counterbalance your work bucket. View work as involving a skill or knowledge that must be mastered. This will cause you to give disproportionate time to your ONE Thing and will throw the rest of your work day, week, month, and year continually out of balance. Your work life is divided into two distinct areas—what matters most and everything else. You will have to take what matters to the extremes and be okay with what happens to the rest. Professional success requires it.
  • Counterbalance your personal life bucket. Acknowledge that your life actually has multiple areas and that each requires a minimum of attention for you to feel that you “have a life.” Drop any one and you will feel the effects. This requires constant awareness. You must never go too long or too far without counterbalancing them so that they are all active areas of your life. Your personal life requires it.

On thinking big

  • Carol Dweck's work with children revealed two mindsets in action—a Growth Mindset that generally thinks big and seeks growth and a “fixed” mindset that places artificial limits and avoids failure. Growth-minded students, as she calls them, employ better learning strategies, experience less helplessness, exhibit more positive effort, and achieve more in the classroom than their fixed-minded peers. They are less likely to place limits on their lives and more likely to reach for their potential.
  • Don’t fear big. Fear mediocrity. Fear waste. Fear the lack of living to your fullest. When we fear big, we either consciously or subconsciously work against it. We either run toward lesser outcomes and opportunities or we simply run away from the big ones. If courage isn’t the absence of fear, but moving past it, then thinking big isn’t the absence of doubts, but moving past them. Only living big will let you experience your true life and work potential.
  • Think big. Avoid incremental thinking that simply asks, “What do I do next?” This is at best the slow lane to success and, at worst, the off ramp. Ask bigger questions. A good rule of thumb is to double down everywhere in your life. If your goal is ten, ask the question: “How can I reach 20?” Set a goal so far above what you want that you’ll be building a plan that practically guarantees your original goal.
  • Don’t order from the menu. Apple’s celebrated 1997 “Think Different” ad campaign featured icons like Ali, Dylan, Einstein, Hitchcock, Picasso, Gandhi, and others who “saw things differently” and who went on to transform the world we know. The point was that they didn’t choose from the available options; they imagined outcomes that no one else had. They ignored the menu and ordered their own creations. As the ad reminds us, “People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the only ones who do.”
  • Act bold. Big thoughts go nowhere without bold action. Once you’ve asked a big question, pause to imagine what life looks like with the answer. If you still can’t imagine it, go study people who have already achieved it. What are the models, systems, habits, and relationships of other people who have found the answer? As much as we’d like to believe we’re all different, what consistently works for others will almost always work for us.
  • Don’t fear failure. It’s as much a part of your journey to extraordinary results as success. Adopt a growth mindset, and don’t be afraid of where it can take you. Extraordinary results aren’t built solely on extraordinary results. They’re built on failure too. In fact, it would be accurate to say that we fail our way to success. When we fail, we stop, ask what we need to do to succeed, learn from our mistakes, and grow. Don’t be afraid to fail. See it as part of your learning process and keep striving for your true potential.

On focus and the focusing question

  • We overthink, overplan, and over-analyze our careers, our businesses, and our lives; that long hours are neither virtuous nor healthy; and that we usually succeed in spite of most of what we do, not because of it. I discovered that we can’t manage time, and that the key to success isn’t in all the things we do but in the handful of things we do well.
  • Here are some Focusing Questions to ask yourself. Say the category first, then state the question, add a time frame, and end by adding “such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” For example: “For my job, what’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure I hit my goals this week such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
  • Steps when thinking about and executing Focusing Questions:
    1. Understand and believe it. The first step is to understand the concept of the ONE Thing, then to believe that it can make a difference in your life. If you don’t understand and believe, you won’t take action.
    2. Use it. Ask yourself the Focusing Question. Start each day by asking, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do today for [whatever you want] such that by doing it everything else will be easier or even unnecessary?” When you do this, your direction will become clear. Your work will be more productive and your personal life more rewarding.
    3. Make it a habit. When you make asking the Focusing Question a habit, you fully engage its power to get the extraordinary results you want. It’s a difference maker. Research says this will take about 66 days. Whether it takes you a few weeks or a few months, stick with it until it becomes your routine. If you’re not serious about learning the Success Habit, you’re not serious about getting extraordinary results.
    4. Leverage reminders. Set up ways to remind yourself to use the Focusing Question. One of the best ways to do this is to put up a sign at work that says, “Until my ONE Thing is done—everything else is a distraction.” We designed the back cover of this book to be a trigger—set it on the corner of your desk so that it’s the first thing you see when you get to work. Use notes, screen savers, and calendar cues to keep making the connection between the Success Habit and the results you seek. Put up reminders like, “The ONE Thing = Extraordinary Results” or “The Success Habit Will Get Me to My Goal.”
    5. Recruit support. Research shows that those around you can influence you tremendously. Starting a success support group with some of your work colleagues can help inspire all of you to practice the Success Habit every day. Get your family involved. Share your ONE Thing. Get them on board. Use the Focusing Question around them to show them how the Success Habit can make a difference in their school work, their personal achievements, or any other part of their lives.

How to set your goals

  • Think of purpose, priority, and productivity as three parts of an iceberg. With typically only 1/9 of an iceberg above water, whatever you see is just the tip of everything that is there. This is exactly how productivity, priority, and purpose are related. What you see is determined by what you don’t.
  • Happiness happens on the way to fulfilment. We all want to be happy, but seeking it isn’t the best way to find it. The surest path to achieving lasting happiness happens when you make your life about something bigger, when you bring meaning and purpose to your everyday actions.
  • Discover your Big Why. Discover your purpose by asking yourself what drives you. What’s the thing that gets you up in the morning and keeps you going when you’re tired and worn down? I sometimes refer to this as your “Big Why.” It’s why you’re excited with your life. It’s why you’re doing what you’re doing.
  • Absent an answer, pick a direction. “Purpose” may sound heavy, but it doesn’t have to be. 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.
  • Think big and specific. Setting a goal you intend to achieve is like asking a question. It’s a simple step from “I’d like to do that” to “How do I achieve that?” The best question—and by default, the best goal—is big and specific: big, because you’re after extraordinary results; specific, to give you something to aim at and to leave no wiggle room about whether you hit the mark. A big and specific question, especially in the form of the Focusing Question, helps you zero in on the best possible answer.
  • Think possibilities. Setting a doable goal is almost like creating a task to check off your list. A stretch goal is more challenging. It aims you at the edge of your current abilities; you have to stretch to reach it. The best goal explores what’s possible. When you see people and businesses that have undergone transformations, this is where they live.
  • Benchmark and trend for the best answer. No one has a crystal ball, but with practice you can become surprisingly good at anticipating where things are heading. The people and businesses who get there first often enjoy the lion’s share of the rewards with few, if any, competitors. Benchmark and trend to find the extraordinary answer you need for extraordinary results.


  • There can only be ONE. Your most important priority is the ONE Thing you can do right now that will help you achieve what matters most to you. You may have many “priorities,” but dig deep and you’ll discover there is always one that matters most, your top priority—your ONE Thing.
  • Goal Set to the Now. Knowing your future goal is how you begin. Identifying the steps you need to accomplish along the way keeps your thinking clear while you uncover the right priority you need to accomplish right now.
  • Put pen to paper. Write your goals down and keep them close.

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