The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan
I came across this book while listening to the recent Self-Published Success Summit; the session by Jay Papasan really stood out for me, so I decided to check out his book. It’s written really simply and easily, and ever since I started to read it, I have been re-thinking a lot of things.
The main takeaway for me was pretty simple - you can’t succeed by spreading yourself out too thin, so decide to focus your energy and time to become great at one thing. And you can use this understanding to fuel your bigger picture - career questions, and also on a smaller scale - what one thing will I accomplish this month, or week, or today?
There is of course more to the book, as it explains why focusing is important, how to overcome distractions, and what are the things that could hold us back from focusing on the one thing, or the consequences of doing so. But for me the most important thing was the notion that success (let’s define that narrowly in the sense of getting a lot accomplished in the areas you want to) comes from doing the most important thing for now, and then doing the next most important thing - i.e. doing the one thing after another, rather than adopting a bit of a scattershot approach and trying to do everything all at once, or just deciding that you must somehow squeeze in more and more.
1. Focus On Your One Thing
One of the reasons this book really resonated with me now is because I have seen my to-do list expanding more and more. Recently I wrote about having lists for the month - of everything that I wanted to accomplish, broken down into categories. The problem I found with this approach, which I am still using because it is one place I can look for everything I need to do, is that the list can get longer and longer and I find myself feeling more and more stressed out because things aren’t progressing fast enough. I have been trying to go through the list and hone in on what’s truly important and what can wait, but I ended up removing only one or two items.
After reading this book, I went back to my list and slashed at least 15 items off it. In percentage terms, I think I removed 25% of the to-dos on the list. Obviously when I made the list I thought they were important. But thinking in terms of what is the one thing I need to do, or what is absolutely essential to do, I kept everything on the list that were existing commitments, like my blog schedule, and books I am halfway through writing, and anything else that had a clock on it - it had to get done by a certain date. Anything that was optional got removed from the list.
Here’s the kicker. They weren’t optional when I first put them on the list. I was then thinking in terms of what all can I do to move my goals forward in these areas, and wrote down everything that I thought I needed to do. But re-framing what I needed to do in terms of less rather than more, quality instead of quantity, made me re-think a lot of that. I started asking myself what was at the heart of the work, rather than at the margins? For instance, writing and publishing my weekly blog posts are essential to me, but spending 30 minutes promoting them on social media everyday isn’t as much of a priority. Sure it is important, but not essential. I hope you see the difference. In your case, the priorities might be inverse. The point is to question that for yourself - what could I cull away so I can spend more time focused on what is really important and get that done first.
On a broader level, I realized that quite often I knew the most important thing to be done, but maybe because I was nervous about working on it, or some other reason, I would avoid it and do something that was less important but much easier to do. And I would fill a whole day of this, be able to tick off some things from my list and feel accomplished, although in my heart I knew I didn’t make progress on what I really needed to. Too many days of this and you start to feel panicky, or simply fail to achieve the really important things.
2. Many Things Will Inevitably Not Get Done - Accept It
Something else from the book that really resonated with me was from the chapter on the 4 productivity thieves, and this one was the second thief. The fear of chaos. When you focus on one thing, inevitably other things pile up, the stuff you haven’t gotten around to doing. And as Jay Papasan said in the webinar I watched recently, some people get distracted by people and others get distracted by stuff. I am one of those who get distracted by stuff. I work from home, and before sitting down I feel like all the surfaces must be clean, and I must put away all the clutter. Which is a pain because I am mostly a pretty disorganized person. And if I get up to get water or a cup of coffee, I notice all the rooms that need cleaning and all the stuff that needs fixing, and I start to get panicky - how will I ever get it all done?
And this is why I loved the book - basically he says don’t worry about it. There will always be stuff left undone. But if you neglect your one thing in favor of doing all this instead, you won’t achieve the level of success or personal satisfaction that you could have. And that totally makes sense to me. I mean I could have a really clean house (till it gets dirty or cluttered again in two days) or have a bunch of completed and published books. And I know I prefer the latter, but in the moment this is something I have to learn to remind myself.
3. Don’t Live By Other People’s Agendas
The other really important thing I took away from this book, and again not a novel concept, not even the first time I read it this month, but still something that is so hard to implement that it bears repeating - don’t let saying yes to stuff for others become saying no to stuff for yourself. This is of course my own way of putting it, but basically the gist of the point from the book. We all only have so much time, and taking on endless things to please others or because you forgot you have something clashing, or because you feel guilty saying no so that you could work on your (indulgent personal) project is not helpful. Trust me.
This doesn’t mean you can never say yes, but it means you have to be more careful about it. Something I read elsewhere (and I can’t remember right now where) is to always say yes to those things that bring you energy, are part of your core competency (ahh, I think it was 168 Hours), or just something that really matters to you personally. But usually this is a pretty small list. Generally we end up saying yes to things that we hate to do, are terrible at or get bored by, and yet couldn’t figure out how to decline, or said yes to without thinking and now are stuck doing. I really feel its important to be a giving person, but also life is short, and it is much better to give in a way that adds to your well-being rather than takes away from it.
Anyway, while there were many more useful takeaways from this book, I think the most crucial thing to understand is that to succeed at something, usually there is one thing that we need to hunker down and focus on. And many times instead of doing that one thing, we do all the things we could be doing, and get meh results, which we aren’t happy about. One example from studying and good grades, is that the most effective strategy in studying for a test is doing practice problems or practice questions under test conditions, basically quizzing yourself, either alone or a with a friend or taking sample tests online. This is a much more effective strategy than simply reading one’s notes or reading the textbook and highlighting. But this is what most students do, for hours at a time, and then complain that they didn’t get the grades they wanted. If you follow inefficient strategies, you might do quite poorly even if you spend a lot of time studying.
And this applies in life as well. To succeed as an indie author, you could work really hard, hanging out in forums and on Facebook and Goodreads, lamenting about the lack of readers. You could beg people to review your book. Or you could study the genre you’re writing in to make sure that your book is positioned correctly, has the best possible description, cover etc. And then write another book. And another one. Over and over I hear successful authors saying this in their podcasts. The advice is almost repetitive and yet people never tire of wanting advice to succeed. Maybe they think there is some magic formula that people are holding back on. There isn’t. And this isn’t something I am saying from an arrogant, I-know-it-all mindset. I have made the same mistakes. Spending hours doing what everyone else is, promoting my books on social media and worrying about engagement and the number of followers, and completely neglecting to finish the next book. I am hoping that I can apply this concept of honing in one thing, and I wanted to share it and see if it helps others as well.
What is your one thing that you should be focusing on right now? Please share your answer in the comments below.