Book notes: The ONE Thing by Gary Keller

The ONE Thing by Gary Keller book summary review and key ideas.

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller


“This is an audiobook for busy people. If you want less on your plate and more for your life and career, tune in to the #1 Wall Street Journal best seller, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. The ONE Thing will bring your life and your work into focus. Authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan teach you the tricks to cut through the clutter, achieve better results in less time, dial down stress, and master what matters to you.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

I had read this book almost exactly 5 years ago but I never did a book summary on it. This book has been referenced a lot in some of my recent books, so I decided to revisit it and take notes. My expectation is that it’ll be very similar to the book I read recently, Essentialism. When I was reading that book, it reminded me a lot of the key takeaways in this book.

Key notes:

Chapter 1: the one thing

  • When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, 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

Chapter 2: the domino effect

  • Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life
  • Extraordinary success is linear and sequential
    • All you have to do is look up your priorities and chip away at them one at a time

Chapter 3: success leaves clues

  • Some of the most famous and successful companies focused on their one thing and became great at it
    • Sometimes they transition to their next one thing and did that over and over
  • No one succeeds alone
  • Passion for something leads to disproportionate time practicing or working edit
    • That time spent eventually translates to skill
    • When skill improves, results improve
    • Results generally lead to more enjoyment and more passion, and more time is invested
      • It can be a virtuous cycle all the way to extraordinary results

Part One: The Lies – They mislead and derail us

  • The six lies between you and success:
    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

Chapter 4: everything matters equally

  • Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority
    • Success-oriented people approach to-do lists with priorities
  • The Pareto Principle, or the 8020 Principle, is a powerful productivity truth
  • In the world of success, things aren’t equal
    • A small amount of causes creates most of the results
  • Big ideas:
    • Don’t focus on being busy, focus on being productive
    • Keep asking what matters most until there’s only one thing left and then focus your energy on that

Chapter 5: multitasking

  • Multitasking is ineffective and inefficient because there is focus and energy lost in the task switching process as your brain has to decide to switch and reorient to the new rules of the task you’ve switched to
    • You can do two things at once, but you cannot focus on two things at once
    • Multitaskers often make more mistakes
    • Multitaskers experience more stress

Chapter 6: a disciplined life

  • Success isn’t a controlled marathon of discipline, but actually a short race or a sprint, fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in
  • Aiming discipline at the right habit gives you license to be less disciplined in other areas
    • When you do the right thing, it can liberate you from having to monitor everything
  • One study suggests that it takes an average of 66 days to acquire a new habit
  • 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

Chapter 7: will power is always on will call

  • The marshmallow experiment showed that will power, or the ability to delay gratification, was a huge indicator of future success
  • The more we use our mind, the less minding power we have
    • Will power is like a fast-twitch muscle that gets tired and needs rest
    • It is incredibly powerful but has no endurance
  • Foods that elevate blood sugar evenly for long periods, like complex carbs and protein, become the fuel of choice for high achievers
  • Do your one thing early in the day when you have the most willpower
    • Timing is everything

Chapter 8: a balanced life

  • Magic never happens in the middle, magic happens at the extremes
    • Knowing when to pursue the middle and when to pursue the extremes is in essence the true beginning of wisdom
  • Counterbalance is the idea that you never go so far that you can’t find your way back, or stay so long that there is nothing waiting for you when you return
  • Whether or not to go out of balance isn’t really the question
    • The question is, do you go short or long?
  • In your personal life, go short and take everything with you
    • In your professional life, go long and leave some things behind in order to have extraordinary results
  • The question of balance is really a question of priority

Chapter 9: big is bad

  • Book reference: Mindset by Carol Dweck
  • Reader’s note: this chapter in a nutshell, “think big and don’t be afraid of failure”

Part Two: The Truth – The simple path to productivity

  • The key to success isn’t in all the things you do, but in the handful of things we do well

Chapter 10: the focusing question

  • The focusing question asks the following: what’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
  • Reader’s note: this book, or particularly this section, mirrors the main concepts in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Chapter 11: the success habit

Chapter 12: the path to great answers

  • The research and experience of others is the best place to start when looking for your answer
  • The best question and goal is both big and specific
    • Big because you are after extraordinary results, and specific to give you something to aim at and to leave no wiggle room about whether you hit the mark

Part Three: Extraordinary Results – Unlocking the possibilities within you

Chapter 13: live with purpose

  • Happiness is what we all most want, but it is what we understand the least 
    • Five factors that contribute to our happiness:
      • Positive emotion and pleasure
      • Achievements
      • Relationships
      • Engagement
      • Meaning
  • When our daily actions fulfill a bigger purpose, the most powerful and enduring happiness can happen
  • Happiness happens on the way to fulfillment
  • Discover your big WHY and purpose by asking yourself:
    • What drives you?
    • What gets you up in the morning and keeps you going when you’re tired and worn down?

Chapter 14: live by priority

  • Purpose has the power to shape our lives only in direct proportion to the priority we connect it to
    • Purpose without priority is powerless
  • Hyperbolic discounting: The farther away a reward is in the future, the smaller the immediate motivation is to achieve it
  • Goal set your “someday goal” to the here and now
    • Write down your goals on paper and keep them close

Chapter 15: live for productivity

  • Time blocking is a very results-oriented way of viewing and using time
    • It’s a way of making sure what has to be done gets done
    • Time block these three things in this particular order:
      1. Your time off
      2. Your one thing
      3. Your planning time
        • Your one thing comes second because you cannot happily sustain success in your professional life if you neglect your personal recreation time
  • The key is to block time as early in your day as you possibly can
    • Give yourself 30 minutes to an hour to take care of morning priorities, then move to your one thing
      • Recommendation: block out four hours for your one thing
  • Divide work up into two buckets:
    • Maker time (to do or create)
      • Maker time requires large blocks of the clock, such as half-day increments
    • Manager time (to oversee or direct)
      • Manager time is usually divided into hours
  • Planning time is used to reflect on where you are and where you want to go
    • Block time late in the year to do an annual review, and block out time every week to review monthly and yearly annual goals
  • Protect your time blocks and adopt the mindset that they cannot be moved
    • Four ways to protect your time block:
      1. Build a bunker or go somewhere
      2. Store provisions
      3. Sweep for mines 
      4. Enlist support

Chapter 16: the three commitments

  • Three commitments:
    1. Adopt a mindset of someone seeking mastery
    2. Continually seek the very best ways of doing things
    3. Be willing to be held accountable for doing everything you can to achieve your one thing
  • The journey to mastery is ongoing
    • Per the 10,000 hours rule, you can attain mastery in 10 years with three hours per day of practice every single day
  • The pursuit of mastery bears gifts. Both your self-confidence and your success competence will grow
    • Giving yourself to mastering one thing serves as a platform for and speeds up the process of doing other things
      • Knowledge begets knowledge, and skills build on skills
  • The path to mastery is not only doing the best you can do but the best it can be done
    • Continually improving how you do something is critical to getting the most from time blocking
  • The single most important difference between amateurs and elite performers is that the latter seek out teachers and coaches, and engage in supervised training

Chapter 17: the four thieves

  • Four thieves of productivity
  • Half of knowing what you want means knowing what you must give up
    • Saying “no” is part of focus
  • The key to failure is trying to please everybody
  • If you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them
  • If you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?
  • Calendaring your day frees up your mind for other things
  • Your environment must support your goals
  • The relationships around you are important
    • The people you surround yourself with and your environment can be your biggest deterrents in achieving your one thing

Chapter 18: the journey

  • You’ll regret the things you didn’t do rather than the things you did
    • Advice from people near the end of their life: live your life to minimize the regrets you might have at the end
    • The number one regrets of the dying was not having the courage to live a life true to oneself, not the life others expect of you
      • In essence, not living out one’s dreams
  • Success is an inside job
    • Put yourself together, and your world falls into place
    • When you bring purpose to your life, know your priorities, and achieve high productivity on the priority that matters most every day, your life makes sense and extraordinary becomes possible

Main ideas / Themes:

  • No one succeeds alone
  • Multitasking is ineffective and inefficient
  • Success is a short race or a sprint, fueled by just enough discipline for habit to kick in
  • Build one habit at a time. Success is sequential, not simultaneous
  • Willpower is like a fast twitch muscle that tires and has low endurance. Do your one thing early in the day when you have the most willpower
  • Magic never happens in the middle, magic happens at the extremes. However, true wisdom is knowing when to pursue the middle and when to pursue the extremes
  • Counterbalance is never going so far as that you cannot return. In your personal life, go short. In your professional life, go long
  • The focusing question: what’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
  • Purpose without priority is powerless
  • Time blocking is a very results-oriented way of viewing and using time. Understand and utilize maker time or manager time
  • Commit to a mastery mindset, continuously improve, and seek accountability
  • The people you surround yourself with and your environment can be your biggest deterrents in achieving your one thing
  • Live your life to minimize the regrets you might have at the end
  • Success is an inside job

Closing thoughts:

I’m glad I reread this book through again after 5 years. As expected, this was very similar to the book Essentialism. The core message of both books is figuring out what’s important focusing your energy on that. Priorities matter. If you do that, it makes everything else irrelevant.

I also like the importance of habit building. He emphasizes that success is requiring just enough discipline and willpower to form that habit. Two other similar books on this topic would be Atomic Habits and Power of Habit.

Another great cross-theme is talking about the importance of having a mastery mindset. This reminds me of the great book Mastery, which goes into detail on how to develop skill in an area and transferring to others.

The last big theme was time management and productivity. What I like about personal-development books is when they give actionable advice that the reader can implement. The book Make Time also discusses this topic at length.

Overall, a great read. I’m glad that this book covers central themes in other great books. When the message is consistent across different sources, the advice is validated. I highly recommend this book.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

The problem with great books like this is that there are so many good takeaways that it’s hard to choose just one. Implementing any of these would significantly impact your effectiveness.

My one takeaway would have to be the main idea with the ONE thing, which I’ve already started implementing:

  • The focusing question: what’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

I’ve done this for the past couple of days when sorting through my to-do list. It has helped bring clarity and priority, and therefore shows me what I should be putting my energy into.


The most important thing you can do is identify what is the singular most important thing you can do right now that will bring you closer to your short and long-term goals.

Similar books:


Rating: 4 out of 5.


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