Books With Impact: The One Thing

The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered You Need a Budget by Jesse Mecham.

If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one. – Proverb

Sarah and I are very passionate about the goal of financial independence. We want to reach a point where we no longer have to work to earn money and instead have complete freedom over our time. That’s a powerful and important goal for us.

The challenge is… that it’s not the only goal. Even more challenging is the fact that sometimes other goals run contrary to our financial independence goal, meaning that if we make progress on one goal, it means losing progress on another goal. This challenge doesn’t just exist in a broad sense, but in a “what am I going to do today?” sense as well. I can choose to work toward any number of goals today, but the truth is that progress on some of my goals means no progress or even potentially negative progress on other goals.

The more I realized how true this phenomenon was in my life, the harder it became (for a time) to figure out what things to work for. It became clear that I needed some method of prioritizing goals, but it was always an uncertain thing and I often wound up choosing to focus on and work on goals that seemed to have the least negative impact on other goals, even if that goal wasn’t as important to me.

This is the exact conundrum that The ONE Thing addresses.

The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, presents an argument that splitting your focus between multiple things usually results in failure while recognizing at the same time that most people want to succeed in multiple areas of life. It presents a pretty interesting system for managing to pull off both things, one that I had already started doing on my own in some ways before reading this book. However, this book gave me a lot of food for thought and strategies for balancing personal finance success with success in other areas of life.

Let’s dig in.

The ONE Thing

The book starts off by revealing what I consider to be the key point of the book: if you want to really succeed at something, go small with it. Don’t bite off some kind of enormous elaborate goal; rather, choose something small and straightforward and do it as well as you possibly can.

Let’s say your big goal is to pay off all of your debts, for example. If you really want to succeed at this, the best thing you can do is think small. How can I pay off the smallest of these debts as fast as I possibly can? What would I need to do to achieve that? What’s the most important thing I named there? That’s your one thing.

The authors repeatedly hammer home the point that extraordinary results are achieved by making your focus as small as possible. If you want to really succeed at something, focus on something really specific and small and do it with excellence.

The Domino Effect

When you succeed wildly at a small, specific thing, it generally causes success at something bigger, and that bigger success often causes an even bigger one, and so on. For example, if you’re wildly successful at cutting your spending each and every day, it’s very likely that at the end of the month, you’ll be able to pay off a debt, and if you’re able to successfully pay off a debt every month or two, it won’t be long before you’re debt free.

Keller and Papasan refer to this as the “domino effect.” If you succeed really well at knocking over a tiny domino that’s lined up in front of a set of progressively larger dominos, you’re likely going to knock over all of the dominos. The tiny domino has enough power to knock over the small domino, the small domino has enough power to knock over the medium sized domino, the medium sized domino has enough power to knock over the large domino, and the large domino has enough power to knock over the giant domino.

The trick is lining up all of the dominos correctly and then applying enough force to that first small domino. If you really, really nail keeping your spending under control and using that money for debt repayment, then you’re going to knock over all the dominos and quickly race toward debt freedom.

Success Leaves Clues

If you look at virtually anything you’ve ever succeeded at in your life, you’ll eventually find that success came from plugging away at one specific thing until you were successful at it, and then that one thing began to trigger bigger and bigger successes. It’s just a matter of seeing it.

Whenever I got good grades in school, it was usually due to simply sitting down and doing the reading and homework in a deep, thoughtful way. If I focused on the reading and homework until I understood it thoroughly, an A was pretty much a given.

When I built up The Simple Dollar, I really only focused on one thing: writing lots of articles about personal finance and sharing each one with a few people when I finished it. Everything else came as a result of that.

When I paid off my debts, as I noted above, I focused my attention fully on preserving and adding money to my checking account through lifestyle changes. That money went toward debts and those debts went away in short order.

Look at the things you really succeeded at. The core of that success likely came down to plugging away at one narrow thing.

The next six sections focus on how we deceive ourselves away from the one thing.

Everything matters Equally

We often want to believe that all of the things going on in our life matter equally and that they all deserve attention and focus right now. The problem with that is that if you split your attention and focus constantly, you’re never able to bring intense focus to a single thing, the type of focus that brings bigger success.

The key is extreme prioritization. Whenever you decide what to do next, decide what one thing is the most important for achieving what you want to achieve in life and make that the focus until it’s complete. Nothing else matters until that thing is complete. No interruptions, no secondary priorities, nothing.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t aim for multiple things in life, but it does mean that you are able to very clearly prioritize things and that when you figure out what the thing you really need to work on next is, you can focus in on that like a laser beam. You have to prioritize your to-do list and then do whatever is at the top of that list with focus and excellence.


Multitasking seems like a good idea on the surface, but all it really means is that you’re completing two or more tasks in an extremely mediocre way rather than completing one task really well.

Simply put, avoid multitasking as much as you possibly can. Focus on the one task that’s most important and do it with all of your focus.

This includes distractions of all kinds. If your cell phone is sitting there with notifications coming in, you’re essentially multitasking as you wait for notifications and check them when they arrive. Turn off your cell phone completely, or at least all non-insanely urgent notifications. Close the door. Block distracting websites.

This idea is why I turn off my cell phone all the time and have a shortcut to turn off all notifications at a single tap. When I’m shopping for groceries, the only possible distraction I want is a text from my wife (who sometimes says “OH YES PLEASE GET THIS AT THE STORE!”). When I’m exercising, I want no distractions at all. When I’m writing an article, I want to focus on nothing but the article. I want to focus on the task at hand.

A Disciplined Life

You don’t have to be a super-disciplined person to be successful. Rather, you just need to have enough discipline to keep doing a simple thing until it becomes habit – a normal part of your life. That’s it.

We often view big changes and big achievements as having been the result of tons and tons of hard work (that part is true) and discipline, but the truth is that it’s more of a matter of routine than discipline. Successful people develop a bunch of individual habits that point them in the direction they want to go, and the only role discipline plays in it is to keep reinforcing those little individual things until they become habits.

Success, in the end, is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right. It’s more important to find one really impactful thing and nail it than to try to do seven things, fail at two of them, and do the rest in a mediocre fashion. Find the one that actually matters, do it as well as you can, and keep doing it with discipline until it becomes habit. That’s what builds success.

There are a lot of normal habits and routines in my life that keep Sarah and I moving down a path toward financial independence. These normal habits and routines are, in many cases, different ones than how I started out. Things like how we shop for groceries, how we entertain ourselves, and how we prepare and eat meals have changed radically in the last several years. Those changes didn’t all happen at once – they took willpower and discipline to achieve – but once they became normal habits, it didn’t require discipline any more.

Willpower Is Always on Will-Call

We only have so much willpower in a given day. It’s like a rechargeable battery – once it’s out of juice, one’s willpower goes straight down the tubes. It needs recharging. You can’t just always have willpower – it doesn’t work that way.

That’s why you should strive to use your willpower on the things that are the most important things in your life, and then trust that the habits and routines you’ve established (that don’t require willpower) will keep you moving forward on the other things in your life.

What’s the absolute most important thing you need to do today to move forward on the things you want to achieve in life? Use your willpower to accomplish that. Then, if you have some left, move on to the next most important thing. Focus on those things singularly. When your willpower runs out, trust in the habits you’ve established to keep you on an even keel until you can recharge.

A Balanced Life

The idea of work-life balance (or balancing out all of the areas of your life) is one that’s pretty popular these days. The idea behind it is that you should always be aiming for the best possible balance at all times between the various areas of your life.

Keller and Papasan argue that this is a bad idea. A much better approach is to look at the areas of your life like counterbalances. You absolutely should give intense focus to a certain area of your life for certain periods, but once you do that, you need to counterbalance it and put other areas front and center for a while.

Think about your favorite musical act. They typically don’t tour all the time or come out with a new album every few months. Rather, they go through periods of creative work and recording, periods of touring, and periods where they focus on other areas of their life like family and relationships. They do one thing with intense focus, then move on to a completely different thing, then yet another thing, but those things rotate around to help keep things in overall balance.

In other words, your life should be balanced on a grand scale, but over shorter periods, balance really doesn’t help you achieve things.

A good example of this comes from my own life. Over the course of a given year, my focus shifts quite a lot. During the summer, when my wife isn’t teaching and my kids aren’t in school, my life has a very family-oriented focus, with little bursts of work over short periods as needed. Because of that, spring often has a huge focus on writing, as I’m trying to get a lot of content ready for the summer months, and winter is spent reading and researching, and fall often is the season where I add other counterbalances as needed.

Big Is Bad

Quite often, when a big, audacious goal is suggested, people shy away from it. It seems like a tremendous time and energy investment when most people are looking for the straightforward easy to achieve wins in their life.

Keller and Papasan propose looking at anything you achieve in life as a rectangle. The bigger the area of the rectangle, the bigger the achievement. However, the dimensions of the rectangle are determined by two factors – one is thinking and planning, and the other is effort. Those are the two elements you put into a goal, and if you put in roughly equal amounts of both, you can accomplish a huge goal with less effort than you might think.

Many people fall into the trap of looking at a big goal solely in terms of effort. They’ve put little thought into the goal and thus, from that perspective, it looks like a very, very long and thin triangle, where you’re putting in tons and tons of effort to not achieve very much. That’s a mistake. Most goals have an optimum balance of thought/planning and effort and it’s usually far more thought/planning than most people give a goal at initial glance.

I like the analogy that Abraham Lincoln uses when discussing chopping down a tree. If you give him six hours to chop down that tree, he’d spend four of those hours sharpening the axe. The axe sharpening is the thought/planning part of things; the actual chopping is the effort part. By roughly balancing the two, Lincoln’s able to chop down the tree without killing himself with effort and has an axe that’s still fairly sharp to boot.

The next three sections focus on productivity.

The Focusing Question

As noted earlier, most achievements come down to a combination of thinking/planning and effort, but most people strongly overvalue the effort and undervalue the thinking and planning when considering an activity. This results in a lot of wasted effort.

How does one overcome this? Keller and Papasan propose using a key focusing question before starting to apply effort. Whenever you’re asking yourself what to do next, ask yourself the following question.

What’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary?

That’s the thing you should be doing, because it means that all other subsequent tasks require less effort and thus less energy and discipline to actually do them.

For example, in my professional life, the answer to that question is almost always “write great, relatable content.” If I do that, then everything else in my professional life becomes easier and some things become unnecessary. I don’t have to talk to editors. I don’t have to try to “sell” a mediocre article – it basically sells itself.

This question is something I take to heart every day when I think about what I want to achieve that day. How? Well, that’s dealt with in the next section.

The Success Habit

The “habit” that Keller and Papasan are talking about here is that you simply get in the habit of using that focusing question for every area of your life with regards to the big things you want in those areas.

Let’s say, for example, that my goal in my financial life is to get to financial independence as quickly as possible. I simply ask myself “What’s the ONE thing I can do to move myself toward financial independence such that by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary?”

Each morning, I usually ask myself that question with regards to the big goals I have every area of my life – what’s the one big thing I need to do? That becomes my to-do list for the day. I then prioritize that list based on which area I really want to succeed at above all else today.

The question really works at any time scale you want. I like to do a weekly review and I find myself using that question when setting plans for the next week or the next month. What’s the ONE thing I can do this week with regards to this particular goal of mine that by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary?

The Path to Great Answers

The focusing question usually leads to an answer of some kind that forms a goal for you. In short timeframes, it’s usually obvious what needs to be done to make it happen, but when you’re thinking about longer timeframes, you’re often going to follow up that goal with asking yourself how on earth you’re going to achieve it.

Let’s start with answering the focusing question over a longer time frame – setting a longer-term goal, in other words. Keller and Papasan strongly encourage setting big and specific goals. In other words, these are goals that will be difficult to achieve, but it’s very clear what you’re aiming for in terms of achieving them.

I’ll use a physical health goal I have for myself right now. Right now, my goal is to earn a black belt in taekwondo in the next eighteen months with a strongly successful black belt test. It’s a big and specific goal. A black belt test is a grueling event that stresses your physical fitness as well as the many techniques one has learned over the course of years of lessons – it’s not easy. My school does not hand out black belts unless you have put in an absurd amount of work.

So, what exactly does a really successful test look like? What do I need to do to get from where I’m at to someone capable of pulling off such a test? The answer is to ask experts. I have been asking every high level black belt I know what kinds of things they want to see at a really good black belt test. What do the testers do well? What are you looking for? After that, if I need to, I ask what I need to do to make those things happen. How do I get my kicks higher? How do I improve the important aspects of my fitness? From here, we start to find answers and exercises I can do that directly answer the one question on a shorter timescale and start to inform what I need to do each day to ensure I have a great test.

The next five sections focus on results, which Keller and Papasan illustrate using an iceberg metaphor. The part of our lives that people see is the productivity, but that’s actually just the tip of the iceberg, which is made up of priority and, below that, purpose.

Live with Purpose

Why are you here? It seems like an enormous question, one that we often feel unequipped to answer and prefer not to think about. There are times when we all feel purposeless, I think.

Your purpose is the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you going when you’re tired and worn down. The large bulk of things you do in life should be in service of that purpose.

At times in my life, I’ve felt like I had an answer to that question. At other times, I felt like I didn’t. That sense of purpose is not going to remain constant – it’s definitely going to change.

So what do you do when you don’t have an answer? Pick a direction. Pick something that seems like it might be compelling and aim to do your best at it for a while. See if it grows into a true purpose; if it doesn’t, choose something else that seems like it might be compelling.

Live by Priority

Note that the heading says priority, not prioritits.

What is the one thing you can do right now to help you achieve whatever matters most to you in life? That’s what you should be doing right this moment.

Most of this book talks about longer-term goal setting, such as coming up with big, specific goals for yourself. That doesn’t really help you prioritize what you need to do next, though.

Keller and Papasan argue that the “what is the one thing you can do right now” is actually nested inside a series of questions, like a Russian doll. The one thing you need to do right now is an element of the answer to the question of what one thing you need to do today. That one thing you need to do today is an element of the answer to the question of the one thing you need to do this week. The one thing this week is a part of the one thing this month. The one thing this month is a part of the one thing this quarter or this year, and that’s a part of the overall goal.

In short, they’re pitching the 5-4-3-2-1 goal setting method which I discussed a few weeks ago. It’s all about breaking down the one big thing into the one thing you can do right now.

Live for Productivity

Once you’ve thought about it and know what that one thing is, productivity is all about doing that one thing. It’s about action, whereas the other parts are about thought and planning.

The authors advocate strongly for time blocking here. Time blocking is a strategy I’ve discussed in depth before on The Simple Dollar. It boils down to assigning blocks of time throughout your day to specific purposes. Keller and Papasan advocate for first assigning time blocks for your downtime (eating, rest, sleep, exercise), then a large time block for your one thing, then a time block for planning your day (especially your one thing), then time blocks for whatever other areas of your life need a little attention.

So, let’s say you’re at a point in your life where you need to focus on getting your career off the ground. You have a big career goal and you’ve boiled that down to the one big thing you need to get done today that will make everything else that follows easier. First, you block off time for your downtime – adequate time for eating, sleeping, hygiene, rest, and exercise. Then, you block off a large portion of time for your one thing for the day, more than enough time to do that one thing with excellence. After that, block off some time at the start to plan the day in more detail. With the time you have remaining, block off the other goals in your life (and the one thing you want to achieve today in those areas).

Within those time blocks, kill distractions as much as you possibly can and bear down on the task at hand. You have to protect those time blocks; if you can’t do it, add in some time blocks for things like “other work,” but try to give yourself at least one big fat block for the one thing you need to accomplish in the one area of your life you’re most focused on right now.

The Three Commitments

There are three things you need to strongly commit to in order to really make this “ONE thing” philosophy work.

Follow the Path of Mastery This is the understanding that anything you really want to achieve in life is much more about the journey than the destination. Often, the “one thing” is really about building up a particular skill to a high level. Often, the one thing you can do that would make everything else easier is to build up a particular skill through deliberate practice. We rarely express our one thing that way, but it’s still true. As we try to achieve that big specific thing we’re aiming for, we should be building mastery of particular skills along the way. That’s part of the journey.

Move from “E” to “P” Rather than aiming for “good enough,” which Keller and Papasan refer to as “E” or “entrepreneurial,” you should aim for becoming as skilled at something as you can be, which they call “P” or “purposeful.” It is a constant commitment to growing, building skill, and improving, even when you’re already “good enough” to achieve a low level of success. Lifelong learning and deliberate practice are the tools.

Live the Accountability Cycle Your life should involve regular reviews and an underlying understanding that you and you alone are responsible for whether you succeed or not. There will always be obstacles and unexpected events. Do you let those things be an excuse for not taking action yourself?

The Four Thieves

The authors also identify four thieves of productivity that you should avoid.

Inability to Say “No” You have to be willing and able to say no to some requests. It is far better to say “no” early on rather than saying “yes” to a commitment that you don’t really have the space to take on. Saying “yes” means that you’re saying you genuinely have room in your life to do this new thing with excellence; if that’s not true, you need to say “no” or else consign much of what you do to mediocrity.

Fear of Chaos If you focus intensely on one thing, other areas of your life might feel chaotic at times. Other things that might feel important – but not as vital as that one thing – don’t get done. That’s okay. We all have things that don’t get done. If you find that a particular area of your life is becoming too chaotic, make that your focused area for a while. Otherwise, just strive to minimize the chaos.

Poor Health Habits You’ve got to be healthy or else you won’t be productive. Eat a good diet. Get plenty of sleep. Get some exercise. Practice good hygiene. Meditate and/or pray. Spend time with loved ones. These aren’t optional things.

Environment Doesn’t Support Your Goals If the people and the places in your life don’t support the big goals you’re setting for yourself, at least one of those things has to change or else you won’t achieve anything. It may be that you need another goal right now. It may be that you need to rethink who is in your life. It may be that you need to move to another place or find another environment to work. If you don’t have good people and good places, you’re not going to do good work.

The Journey

In the end, you are the first domino. It has to start with you.

You have to decide to sit down, figure out what the one thing you most need to focus on right now, and what that translates into in terms of daily action. You have to eliminate distractions and make uninterrupted blocks of time so that you can make real progress on that one thing.

It’s up to you. There’s no magic solution that will make it happen.

Final Thoughts

This is a really solid book, chock full of good ideas for helping yourself figure out what you want to achieve in life and how to actually make it happen. The ideas within apply to all kinds of goals and there is enough modularity that you can definitely pull out pieces that work for you and use them, though most of them tend to work best when used together.

I found that as I was reading it, I was already doing many of the things, though I hadn’t really articulated them as a whole coherent system like this. Things like time blocking, breaking down big specific goals into progressively smaller things, and eliminating distractions were already a part of my life.

The piece that really clicked with me with this book was the focusing question, something I’ve started to use quite often in my life. I figure out what big, specific things I want to achieve in life, and then I whittle them down into real goals and tasks by asking myself what’s the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it everything else becomes easier or unnecessary.

It becomes a powerful director of personal habits, such as ensuring that I keep my spending low. It helps me figure out how to actually spend my time in meaningful ways – writing good quality content (and trying to get better at it along the way), performing meaningful exercise, engaging in my marriage and my parenting in meaningful ways, and so on. What’s really important in each of those areas? It’s a mix of learning what that is and then prioritizing it, and understanding that I can usually be amazing in one or two areas at a time, but if I try to do it in all areas all the time, I will fail and fail badly.

This is a great book, well worth your time if these are the kinds of things on your mind.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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