“The ONE Thing” by Gary Keller – Book Review

26th June, 2020

“When you gamble with your time, you may be placing a bet you can’t cover.”

~ Gary Keller

Is your to-do list an endless jumble of tasks? Constantly juggling projects without making much progress? Or even worse, are you stuck in analysis paralysis mode as you face a career crossroads? This post is for you.

While 2020 hasn’t been so great, being able to read more than any other time in my life has been a major upside.

“The One Thing” has been on my list for ages, and it turned out to be a treasure-chest of wisdom.

I was drawn to the book for a simple reason.

My natural tendency is to think too much. Left to my own devices, I’ll come up with a new idea every week, and suddenly switch directions like a moth to a flame. Recognising the many opportunities around me is a strength, but without focus I easily succumb to shiny object syndrome.

I wanted this book to help me cut through the internal noise, and it delivered. So if you recognise that dilemma, read on.

The One Thing Book Review

The Book in a Nutshell

First off, Gary Keller knows what he’s talking about when it comes to focusing in order to hit goals. As the founder of Keller-Williams, the largest real estate company in the world by agent count and sales volume, he knows a thing or two.

‘The One Thing’ explains exactly to create your version of a fulfilling, successful life with the time you have available.

The central premise is that successful people keep tackling things which matter most, first – or their ‘One Thing’.

That is premise is simple, but don’t be fooled. Several mindset shifts trip people up, preventing them from consistently giving their ‘One Thing’ the energy it deserves.

The book outlines both the mindsets and practical steps needed to put this into action. There are so many nuggets of gold, but let’s unpack three of my favourite.

My Top 3 Takeaways

1) Find your ONE Thing

Keller describes the ‘Focusing Question’, a powerful tool to zone in on precisely where you should apply most of your energy:

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

The Focusing Question can be contextualised however you want. For example, you can change up the timescale, or area of life:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do at work, this week, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Or, the Focusing Question can be framed through the lens of your broader purpose/direction in life:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do in life that would mean the most to me and the world, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

Essentially, when the results matter and you’re facing a fork in the road, ask the Focusing Question.

Something to bear in mind is a key aspect of Keller’s philosophy: we must let go of the idea that ‘big is bad’.

He says we’re brainwashed to play relatively small, and that to dream big is foolish, unrealistic, or both. But we need a world where people feel inspired to think big.

It’s a misconception that setting audacious goals is about actually achieving them. Instead, you’re aiming to infuse your goals with energy and enthusiasm. And when you shoot really high, you may well fall short – but you’ll have drawn out the absolute best in yourself by giving it all you’ve got.

This is what he says:

“Think as big as you possibly can and base what you do, how you do it, and who you do it with on succeeding at that level. It just might take you more than your lifetime to run into the walls of a box this big.”

2) Balance Is a Verb, Not just a Noun

This is a big shift in the way most people think about finding fulfilment.

I’ve fallen into the trap Keller talks about, which is believing in a mysterious, fabled land called ‘work-life balance’.

But don’t think of balance as a destination. It isn’t a noun. It isn’t a tangible, fixed ‘thing’ you can point to. Rather, it’s a constant act.

Why should we think this way?

According to Keller, it’s because purpose, meaning and significance make life enjoyable – not balance. Seeking these things must throw your life out of balance at certain points. A perfectly balanced life makes extraordinary time commitments to any one thing impossible.

He argues that keeping life in harmony involves the continuous act of counterbalancing – like someone who’s an expert at spinning plates.

Here’s a direct quote:

“There will always be things left undone at the end of the day, week, month, year and life. Trying to get them all done is folly.”

Because you can’t get everything done, life becomes a continual act of counterbalancing – between work and health, family and friends, etc.

But we don’t just need to practice balance between areas of life. We also need to do so within them.

In your career, some areas will naturally have to get out of balance in order to gain a sense of mastery in any one of them.

I could certainly try to excel in web development, graphic design, coaching, writing, marketing, accounting and all the other things that go into being an entrepreneur – but at what cost?

Somewhere along the line, this means choosing where to focus. The more you do so, the more you’ll excel.

In some cases that leads to obvious choices. If you’re an author, then you probably want to spend most time writing.

But when you’re at a crossroads, it takes a bit more soul-searching. You’ll need to consider: What makes me thrive? Where does my potential lie? What problems do I really care about solving?

When you have the beginnings of an answer – your ‘One Thing’ – you’ll know where to put disproportionate amounts of time and energy. You’ll also shed the fear that comes with letting others areas get out of balance.

3. Master The Art Of Saying “No”

Here’s another great quote from the book:

“You can’t please everyone, so don’t try. When you do try, the one person you won’t please is yourself!”

Much of the book revolves around this core idea – that saying “no” isn’t an optional skill, but a crucial practice to cultivate.

This is true whether talking about the immediate/short-term demands on our attention, right through to the bigger life decisions.

When it comes to mastering the art of saying no, Keller explains there are often a few mental hurdles to clear. Here are some of them:

  • Drop the idea that everything matters equally: the older we get, the more tasks and priorities are piled onto our plates. We feel there’s so much that ‘must’ get done. We run the risk of believing they’re all equally important/urgent. But the squeaky wheel shouldn’t keep getting the grease – usually, the quieter things need the most TLC. Identify and carve out dedicated time for your ‘One Thing’ each day. Protect it fiercely.
  • Learn to say ‘later’ or ‘never’: until your most important work is done, it’s pivotal to say no. The ‘no’ can be dressed up in however you see fit – delegating, negotiating, respectfully declining. The important thing is, if there’s a chance saying yes could derail you, be wary. Every time you say yes, you incur a very real cost. Not just in time, but in a more important resource – energy.
  • Embrace the chaos of no: the more you address what is truly important, the more pressure will mount for you to address everything you’ve put on hold. Not that you should neglect important responsibilities in your life, just don’t be a victim of circumstance. Get uncomfortable with a little chaos here and there. Let it build up around you while you focus on your most important work.

Here’s My One Thing

Right now, my ‘One Thing’ is helping people find work they find energising. I want them to wake up and truly look forward to the day ahead. And to feel they have so much to give that they don’t even know where to start.

Is that too much to ask?

In my career as a doctor, I used to think so.

I would wake up feeling dread, anxiety or even apathy for my work. Being a hardworking person, I couldn’t understand why I felt this way. From the outside things were going well, but on the inside I was dying.

I could sense carrying on wasn’t going to release my potential, that my unique blend of strengths was being stifled. I made a commitment to listen to myself and follow my One Thing. And right now, it’s helping people to find theirs.

It took months of deliberation, but I said a firm ‘no’ to medicine, knowing it had never been something I actually wanted, but something I thought would impress others or make them proud.

And it hasn’t been easy, but I’ve continued saying ‘no’ to promising opportunities that have threatened to distract me from building towards that reality.

Final Words

While the concept of a ‘One Thing’ is a useful tool, don’t get too hung up on there being literally One. You might have two or three things going on – each to their own. I’ve decided that writing and coaching are my ‘One Things’. As long you aren’t spreading yourself too thin, it’s all good. If you can find synergy between your goals, even better.

As I keep taking action and reflecting on my decisions, I fully expect my One Thing to evolve. It may even shift in a completely new direction. The key point is to keep checking-in to see if a course correction is needed.

When it comes to your career, stay curious. Maybe it’ll turn out you want to delve deeper into an area of your existing work. Maybe you’ll realise a 180-degree flip is needed. Or maybe you need to take a long, winding detour before heading back to your original destination later on.

So, what’s your ONE thing?

And to make your One Thing happen, what do you need to say no to?

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Hey, I'm Oliver 👋

I write about personal growth, and the art of living with purpose. By sharing my insights, I aim to support you in cultivating (and unleashing) your purpose. Learn more.

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