Book Review: The ONE Thing – The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

What is the ONE thing you could do that will help you achieve your goals? This is what Gary Keller and Jay Papasan asked in their book, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results*. Actually, they ask you to find the ONE Thing about many different topics.

Always interested in how to get more out of my day, I always felt I was missing something. I discovered this book while listening to Entrepreneurs on Fire—a podcast focusing on entrepreneurs. This book helped me find a clearer path to my goals. I have already started to apply some of the lessons to my work and I am happy with the results. I also forewarned my team that we would be using some of these ideas to knock out some of our team goals. 

This 240-page book is a quick and enjoyable read. Keller and Papasan have incorporated a wealth of stories that drive home the points they are trying to make. The book also pulls in quite a bit of research. In addition to a three chapter introduction, the book has three major parts: The Lies, The Truth, and Extraordinary Results. Overall, there are 18 chapters.

The ONE Thing

Keller and Papasan began with a story outlining Keller’s frustration of not being as successful as he wanted. His life changed when he focused on one question:

“What’s the ONE Thing, you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?” (Keller & Papasan, 2012, p. 9).

He pointed out that when he began focusing on one thing, positive things began to happen. As Keller explained the power of dominoes, he noted that it was not only important to focus on the ONE Thing, it was important to focus on the right ONE Thing. What is the one thing that when completed while set up the success of the next one thing. In this introduction, Keller also highlighted different businesses and people who achieved great success because they focused on the ONE Thing.

The Lies

In this part of the book, Keller focuses on “six lies between you and success” (Kelle & Papasanr, 2012, p. 30):

  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

As Keller and Papasan addressed equality, they pointed out that to-do lists could be improved by turning them into “success lists.” We should be narrowing down our extensive to-do lists to the key items that will help us move whatever we are doing forward. They advocated narrowing it down even further to the One Thing that will make other items on the list unnecessary. As part of this discussion, they included Pareto’s Principle. This was a great discussion about focusing on the ONE Thing that will move you forward.

In the chapter on multitasking, Keller and Papasan presented a wealth of research showing how multitasking is a lie. Instead, we need to focus on tasks to completion, rather than trying to do many things at one time. They advocated for blocking out time to focus on the ONE Thing.

As Keller and Papasan spoke about discipline and habits, they noted that “You don’t need to be a disciplined person to be successful… Success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.” (Keller & Papasan, 2012, p. 55).

One of the topics that really stood out to me was on the one on willpower. The authors explained that willpower was an essential attribute to leverage; however, willpower takes energy and depletes over the length of the day. You seem to have less willpower when you are tired or worn down. You can re-energize by taking adequate breaks during the day. As a back up to willpower, you need systems and processes to ensure you are doing everything right even when your willpower is down.

The authors also knocked down the notion of playing it safe and not going for the fences. Trying to play it safe does not yield the results you need to get to the next level. They referenced the “Think Different” Apple advertising campaign.

The Truth

This section only had three chapters focusing on asking the right question, doing the right think, and looking for the right answers. The authors stressed the importance of asking the right question. What is the question that will help you succeed? The authors introduced this question at the beginning of the book:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (Keller & Papasan, 2012, p. 106).

Keller and Papasan talked about breaking the complex into the simple. The eating of the elephant. They pointed out that asking this question would help to decide upon doing the right thing at the right time regardless of your area of life: work, health, personal life, finances, etc. The demonstrated how to tweak the question to hone in on the ONE Thing to do for a variety of different subjects and areas of life. When tweaking your questions, Keller and Papasan recommended getting as specific as possible. They also describe where to get answers. One of the places to get answers is through the experiences of others. They stressed the importance of reading. By reading, you can stand on the shoulders of others. I also think that reading is key. Not only to I regularly read books, but I also read what others are sharing on the Internet. I am grateful for those who work out loud and share what they know.

Extraordinary Results

This last section focused on  important elements to include: purpose, priority, productivity, three commitments, the fours thieves, and the journey.

On a philosophical level, Keller and Papasan discussed the importance to having a purpose to what you do. What is the reason you do what you do? With a purpose, you can more easily establish your priorities. The authors provided an exercise that takes your someday goal and narrows it to the task that you should be working on right now. They showed how to connect the dominoes. They also provided some extra tips for succeeding a goal setting as well as accomplishing the goals.

Perhaps one of the useful chapters for me focused on productivity. “Productive people get more done, achieve better results, and earn far more in their hours than the rest. They do so because the devote maximum time being productive on their top priority, their ONE Thing” (Keller & Papasan, 2012, p. 158). In this chapter, the authors discussed time blocking; when to block it, how much to block, and how to protect it.

Keller and Papasan also addressed three commitments that you must make to achieve extraordinary results: focus on mastery, focus on purpose, and being accountable. It boils down to taking responsibility for your actions and striving for the best. They also stressed the importance of finding a coach to help you with you with gaps.

Finally, Keller and Papasan talked about creating an environment conducive to success. This means saying no when it does not align with your purpose and you ONE Thing. It also means taking care of your health so that you can have the willpower to succeed.

I thought this was an inspiring book. This book has presented me with some ideas to leverage to make my life just a little bit better. If you feel you are frantically paddling and getting nowhere, I would then recommend this book.


Keller, G., & Papasan, J. (2013). he ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Austin, Texas: Bard Press.

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