Some of the teachers who've influenced me the most are people I've never met. I read dozens of books each year, but some stick with me long after I read the last page and close the covers. One of them–Gary Keller's The ONE Thing–is the subject of this episode.
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Meaningful messages from The ONE Thing
I’ve been a bookworm since elementary school. One of my favorite pastimes is reading “self-improvement” books, especially books related to productivity and living a meaningful life. Certain books have been particularly influential in my thinking about what it means to make a life that matters, and how to be productive in the best sense of that term. Awhile ago a listener emailed me suggesting that I share some of those books with you. Going forward, from time to time I will share with you some of those books and my key takeaways.
This time I'm focusing on a truly powerful book I read just a few months ago: The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller. I mostly share the key points from the book in the author’s own words, with some of my thoughts about why those points struck a chord with me.
If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts, too. Please share them in the comments section below, or join the discussion in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group.
About the Author
According to the website, “Gary Keller is the founder and chairman of the board for Keller Williams Realty, the world's largest real estate franchise by agent count. A finalist for Inc. Magazine’s Entrepreneur of the Year award, Keller is recognized as one of the most influential leaders in the real estate industry, leading his company to 30 consecutive years of growth and profitability.”
There's a lot of food for thought in The ONE Thing. I encourage you to read it if you haven't already. Here are some of the key points Keller makes in the book that have stuck with me and inspired me to think about how I live my life. [Material in quotes below comes from The ONE Thing and is the property of the book's copyright holder. I added the emphasis–bold or italics–to highlight ideas I think are particularly powerful.]
For big results, go small.
This concept is all about focusing on the single most important thing at any given time, rather than spreading your time, energy, and attention among lots of different things.
“‘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.
“The way to get the most out of your work and your life is to go as small as possible. Most people think just the opposite. They think big success is time-consuming and complicated. As a result, their calendars and to-do lists become overloaded and overwhelming. Success starts to feel out of reach, so they settle for less. Unaware that big success comes when we do a few things well, they get lost trying to do too much, and in the end accomplish too little. Over time they lower their expectations, abandon their dreams, and allow their life to get small. That is the wrong thing to make small.”
I recognized myself in this description. Do you?
Keller says, “The moon is reachable if you prioritize everything and put all of your energy into accomplishing the most important thing.” That is really a theme throughout the book, that you can accomplish what matters most to you. You do that, though, not by trying to do lots of stuff, but by finding out what is the most important thing and then putting your time, energy, and attention into that.
The Six Lies Between You and Success:
- Everything matters equally
- A disciplined life
- Willpower is always on will-call
- A balanced life
- Big is bad
The equality lie.
The idea that every opportunity, obligation, or project is equally important, Keller says, is a lie that prevents us from accomplishing what really matters to us. “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 seldom takes care of business.”
We’ve talked about this in the show in the past. He goes on to say, “Knocking out a hundred tasks for whatever reason is a poor substitute for doing even one task that’s meaningful. Not everything matters equally, and success isn’t a game won by whoever does the most.”
Keller offers a thought-provoking take on to-do lists: “It seems that everywhere we turn we’re encouraged to make lists — and though lists are invaluable, they have a dark side. While to-dos serve as a useful collection of our best intentions, they also tyrannize us with trivial, unimportant stuff that we feel obligated to get done — because it’s on our list.” As you know, I believe in the value of lists–of capturing on paper those tasks and reminders that can clutter our mind–but he makes a very good point here. Sometimes we may just need to take things off of our lists. Can we learn that it’s okay to cross things off of our list without doing them?
A key to success, and to a meaningful life, is learning to identify what really matters most of all. (This is a message that echoes the theme of another book I love and recommend: Greg McKeown's Essentialism, which I talked about in episode 32.)
“Achievers,” Keller says, “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 always work from a clear sense of priority.”
It's crucial to identify that one most important thing. We may start from a long list of things that seem important, but we need to whittle it down to the ONE thing that’s essential: from the many, to the critical few, to the ONE thing. “There will always be just a few things that matter more than the rest, and out of those, one will matter most.”
Making a life that matters comes from spending most of our time and energy doing what matters most. Not everything in front of us matters equally.
The multitasking lie.
“When you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or won’t do either well. People can actually do two or more things at once, such as walk and talk, or chew gum and read a map; but, like computers, what we can’t do is focus on two things at once.”
This reminds me to think about how many times I try to do more than one thing at a time, and do both poorly. We try to multitask because there is so much to do and we feel we can’t do just one thing. But that is the root of the lie, according to Keller, who says, “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.”
“You simply can’t effectively focus on two important things at the same time. Every time we try to do two or more things at once, we’re simply dividing up our focus and dumbing down all of the outcomes in the process.”
This is so true, and there is so much science behind it. I’m trying to get better about focusing on one thing at a time.
The attempt to multitask (focus shifting) doesn’t affect only the efficiency and quality of our work. It also affects (negatively) our relationships with the people who matter to us.
The discipline lie.
Some teach that the secret to success and achievement is living a strictly disciplined life. Keller says this is a lie, tying it to his chapter about how willpower is not what we need. This really caught my attention. Contrary to the popular belief, Keller says, “You don’t need to be a disciplined person to be successful. In fact, 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.”
Keller encourages us to be intentional and deliberate about how we go about developing the habits we need for a productive life: “Build one habit at a time. Success is sequential, not simultaneous. No one actually has the discipline to acquire more than one powerful habit at a time.”
The idea isn’t to exercise strict discipline and iron will power, but to develop the right habits in your life, and let them take over and propel you to success. “If you are what you repeatedly do, then achievement isn’t an action you take, but a habit you forge into your life.”
A fascinating book I read last year that goes deeper into the formation and value of habits is Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit.
The balance lie.
Keller says thinking the goal is a balanced life is a lie that prevents us from focusing on the most important things — again, this ties back to his assertion that all things are not equally important, so they don’t deserve equal time or attention.
“Purpose, meaning, significance — these are what make a successful life. Seek them and you will most certainly live your life out of balance, criss-crossing 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.”
We strive to find a place of balance in our lives, but maybe balance is a verb (something we do), not a noun (a place we can be). This is something to consider.
Keller says,“Leaving some things undone is a necessary tradeoff for extraordinary results. 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.… 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.”
“The question of balance is really a question of priority.… Extraordinary results demand that you set a priority and act on it. When you act on your priority, you’ll automatically go out of balance, giving more time to one thing over the other.”
The Three Commitments:
In addition to the lies we tell ourselves, Keller also describes the Three Commitments that are necessary for a successful, meaningful life:
- Adopt the mindset of someone seeking mastery.
- Continually seek the best ways of doing things.
- Be willing to be held accountable to doing everything you can to achieve your ONE Thing.
There is so much good material in this chapter, but I focused on the third commitment: accountability. Keller says, “Taking complete ownership of your outcomes by holding no one but yourself responsible for them, is the most powerful thing you can do to drive your success.… Accountable people achieve results others only dream of. … When life happens, you can be either the author of your life, or the victim of it. Those are your only two choices — accountable or unaccountable. Every day we choose one approach or the other, and the consequences follow us forever.”
We can look around and blame our circumstances or lack of results, but that isn’t productive, and it won’t get us to a life that matters. Keller recommends finding an accountability partner, who can be a mentor, a peer, or a coach, and who “provides frank, objective feedback on your performance, creates ongoing expectations for productive progress, and can provide critical brainstorming, or even expertise when needed.” (If you are in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group, you may be able to find an accountability partner there. If that's something you're interested in, feel free to post a request in the group.)
The Four Thieves (Chapter 17):
There is great information in this chapter, which you can explore on your own. He discusses these four thieves and how they steal from us.
- The inability to say no
- Fear of chaos
- Poor health habits
- Environment doesn’t support your goals
Key Tools for Achieving What Really Matters to You:
If you take only one idea from The ONE Thing, let it be Keller's encouragement to develop these two habits: Time block your ONE Thing and protect your time block.
Time block your ONE Thing:
Schedule time on your calendar for your ONE Thing, and make everything else fit around that (instead of trying to fit your ONE Thing into your schedule). “If disproportionate results come from one activity, then you must give that one activity disproportionate time. Each and every day, ask this Focusing Question for your blocked time: ‘Today, what’s the ONE Thing I can do for my ONE Thing, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary’?”
Keller suggests an intentional approach to managing your calendar, which starts with taking care of yourself. “To achieve extraordinary success and experience greatness,” he says, “time block these three things in the following order:”
- Time block your time off: “When you intend to be successful, you start by protecting time to recharge and reward yourself…. Resting is as important as working.”
- Time block 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.” Set aside a hefty chunk of time each day to work on that most important thing, write it on your calendar as a non-negotiable appointment, then show up to do the work.
- Time block your planning time: “Block an hour each week to review your annual and monthly goals…. You’re essentially asking, ‘Based on where I am right now, what’s the ONE Thing I need to do this week, to stay on track for my monthly goal, and for my monthly goal to be on track for my annual goal’?”
Protect your time block:
This, I think, is the hardest part for a lot of us. I know it is for me. We schedule time for what's important to us, but then something comes up: someone needs us, or (more likely) our attention gets caught by something else, and the time allocated to our ONE Thing gets co-opted for something else. It's our job, Keller says, to guard that time against external and internal encroachments.
“The world doesn’t know your purpose or priorities and isn’t responsible for them — you are. So it’s your job to protect your time block from all those who don’t know what matters most to you, and from yourself when you forget.”
Here, as in other situations, we are often our own worst enemy.
“Day in and day out, your own need to do other things instead of your ONE Thing may be your biggest challenge to overcome. Life doesn’t simplify itself the moment you simplify your focus; there’s always other stuff screaming to be done. Always. So when stuff pops into your head, just write it down on a task list, and get back to what you’re supposed to be doing. In other words, do a brain dump. Then put it out of sight and out of mind, until its time comes.”
Purpose, Priority, and Productivity:
Productivity is all about living life on purpose, with purpose, focusing on the most important priority.
“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 start with purpose and use it like a compass.”
This is your North Star.
“The prescription for extraordinary results is knowing what matters to you and taking daily doses of actions in alignment with it.”
“Knowing why you’re doing something provides the inspiration and motivation to give the extra perspiration needed to persevere when things go south. Sticking with something long enough for success to show up, is a fundamental requirement for achieving extraordinary results.”
Discover Your Big Why
Keller talks a lot about finding your purpose and the reasons (the “why” behind it), and then taking action. We can choose to overcome the paralysis that comes from not being sure of the “right” path. This can happen when there are a lot of things we are interested in, and we can’t choose because we worry about missing out if we pick the wrong one. Keller encourages us to simply pick a direction and start; you can always recalibrate if it doesn’t seem right.
Our purpose provides a direction that guides us in how we choose to spend our time. What Keller said about this made me pause and think:
“When each day begins, we each have a choice. We can ask, ‘What shall I do?’ or ‘What should I do?’ Without direction, without purpose, whatever you ‘shall do’ will always get you somewhere. But when you’re going somewhere on purpose, there will always be something you ‘should do,’ that will get you where you must go. When your life is on purpose, living by priority takes precedence.”
Perhaps the thoughts that resonated most with me were Keller's encouragement to live in the moment, today, and not dwell in the past or wait for the future.
“… the truth is we have goals and plans for only one reason — to be appropriate in the moments of our lives that matter. While we may pull from the past and forecast the future, our only reality is the present moment. Right now is all we have to work with. Our past is but a former now, our future is a potential one.”
I hope you'll take this to heart, because this is so true, and so significant: Our only reality is the present moment.
A life that matters is a collection of moments that matter. A life that matters isn’t something we plan for someday. It’s what happens when we make this moment right now matter. I hope you will hear that, and realize that a life that matters isn’t “out there” someday. We need to make each moment matter. As Keller says, “The truth about success is that our ability to achieve extraordinary results in the future lies in stringing together powerful moments, one after the other. What you do in any given moment determines what you experience in the next.”
'What you do in any given moment determines what you experience in the next.'Click To Tweet
A meaningfully productive life–a life that matters–requires both intention and action. Without both, you simply can't get there from here. In chapter 18, Keller talks about The Journey and says, “… living the largest life possible requires you not only to think big, but also to take the necessary actions to get there.”A life that matters is a collection of moments that matter.Click To Tweet
Toward the end of The ONE Thing, Keller cites the work of Bonnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (2012). The five regrets she identifies are all sobering and thought-provoking, but by far the most commonly expressed regret is this: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
I don't want to reach the end of my life and feel that regret. Do you?
What action I’ve taken as a result of reading The ONE Thing:
Reading The ONE Thing has made me more aware of the choices I’m making about how to spend my time. I’ve also spent time thinking about what my ONE Thing is, and am working to be more intentional about how I plan my days, using the approach of time-blocking my ONE Thing, and defending that time against encroachment.
I also evaluated my commitments, and gave up some long-time activities — they didn’t take much time, but they were recurring and weren’t consistent with my ONE Thing, so I let them go, to make room for the most important things for this next season of my life.
The ONE Thing is on the short list of books that I'll be re-reading regularly to remind myself of its key teachings and find new ways to put them into action in my life.
What do you think?
Do you know what your ONE Thing is? What’s most important to you? And are you taking action on it? What books have you read that have been influential in your thinking about making a life that matters?
Resources and Links:
Find more information and resources at the1thing.com, where you can learn about the authors and check out their blog, podcast, downloadable goal-setting worksheets, and more.Click here to discover my favorite apps!
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