The One Thing: Book Summary in 10 Minutes

Sometimes the simplest approach is the most effective. In our summary of "The One Thing", we break down this classic book which argues that success is a matter of prioritizing radically and focusing intently.
Natalia Rossingol

“If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one”, says a famous proverb.

Well, rabbits are fast. So should you grab a bike and keep chasing them? Not unless it’s a pair of rabbits jumping synchronically, holding hands (okay, paws). But that won’t happen. Most probably, the rabbits will each take a different path, disappearing behind the trees and leaving you alone with your bike.

Most people think that the more you do, the more successful you are. But this is not true: by trying to do too much, we accomplish little. 

Yes, it’s possible to achieve good results in a hard race, but they usually come with side effects like high stress, lost sleep, missed moments with family, and so on. 

So what is the real secret of success? You may be surprised… but it’s only one thing.

“The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan is dedicated to the idea of one thing as the best  - and quickest - way to success.

“One thing” stands for prioritizing a single task and focusing on something specific. The authors uncover widely accepted misconceptions about success and suggest principles of productivity that do work. They persuade us that all we need to do is to pick one thing that really matters. 

Below you can read “The One Thing” summary chapter by chapter:

1. The One Thing

Everyone has the same number of hours in a day, yet some people achieve much more than others. Why is this so? 

The thing is that those who succeed prefer to “go small” – they focus on what matters most and ignore the rest. Extraordinary results do not necessarily take inhuman effort and sacrifices; they are easier to achieve than most people might imagine. 

2. The Domino Effect

If you push the first domino, it will knock over the second one in line, and so on – this phenomenon is called the domino effect. In 1983, a physicist Lorne Whitehead discovered that not only can a domino topple other dominoes – it can topple a domino that is 50% larger. In other words, the domino effect has a potential of geometrical progression. 

The term “domino effect” is also used metaphorically, representing a succession of events caused by one single event.  In this case, “domino” is a small amount of energy that can cause a chain reaction. 

Similarly, if we choose just one thing – one main thing – this will be our first domino. Success is sequential: you do the right thing, then one more, and more, until they accumulate - in geometrical progression. This doesn’t happen overnight – you need to do one thing at a time, but on a regular basis.

3. Success Leaves Clues

The authors say that the proof of the “one thing” is everywhere. Successful companies tend to have one product or service that made them famous – for example, KFC was started with a single chicken recipe.

Successful people are never self-made – usually they have one person who makes the difference. Walt Disney couldn’t find a job but he had Roy, his brother, who got him work at an art studio, where he started creating animated cartoons.

Extraordinary success usually starts with one passion that “shines through” and often turns into one skill that defines who you are. Pat Matthews, an American impressionist, created one painting a day to help master his skills. 

Finally, a whole life can be built on just one thing. Bill Gates is a great example of how this works. His one skill was computer programming; at high school he met one person, Paul Allen, who became the cofounder of Microsoft; they wrote one code for one computer, the Altair. Eventually Gates became one of the richest men in the world.

The ONE Thing sits at the heart of success and is the starting point for achieving extraordinary results. Based on research and real-life experience, it’s a big idea about success wrapped in a disarmingly simple package. Explaining it is easy; buying into it can be tough.

Part I. The Lies

The concepts we are taught that mislead and derail us.

4. Everything Matters Equally

When we are kids, we do things because we are told it’s the time to do them – time to sleep, time to eat. As we get older, we have a measure of discretion – we can go play out after we finish our homework. And when we are adults, everything becomes important, and we start to believe that things “simply must get done”. 

This leads us to the wrong conclusion that all things are equally important. But, as authors say, equality is a lie.

We are encouraged to make to-do lists, but they are not as valuable as they seem: the first thing on the list is usually not the most important one, but just the first thing you thought of. 

Instead of to-do lists, the authors suggest making “success lists” where we write down the steps that take us to extraordinary results.

They also mention Pareto principle (a minority of causes lead to a majority of results), but say we should take it to extreme: identify the vital 20 percent of actions that can bring you to where you want to be, and then find “the vital few of the vital few”, getting to the single most important thing.

Life is too short to chase unicorns… The real solutions… have usually been obscured by an unbelievable amount of bunk, an astounding flood of “common sense” that turns out to be nonsense.

5. Multitasking

Multitasking is considered very effective, but it’s really not. In fact, it wastes our time instead of saving it. When we multitask, our attention bounces back and forth; but brain capability is not unlimited. Switching to another task, our brain has to reorient to it, and it always takes time. Researchers say we lose up to 28 percent of time recovering from multitasking.

Yes, we can do two things at the same time – because our brain has channels where it processes different kinds of information. This is why we can walk while talking. The problem shows up when the tasks we’re trying to focus on do cross into a channel that is being used.

For example, you’re driving and looking at the road, and someone is describing furniture they bought. Now you see an imaginary sofa but not the car braking in front of you. This is not effective; this is simply dangerous.

6. A Disciplined Life

We often hear that successful people are disciplined. However, this is not necessarily so. What we call a disciplined person is actually a person who has developed specific habits. Discipline is needed only to establish these habits. 

To acquire a new habit, it takes from 18 to 254 days; a “sweet spot” is 66 days (not 21, as most self-help coaches tend to say). Habits are hard in the beginning, but become easier over time. And remember to build only ONE habit at a time.

7. Willpower Is Always on Will-Call

Willpower is one of our limited resources, yet we don’t know it – and don’t treat it as such. But the truth is, willpower is not endless: if you employ your willpower for one task, you will have less of it for the next one. This is why we need to do our most important thing – our one thing – in the beginning, before our willpower is drained.

Suppressing emotions, resisting temptations, restraining aggression, doing something you don’t enjoy etc – these are the thieves of your willpower. Fortunately, there are things that can fuel it too: for example, foods that elevate blood sugar over long periods, like proteins and complex carbohydrates. Yes, we can literally feed our minds.

Paying attention to willpower, you can use it wisely: if you’ve got enough of it, you can count on your willpower, even though it’s not on a will-call.

8. A Balanced Life

A balance is the moderate middle between polar extremes; a place between two positions that is considered better than any of them. However, the idea of balance is more idealistic than realistic, and the idea of a “balanced life” is just as idealistic, even though it’s accepted as an attainable goal, emphasize the authors.

How did the concept of a balance come into our life? At first, people worked as much as they needed to do the task – for example, a blacksmith didn’t have to work strictly until 5 pm, he could leave just after he finished work. 

In the 19th Century, however, due to industrialization, a large number of people started to work for someone else. In the 20th Century, there were movements to limit work hours, and eventually, the term “work-life balance” was coined.

The desire for balance is natural, say the authors. However, living in the middle, you cannot make extraordinary commitments. And when you focus on something that is truly important, you will have to leave something underserved:

Extraordinary results require focused attention and time. Time on one thing means time away from another. This makes balance impossible.

This is why the question of balance is a question of priority. Of course, every sphere of your life requires some attention you need to give to feel you “have a life”. This is why it makes sense to separate your professional and private life, setting different goals and priorities.

9. Big is Bad

It may sound funny but the idea of “big” scares people. Remember folk tales about the Big Bad Wolf? Similarly, we think that big success is impossible without stress and pressure. 

But the authors insist that big and bad are not the same. And when we think they are, we trigger shrinking thinking.

Everything starts with a thought. This is why we shouldn’t create an artificial ceiling of achievements for ourselves. How many ships didn’t sail only because people believed the earth was flat? 

Our mindset is very important. Stanford’s psychologist Dweck studied the connection between our self-conception and our actions; he worked with two groups of children, with a “growth” mindset that thinks big, and a “fixed” one. 

He found out that the children with the “growth” mindset achieved more in the classroom, were less helpless and not afraid to make mistakes. The good news, as he pointed out, is that the mindset can be changed, just like a habit can.

Don’t fear big. Fear mediocrity. Fear waste. Fear the lack of living to your fullest… 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.

Part II. The Truth

The simple path to productivity.

10. Life Is a Question

Have you ever heard the proverb “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step”? This is true, of course, but what will happen if the first step is wrong? You will probably come back to where you started. 

So don’t let the first step be a misstep – ask the Focusing Question at the beginning of your journey.

The more powerful the question, the more powerful the answer. The Focusing Question the authors suggest is a simple formula that can help you find uncommon ways to achieve your goals. So what does it sound like?

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

The authors break the question down into three parts, explaining each of them:

  • “What’s the One thing I can do…” shows us that there is only ONE specific thing we should focus on;
  • “...such that by doing it…” means that we will have to go deep, as many other things will pop up;
  • “...everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” lets us know there are many things we don’t need to do once we ask the right question.     

The Focusing Question leads us to the first domino; we can ask it to see a bigger picture of where we need to go, or to see a smaller focus.

11. The Success Habit

How can we make the “one thing” a part of our life? We can make it a habit. Every day we can ask ourselves the Focusing Question, including a time frame like “today” or “this year”, and defining the areas where we want to make improvements. For example:

  • For your spiritual life: “What is the one thing I can do today to help others?”
  • For your physical health: “What is the one thing I can do today to ensure that I exercise?”
  • For your personal life: “What’s the one thing I can do to find time for myself?”
  • For your business: “What is the one thing I can do to make us more competitive?” etc.

These questions will make your directions clear and let you focus on what matters. 

12.  The Path to Great Answers

Great questions lead to great answers, and they are big and specific. To illustrate how this works, the authors suggest taking a look at the four options for framing a Great Question:

  • Small and specific: “What can I do to increase sales by 5 percent this year?” It does show you a specific direction but a 5 percent increase can happen naturally, due to market changes in favor of your business;
  • Small and broad: “What can I do to increase sales?” This is the average question most people ask that, unfortunately, doesn’t lead you to any achievements at all;
  • Big and broad: “What can I do to double sales?” It’s not specific at all: to double sales by when? In the next 20 or 2 years? The answers will be very different;
  • Big and specific: “What can I do to double sales in 6 months?” Here you can finally see a big goal and a specific time frame. These are the elements of the Great Question.

But to lead you to success, a Great Question must be converted into a Focusing Question: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to double sales in six months such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”  

Part III. Extraordinary Results: Unlocking the Possibilities Within You

Your big ONE Thing is your purpose and your small ONE Thing is the priority you take action on to achieve it. The most productive people… allow purpose to be the guiding force in determining the priority that drives their actions. This is the straightest path to extraordinary results.

13. Live With Purpose

According to Dr. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, there are 5 factors that contribute to our happiness: positive emotion and pleasure, achievement, relationships, engagement, and meaning. Of these, the most important ones are engagement and meaning.

To achieve lasting happiness, every day we need to bring something meaningful to our life. Happiness happens on the way to fulfillment. This is why we need to discover our Big Why. 

Our purpose helps us make the best choices and provides motivation and inspiration at times when life gets hard. 

14. Live By Priority

The authors emphasize that “purpose without priority is powerless”. You can have many priorities but there should be one that matters most – the ONE thing. And to achieve extraordinary results, you need to set goals to the Now.

The principle is similar to the Russian Doll: your ONE thing “right now” is nested inside your ONE thing “this week”, which is nested in “this month” and so on. You cannot miss the intermediate goals, otherwise your direction won’t be clear. 

Unfortunately, people often don’t see the bigger goal. In a famous experiment, most participants preferred to choose 100$ today over 200$ next year, even though the reward is much bigger. Stronger preference for present awards over future ones, called hyperbolic discounting, is not a rare occurrence: future awards seem smaller, and we don’t have enough motivation for them. Lacking a bigger picture, we don’t set the right priorities, and make stupid mistakes.

15. Live for Productivity

Disproportional results come from one activity, so we should give this activity a disproportional amount of time. According to the authors, there are three things you need to time block:

  • Your time off. Protect time to recharge yourself. Rest is just as important as work. Some successful people violate this rule – but they are exceptions who succeed in spite of a lack of rest, and not because of it.
  • Your ONE thing. The authors recommend blocking at least four hours a day for it, and preferably in the morning. Of course, it’s not always possible – for example, your work flow can be interrupted by mandatory meetings. In this case, it makes sense to cluster meetings at the end of the day and let workers have large time blocks.
  • Your planning time. You need time to reflect on your goals. So stop for a moment and think what you want to achieve this week, this month, this year etc.

16. The Three Commitments 

In this chapter the authors explain the three commitments to becoming your best:

  • Follow the path of mastery. Michelangelo once said “If the people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.” Mastery takes time and effort, and it’s a never-ending journey: once you gain expertise in one field, you see other mountains to climb – being a master of what’s behind, you become an apprentice of what’s ahead.
  • Move from “E” to “P”. We can live our day in two ways – “entrepreneurial” or “purposeful”. The first one is our natural approach: we do the things that need to be done, using our abilities which, unfortunately, have a ceiling. Taking the purposeful approach, we don’t accept the limitations, looking for new ways to bring our ideas into life.
  • Live the accountability cycle. We can be either the authors or the victims of our life. We shouldn’t fear the reality and should be ready to take responsibility.

17. The Four Thieves

The four thieves of productivity, according to authors, are:

  • Inability to say “no”. Saying yes to everyone, you say no to everything. Yes, you don’t want to be hurtful; but if someone interrupts you from doing your one thing, consider the request only if it is connected to this thing.
  • Fear of chaos. Messes are inevitable, but it doesn’t mean you’re trapped. Accept the chaos. Make things happen regardless.
  • Poor health habits. Our body is a biological machine that needs to be fueled, mentally, spiritually, and physically.
  • An environment that doesn’t support your goals. The people around us matter, and the physical surrounding matters too. We cannot let them divert our attention from important things.

18. The Journey

I want you to close your eyes and imagine your life as big as it can possibly be. As big as you have ever dared to dream, and then some... Whatever you can see, you have the capacity to move toward. And when what you go for is as vast as you can possibly envision, you’ll be living the biggest life you can possibly live. Living large is that simple.

In her 2012 book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, Bronni Ware wrote about the regrets people had at the end of their lives, and the most common one was “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me”. 

So… are we always honest with ourselves? Do we at least know what truly matters to us? Maybe it’s time to answer this question and start doing what we believe in?

 To live the largest life, you have to think big. And to think big, you need a guiding star that would bring meaning into your life – the ONE thing. 

This way, you will crystallize your purpose and priorities, achieving the highest productivity. What you do will start to make sense. You will feel accomplished – and happy. Your life will be full. You know that you will not regret it.

📚 Read other book summaries on management from Runn:

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