“The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan (Book Summary) - NJlifehacks
the one thing - book summary

“The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan (Book Summary)

The One Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan is a productivity book based on a simple premise:

If you want more – more productivity, income, satisfaction, time – you need to go small and want less.

As the authors put it, “You want fewer distractions and less on your plate. The barrage of e-mails, texts, calls, and meetings keep you from your most important work. Simultaneous demands of work and family take a toll. What’s the cost? Second-rate work, missed deadlines, smaller paychecks – and lots of stress.”

The book focuses on a few key points, including prioritization, goal setting, and the superiority of single-tasking over multitasking. Most importantly, the book teaches you one of the most powerful questions you can ever ask yourself.

Who is The One Thing for?

  • Anyone with too much on their plate
  • Anyone trying to do too many things at once
  • Anyone interested in becoming more productive

1. Going Small

“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. It’s recognizing 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 realizing that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.”
“When you go as small as possible, you’ll be staring at one thing. And that’s the point.”

The recommendation to go small is at the very heart of the book. It’s about focusing on one thing, rather than five or ten or fifty or a hundred.

Most of us spread ourselves too thin. The truth is, we have only so much time and energy available to us. If we want the best chances of achieving something meaningful, we need to prioritize: Choose our next domino and give it our full attention.

2. The Domino Effect

“Toppling dominoes is pretty straightforward. You line them up and tip over the first one. In the real world, though, it’s a bit more complicated. The challenge is that life doesn’t line everything up for us and say, “Here’s where you should start.” Highly successful people know this. So every day they line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it until it falls.
Why does this approach work? Because extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous. What starts out linear becomes geometric. You do the right thing and then you do the next right thing. Over time it adds up, and the geometric potential of success is unleashed. The domino effect applies to the big picture, like your work or your business, and it applies to the smallest moment in each day when you’re trying to decide what to do next. Success builds on success, and as this happens, over and over, you move toward the highest success possible.”

According to Wikipedia, a domino effect “or chain reaction is the cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of similar events.”

The authors explain that a domino can knock over a next domino that’s 50% bigger. If you start with a 2 inch domino, the 10th domino would be as tall as NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, the 18th domino the size of the Tower of Pisa, the 23rd the size of the Eifel Tower, the 31st taller than Mount Everest, and the 57th would nearly get you all the way to the moon.

The point is: Extraordinary results come from doing one thing at a time. Success is built sequentially, not simultaneously. It’s all about lining up the domino, giving it all of our attention, knocking it over, and then lining up the next domino. One thing at a time. Over a long enough time period, big things will happen.

3. Prioritization, the 80/20 Principle, and Success Versus To-Do Lists

“Achievers operate differently. They have an eye for the essential. They pause just long enough to decide what matters and then allow what matters to drive their day. Achievers do sooner what others plan to do later and defer, perhaps indefinitely, what others do sooner. The difference isn’t in intent, but in right of way. Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.”
“Richard Koch, in his book The 80/20 Principle, defined it about as well as anyone: ‘The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards.’ In other words, in the world of success, things aren’t equal. A small amount of causes creates most of the results. Just the right input creates most of the output. Selected effort creates almost all of the rewards.”
“Pareto points us in a very clear direction: the majority of what you want will come from the minority of what you do. Extraordinary results are disproportionately created by fewer actions than most realize.”
“…not everything matters equally; some things matter more than others—a lot more. A to-do list becomes a success list when you apply Pareto’s Principle to it.”

Prioritization, the 80/20 principle, and the idea of success versus to-do lists all come down to this simple truth: Not all activities are equally valuable and not all activities bring about the same rewards. This goes back to the idea of “being busy versus being productive.”

As the authors put it: “To-do lists tend to be long; success lists are short. One pulls you in all directions; the other aims you in a specific direction. One is a disorganized directory and the other is an organized directive. If a list isn’t built around success, then that’s not where it takes you. If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.”

The prescription is simple. Focus on the few things that truly matter. Identify the 20% that create 80% of the results. And then take those 20% again and narrow it down even further – until, ultimately, you have one domino to focus on. Then, go about knocking over that domino.

4. Juggling is an Illusion

“Juggling is an illusion. To the casual observer, a juggler is juggling three balls at once. In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession. Catch, toss, catch, toss, catch, toss. One ball at a time. It’s what researchers refer to as ‘task switching.’”
When you switch from one task to another, voluntarily or not, two things happen. The first is nearly instantaneous: you decide to switch. The second is less predictable: you have to activate the ‘rules’ for whatever you’re about to do (see figure 6). Switching between two simple tasks—like watching television and folding clothes—is quick and relatively painless. However, if you’re working on a spreadsheet and a co-worker pops into your office to discuss a business problem, the relative complexity of those tasks makes it impossible to easily jump back and forth. It always takes some time to start a new task and restart the one you quit, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever pick up exactly where you left off. There is a price for this. ‘The cost in terms of extra time from having to task switch depends on how complex or simple the tasks are,’ reports researcher Dr. David Meyer. ‘It can range from time increases of 25 percent or less for simple tasks to well over 100 percent or more for very complicated tasks.’ Task switching exacts a cost few realize they’re even paying.”

Opposed to popular belief, multitasking doesn’t make you more productive, it makes you less productive. The reason: switching costs.

Every time you switch from one task to another, you need to “forget” about the previous task and activate the rules of the new task. This may be relatively effortless when the tasks are simple, but not when they are complex. As researcher David Meyer says, the time costs can range from 25 percent or less to well over 100 percent.

And the loss in productivity is by all means not the only issue with multitasking. The authors sum up the problems as follows:

  • There is just so much brain capability at any one time. Divide it up as much as you want, but you’ll pay a price in time and effectiveness.
  • The more time you spend switched to another task, the less likely you are to get back to your original task. This is how loose ends pile up.
  • Bounce between one activity and another and you lose time as your brain reorients to the new task. Those milliseconds add up. Researchers estimate we lose 28 percent of an average workday to multitasking ineffectiveness.
  • Chronic multitaskers develop a distorted sense of how long it takes to do things. They almost always believe tasks take longer to complete than is actually required.
  • Multitaskers make more mistakes than non-multitaskers. They often make poorer decisions because they favor new information over old, even if the older information is more valuable.
  • Multitaskers experience more life-reducing, happiness-squelching stress.

In short: Multitasking leads to mistakes, poor choices, stress, and low productivity.

5. The Focusing Question

“Extraordinary results are rarely happenstance. They come from the choices we make and the actions we take. The Focusing Question always aims you at the absolute best of both by forcing you to do what is essential to success—make a decision. But not just any decision—it drives you to make the best decision. It ignores what is doable and drills down to what is necessary, to what matters. It leads you to the first domino.”
“The Focusing Question: What’s the ONE THING I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

The Focusing Question is the secret sauce of this book. It’s the one piece of advice you won’t find in any other book. The question goes like this:

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

It’s a magical question for multiple reasons. It forces you to prioritize, focus on one thing, be specific, and it directs you to take action.

The question can be used in a variety of ways. You can use it to create a vision for your life, you can use it first thing every morning, you can use it throughout the day, you can use it to set goals, or you can use it to prioritize. (You’ll find specific uses for the question below.)

According to the authors, regularly using this question is a game-changer: “The Focusing Question is the foundational habit I use to achieve extraordinary results and lead a big life.”

6. Specific Uses for the Focusing Question

“The Focusing Question can direct you to your ONE Thing in the different areas of your life. Simply reframe the Focusing Question by inserting your area of focus. You can also include a time frame—such as ‘right now’ or ‘this year’—to give your answer the appropriate level of immediacy, or ‘in five years’ or ‘someday’ to find a big-picture answer that points you at outcomes to aim for.
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?’”

Here are the specific questions the authors recommend…


  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to help others... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my relationship with God... ?


  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to achieve my diet goals... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure that I exercise... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to relieve my stress... ?


  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my skill at ________... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to find time for myself... ?


  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my relationship with my spouse/partner... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my children’s school performance... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to show my appreciation to my parents... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make my family stronger... ?


  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure that I hit my goals... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my skills... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to help my team succeed... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to further my career... ?


  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make us more competitive... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make our product the best... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make us more profitable... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve our customer experience... ?


  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to increase my net worth... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my investment cash flow... ?
  • What’s the ONE Thing I can do to eliminate my credit card debt... ?

7. Productivity’s Greatest Power Tool

“Most people think there’s never enough time to be successful, but there is when you block it. Time blocking is a very resultsoriented way of viewing and using time. It’s a way of making sure that what has to be done gets done. Alexander Graham Bell said, ‘Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.’ Time blocking harnesses your energy and centers it on your most important work. It’s productivity’s greatest power tool.”

Time blocking means to block out large pieces of uninterrupted time for specific uses. For me, my first time block every day is the morning ritual. I follow this up with a 2-3 hour time block of deep work. I then take a break followed by another deep work time block. Then comes a time block of lunch and rest.

For you, this might be different. It all depends on your ONE Thing. Whatever it is, you need to block out time for it on your calendar. If it’s a one-time thing, you block one specific time. If it’s a repeatable, every-day thing, you block it off every day. And once you’ve blocked a specific chunk of time, nothing gets in the way.

Think about it this way: If disproportionate results come from ONE activity, then you must give that activity disproportionate time.

Papasan and Keller suggest time blocking three things:

  • Your time off
  • Your ONE Thing
  • Your planning time

You want to go to your calendar and block off large amounts of time for these three activities.

8. Time Block Your Time Off

“Extraordinarily successful people launch their year by taking time out to plan their time off. Why? They know they’ll need it and they know they’ll be able to afford it. In truth, the most successful simply see themselves as working between vacations. On the other hand, the least successful don’t reserve time off, because they don’t think they’ll deserve it or be able to afford it. By planning your time off in advance, you are, in effect, managing your work time around your downtime instead of the other way around.”

Productivity isn’t about putting in more hours, it’s about getting as much high-value work done in as little time as possible. Working too many hours only slows you down. As the authors suggest: Take time off. Block out long vacations and long weekends, then take them. You’ll be less stressed, better rested, more relaxed, and more productive when you come back.

9. Time Block Your ONE Thing

“After you’ve time blocked your time off, time block your ONE Thing. Yes, you read that right. Your most important work comes second. Why? Because you can’t happily sustain success in your professional life if you neglect your personal ‘re-creation’ time. Time block your time off, and then make time for your ONE Thing.
The most productive people, the ones who experience extraordinary results, design their days around doing their ONE Thing. Their most important appointment each day is with themselves, and they never miss it.”

The first thing on your calendar is your time-off time blocks. The next thing is your ONE-Thing time blocks. The reasoning for this is simple, and we’ve mentioned it earlier: If your ONE Thing creates disproportionate results, it only makes sense to spend disproportionate time on it.

Unless you block time for your #1 high-value activity, you won’t spend nearly enough time on it. Instead, you’ll end up wasting time on email, social media, meetings, and other low-value activities.

10. The One Thing

“If you try to do everything, you could wind up with nothing. If you try to do just ONE Thing, the right ONE Thing, you could wind up with everything you ever wanted.
The ONE Thing is real. If you put it to work, it will work.
So don’t delay. Ask yourself the question, ‘What’s the ONE Thing I can do right now to start using The ONE Thing in my life such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?’
And make doing the answer your first ONE Thing!”

Those are the last words of the book.

So, what are you waiting for? Start applying what you’ve learned and ask yourself: What’s the ONE Thing I can do right now to start using The ONE Thing in my life such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

Further Reading

If you enjoyed this summary, you’ll enjoy the following books as well:

  • Deep Work by Cal Newport. The best productivity book on the market right now.
  • Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. Another powerful book on productivity and prioritization.
  • The Productivity Project by Chris Bailey. Perhaps the most comprehensive and beginner-friendly book on personal productivity.
Nils Salzgeber

Nils Salzgeber is the author of two books and co-founder of the popular NJlifehacks blog. He is passionate about anything that helps him become a more peaceful, productive, and loving version of himself. After quitting university twice, he has recently gone back to get a psychology degree. Nils lives in Thun, Switzerland.

  • igor says:

    Very good review! Thank you!!

  • Kumar says:

    Very informative and helpful
    Definitely, I would apply to my life

  • Stef says:

    Great summary. Thanks for sharing. Saved me hours so that I can concentrate on my ONE thing.
    PS: The Productivity Project is not linkable

  • Azher says:

    Please, make more book summary.
    you guys are awesome.

  • Guillermo says:

    Great Summary THANK YOU!

  • Tariq says:

    It was great reading. You made it so quick and easy.

    Even better than real.

    Please add “Awaken the Giant “ in your list

  • Camilo says:

    Thanks a lot for the summary! Wanted to get the main idea of the book and you made it so f. clear! BTW I’m reading the book on Stoicism and it’s been a great read so far! Best of the vibes for you to keep spreading such amazing knowledge.

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