The market for self-help and productivity improvement books is evergreen; there is always a new technique, a new theory and a new ‘workbook’, to help you achieve more. Last fortnight, I reviewed Deep Work that explained the path to higher productivity especially for those who are doing something deeply analytical or creative which is spread over months. This time, I review one more interesting book, The One Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, meant for those who want to achieve extraordinary results in any field.
Keller started a business; was working too hard; and ended up in a hospital. He then hired a consultant / coach who fixed things for him by recruiting 14 new people (Keller was that overworked, without realising it). When the business started doing well, he stepped down from the leadership position to focus more on the productivity of his colleagues and his own. While working with his top executives individually to build their careers and businesses, he would end with a recap of the handful of things they were agreeing to accomplish before the next session.
Keller writes: “Unfortunately, many would get most of them done, but not necessarily what mattered most. Results suffered. Frustration followed. So, in an effort to help them succeed, I started shortening my list: If you can do just three things this week. …If you can do just two things this week. …Finally, out of desperation, I went as small as I could possibly go and asked: ‘What’s the ONE thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?’ And the most awesome thing happened. Results went through the roof.”
And the seeds of a bestseller were sown.
The logic of ‘one thing’ is obvious but not until someone explains it to you. Keller asks: “If everyone has the same number of hours in a day, why do some people seem to get so much more done than others? How do they achieve more?” The heart of their approach is to get to the heart of things. While keeping the big picture in mind, they focus on the smallest thing, here and now. “When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, your approach should always be the same. Go small. ‘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.” (emphasis mine)
Keller argues that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus. “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.”
Sounds logical. After all, you have only limited time and energy. It is commonsensical not to spread it thin. For this, you need to be doing fewer things that are more impactful rather than doing many small things. The problem with trying to do too many things at the same time, argues Keller, is that even if it works, it takes its toll: stress, long hours, lost sleep, poor diet, no exercise and missed moments with family and friends.
‘The one thing’ has been the key to success for individuals and companies alike, whether it is Google (search), Starbucks (coffee), Microsoft (windows software) and Intel (microchips). “The Adolph Coors Company” points out Keller “grew 1,500 percent from 1947 to 1967 with only one product, made in a single brewery.” Apple towers above them all. Its extraordinary ‘one thing’ continued to thrive while it created another extraordinary ‘one thing’. “From 1998 to 2012, Apple’s ONE Thing moved from Macs to iMacs to iTunes to iPods to iPhones... Those lines, plus others, continued to be refined while the current ONE Thing created a well-documented halo effect, making the user more likely to adopt the whole Apple product family.”
The Six Lies That Come in the Way of ‘The One Thing’
The idea of ‘one thing’ is nothing other than extreme and continuous prioritisation. But most of us don’t prioritise. Why? Because we are blinded by six lies, according to Keller. These are:
1. Everything Matters Equally: They do not. It’s one thing that matters in a particular framework of time. But, since we do not see that, we have To-do lists which tend to be long and ‘success lists’ which are short. “One pulls you in all directions; the other aims you in a specific direction. One is a disorganized directory and the other is an organized directive. If a list isn’t built around success, then that’s not where it takes you. If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.”
2. Multi-tasking: In 2009, Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University, set out to find out how well so-called multi-taskers did. He and his team of researchers gave questionnaires to 262 students divided into high and low multi-taskers. “It turns out that high multi-taskers are suckers for irrelevancy,” Nass found out. “They were outperformed on every measure… Multi-taskers were just lousy at everything.”
3. A Disciplined Life: Achievement doesn’t come to a full-time disciplined person, says Keller, where every action is planned and controlled. “Success is actually a short race—a sprint fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in and take over… Actually, we need the habit of doing it. And we need just enough discipline to build the habit.”
4. Willpower Is Always on Call:
Stanford University professor Baba Shiv divided 165 students into two groups and asked them to memorise either a two-digit or a seven-digit number. Then, the students were asked to go another room where they would recall the number but, along the way, they choose a chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit-salad. Nearly twice the number of students asked to memorise the seven-digit number, choose the cake. “This tiny extra cognitive load was just enough to prevent a prudent choice. The implications are staggering. The more we use our mind, the less willpower we have. So, use it for ‘the one thing’, the first thing in the morning."
5. A Balanced Life: This is a popular mantra; but will it hinder you from achieving extraordinary results? Balance is something in the middle and, as Keller says, “The problem with living in the middle is that it prevents you from making extraordinary time commitments to anything… The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes.”
6. Big Is Bad: Thinking big helps take a leap of possibility. “It’s the office intern visualizing the boardroom or a penniless immigrant imagining a business revolution. It’s about bold ideas that might threaten your comfort zones but simultaneously reflect your greatest opportunities. Believing in big frees you to ask different questions, follow different paths, and try new things…” Thinking big is essential to achieving extraordinary results.
Once you know that these popular ideas are wrong for achieving exceptional results, you have ditched the baggage holding you back. You are ready to get highly productive. For that, Gary advises, train your mind to ask this simple question: What is the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything will be easier or unnecessary. The question may be about the whole year, month or a day. This question “is so deceptively simple that its power is easily dismissed by anyone who doesn’t closely examine it. But that would be a mistake. This question can lead you to answer not only ‘big picture questions (Where am I going? What target should I aim for?) but also ‘small focus’ ones as well (What must I do right now to be on the path to getting the big picture? Where’s the bull’s-eye?)… It shows you how big your life can be and just how small you must go to get there. It’s both a map for the big picture and a compass for your smallest next move.” This is a great book for someone interested in exceptional results or simply much higher productivity.