This is Why You Feel Unfocused (The One Thing Book Notes)

This is Why You Feel Unfocused (The One Thing Book Notes)

"The One Thing" in one sentence

To get extraordinary results, continually ask yourself what matters most and focus an extraordinary amount of attention to that ONE THING.

"The One Thing" in one paragraph

Most of the results in your life are going to come from a select few inputs. So when planning, think big and specific to invest disproportionate focus. Treat your work like going to the movies. Bring all your snacks, your beverages, get comfy, stay seated and engaged for a couple hours. Oh yeah, and invest in your relationships and health.

My highly subjective rating

I give the one thing a 9/10. "Prioritization" is a cliche. But cliches are so for a reason. And Gary Keller delivers.

Focusing on my ONE THING is probably my ONE THING I need to get better at (Wow that's meta). it's a rehashing of concepts that I've been nagged about by my parents all my life. Keep a narrow scope of work at one time, don't multitask, seek constant improvement. Unsurprisingly, I am less likely to ignore "tried and true wisdom" from an entrepreneur who's published a NYTimes best seller.

Gary doesn't offer cliches, however, he lays out an actionable plan (time block 4 hours a day, time block your planning) for actually focusing.

Life context when reading

As someone with ADHD, focus is the difference between WILDLY fulfilling accomplishments.. or endlessly chasing "opportunity porn" (phrase came from my friend and I love it)

My therapist has this metaphor that I need to be less like a shotgun and more to being a sniper rifle. My wild imagination prop up many targets in my life (and some more worth hitting than others).

So how is the book helpful for me? Many people assume that ADHD is simply a lack of focus. Wrong. It's an ability to DIRECT focus where appropriate.

Sometimes this means entering "squirrel mode" where I can't seem to find a mental grip on anything. Other times this means I'll engage in one task (usually video editing or videogames) for 6 hours on end.

The amazing thing is that I can SOMETIMES recruit that hyperfocus for my own goals. If I direct the attention properly towards ONE THINGs that will drive extraordinary results, it's go time.

Big Ideas on Success from Gary Keller

Dominos fall one at a time, but they carry the kinetic energy to topple exponentially larger dominos in sequence.

The best entrepreneurs are NO MEN, not YES MEN (Steve Jobs killed more Apple products than anyone else).

Multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy.

Balance is a verb not a noun. It's also mostly a lie.

People don't like to be juggled, they like to be held.

A simple truth: productivity > busyness

Three commitments to make to yourself: be more purposeful, be more accountable, be masterful


Where do extraordinary results come from? What makes successful people?

Successful people leave clues. There are 2 patterns in the life approaches of the healthiest, wealthiest, and wisest people in the world.

1) They play a game of dominos. All day long.

There's an account of a scientific experiment wherein people laid a series of dominos up. Each one was ~1.5x larger than the previous.  They had one at first that was several inches, and it ended up toppling a domino over 1 meter tall at the end of the track.

If this exponential growth continues: the book explains:

The result could defy the imagination. The 10th domino would be almost as tall as NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. By the 18th, you’re looking at a domino that would rival the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The 23rd domino would tower over the Eiffel Tower and the 31st domino would loom over Mount Everest by almost 3,000 feet. Number 57 would practically bridge the distance between the earth and the moon!

How does one play dominos? You topple ONE AT A TIME. You stack them up and allow one big singular win to carry you into another big singular win. With enough momentum, you don't even have to keep employing willpower to succeed. You just have to fall forwards into extraordinary results.

I'm reminded of a Derek Sivers quote: "You can do everything you want in life, just not all at one time"

2) They make use of leverage

The Pareto Principle is a mathematical representation of output in our world. It's a "power law". in one of it's first written examples, was observed when a biologist observed that the majority of beans came from a select few pods.

This principle can be found everywhere. Businesses will find most revenue comes from a key few products or clients. Artists will find most of their fame and success come from a few "greatest hits". Teachers will find that most of their headaches come from a select few kiddos

Why? I'm not sure. It's one of the most fascinating mathematical properties that pop ups again and again and again.

What are six lies we've been told about work and extraordinary results?

Keller moves on next to discuss six lies that most people accept as "truisms". These have become normalized by pop culture.

I won't spend time on ALL of them because I don't feel all were novel to this book, but here they are:

1) Everything matters equally

It doesn't. See Pareto Principle above.

"Equality is good for human rights, not results"

Busyness does NOT mean productivity. It means you're being tyrannized by your to do list.

How does one build mastery in a select few important skills and arenas? By DEFINING those select few, then directing mastery-building (deliberate practice) focus.

2) Multitasking

The book slapped me in the face with the below:

"Multitasking is just an opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time"

Say no. Whether you say “later” or “never,” the point is to say “not now” to anything else you could do until your most important work is done. Don’t get trapped in the “check off” game. If we believe things don’t matter equally, we must act accordingly.

A quick thought experiment:

Imagine if you were being operated on by a surgeon and his nurse tapped his shoulder while he had a scalpel in your brain.

"Hey check out this tik tok"


Why is that so problematic? Every YOU context switch (to a new conversation or task) your brain has to load up the new "rules" of the game. You have to pick up a new to do list, a new mode of operating that to do list, a different set of assumptions and timelines, and ALL of this drains willpower.

So how does one proceed? Treat yourself like a surgeon or a pilot in your work. Give yourself the respect to singletask like a real professional

3) Discipline

Discipline is not always available on command. You will run out of it. It's needed at the start of the habit, but if you can craft your identity and environment (see Atomic Habits), inertia will carry you through.

4) Willpower

See above (I didn't really get the difference between discipline and willpower as they pertain to the topic. Successful people manage them.)

5) A balanced life

You don't need to be always balanced. But you should always try to be BALANCING! (Verb, not a noun)

Gary points out that the concept of Work-Life Balance is a modern invention that entered colloquial speech sometime in the 70s.

Historically, balancing our lives is a novel privilege to even consider. For thousands of years, work was life. If you didn’t work—hunt game, harvest crops, or raise livestock—you didn’t live long... 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.

His point is that if you intensely focus on a professional goal you will naturally let other aspects of your life FALL OUT OF WHACK. And you have to be ok with that.

A caveat: it's much more acceptable to let PROFESSIONAL pursuits fall out of whack for a long time. But you can't spend too long without counterbalancing your personal relationships and commitments

6) Big is bad

To be honest, this felt a bit "strawman" to me. I'm not sure if anyone purposely says "I'm not going to have ambitious goals". Or at least nobody that's picking up a self improvement book. But Keller advises writing out a "success list", making your goals BIG AND SPECIFIC (i.e. I will 2x revenue in the next 6 months).

How do most people operate in the face of these lies?

They try to pour their efforts equally across different inputs (1) and fail to execute on any of them very well. They try to load up on several different projects, professional endeavors, or personal development focuses simultaneously and make mediocre progress on all (2). They effort all day (3 and 4). They straddle the line between totally committing to relationships and goals for the illusion of balance (5). Finally, they direct their attention on achievable, but not magnificent dreams (6)

What's the solution to these lies?

It's not more information -- to combat a ton of lies we need a FEW surprisingly simple truths. Keller offers a powerful tool which he has dubbed the focusing question. It originated from a particularly devastating part of his life working in real estate where he felt burnt out, unproductive.

What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?

It sounds a bit strange. Just ONE THING? How the hell do I choose?

His response is that if you want uncommon results you have to do uncommon things. You have to actively reject the guidance that your intuition and excitement for work would lead you to (which is multitasking)

How do you implement the focusing question?

What I love about this point of the book is Keller has laid out an incredibly efficient, elegant, and SINGULAR solution to all these problems. The operating system is to ask this question over and over again in different domains.


You need to set time aside for the PLANNING (asking the focusing question) and then actually executing on your one important thing daily. There is so little time in the day, so your STARTING POINT has to be your one important thing.

So you time block three things using this incredible powerful question:

Time block your time off (health and relationships, so you can stay fueled and healthy)

Time block 4 hours for your one thing (if you focus that's probably all you'll need :)

Time block your planning time (set up the next day and next week's dominos)

This was a HUGE relief for me; knowing that I don't have to have a diabolically strict schedule. I just have to time block my ONE THING and feel free to dick around the rest of the day.

The point is to win your day by noon.

You then ^^Apply the focusing questions across different domains and time series^^

What's the one thing I could do for:

  • my relationship
  • my finances
  • my job
  • my health habits
  • my spiritual connection


  • this work period
  • today?
  • this week?
  • this month?
  • this quarter?
  • this life? (bold)

The Four Thieves of your Extraordinary Results

Following a path of consistently employing the one thing is not easy. And like any good debater, Keller has laid out some counterarguments and helped us think through an adequate defense. The following "four thieves" are the biggest roadblocks to consistent prioritization and focus. They steal mental energy, they steal "business energy'. They make strategic thinking and hitting ALL the goals in your professional life harder.

1) Inability to say no

Duh. The trick is to say "not now, but I'm really honored you asked" (even to yourself). Protect your one single thing. Just don't be an asshole.

2) Fear of chaos

This was perhaps the most powerful lesson of the entire book.

If you clarify and focus in on your one important thing, many other elements of your life are BOUND to fall prey to thermodynamics (entropy). Your other workstreams will suffer. This is natural. This HAS to be accepted. It's the cost of mastery

It's in trying to claw back this sense of control and all around optimization.

This is a lesson that I'm still continually grappling with. I'd like to think (and you can see this in my public facing Q3 goals document I sent to the blog) that I can do everything, perfectly, all at once.

And the reality is, you just have to stop juggling. Let the other plates crash and shatter. Maintain mastery over your one thing and be mediocre at a bunch of others on your to do list.

3) Mismanagement of health and energy

Another duh, but a hard one to master. If you're not healthy you can't focus. Get yo greens in. It's hard to find the immediate motivation for working at your health but it will damage you in the long run if you don't do so. Neglecting your personal life is also a very easy place to lose energy.

4) Misaligned environment

If you haven't set up the right work space to focus, or PEOPLE that will encourage you to dedicate and devote disproportionate time to your one thing, you will fail. Tidy your office. Make your (intensely prioritized to do list) top of mind in view.

Final tidbits of career advice for success

Gary prescribes three final pieces of guidance so you can be more productive.

1) Move from "E" to "P"

If you ask someone to chop down lumber from a forest, the "entrepreneurial" (E) person grabs the axe right away and heads off. The "purposeful person (P) finds a chainsaw (I sort of disagree with the definition of entrepreneurial here, but the metaphor still stands).

It's not enough to be proactive. You have to be THOUGHTFUL about your approach. Point your ship in the right direction before you undock and set sail. That's going to help you be more productive instead of just spin your wheels

2) Be accountable

Get a coach. You are going to have blind spots. Accountable people take ownership over their outcomes, ESPECIALLY of the one thing. Life is too short to weasel your way out of being 100% accountable. That's a true success habit of a productive person.

3) Build Mastery.

The "OK plateau" is why most people suck at driving and type at sub 100. They hit this point where their skill level is simply "ok enough" and they no longer want to put in the Deliberate Practice to get better. This builds into the above piece of getting a coach, and probably an accountability buddy

Keller ends with a pretty beautiful story:

A father was hanging out with a son and wanted to come up with a creative puzzle.

He tore up a picture of the globe in a newspaper, laid out the shredded pieces for his son on the coffee table, and asked him to reassemble the image.

The father looked away to go finish his cup of coffee. Within 2 minutes, the son was done. The dad was astonished and asked HOW?!

The son responds saying that he was really struggling with the continents and countries-- they were vast, unrecognizable, and unwieldy, but at one point he accidentally dropped a piece and crawled under the glass table. He saw on the underside of the pieces there was a ripped up photo of a man's face.

..."when I put the picture of the man together, the whole world came together."

To change the world, start with yourself. Start with your one thing.

My book implementation action plan

Upon writing this book summary, I've also realized that execution is everything. So I've plugged in the ONE THING's focusing question at various vertical levels of my planning.

Quarterly: what is my ONE THING in the next three months?

Weekly: what are my ONE THINGS for each of the major categories of my life

Daily: what is my ONE thing (denoted with a star in my daily planning in complice) and how can I time block between the hours of 7AM and 12PM

Another piece is getting INPUT. I run a plan by my coaches and ask them what to deprioritize (sadly, often its this blog lol)

Some Final Quotes to Ponder

“Be like a postage stamp— stick to one thing until you get there.”
“The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.” —Bob Hawke
“It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”
"Time on one thing means time away from another. This makes balance impossible."
"Success is actually a short race—a sprint fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in and take over."
"Put all your eggs in one basket, most eggs broken are because they are being held in too many different baskets"
"You finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls—family, health, friends, integrity—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered... Do you really think you can ever get back a child’s bedtime story or birthday? Is a party for a five-year-old with imaginary pals the same as dinner with a teenager with high-school friends? Is an adult attending a young child’s soccer game on par with attending a soccer game with an adult child?"