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What if everything in your life could be boiled down to one thing?

This feels like a crazy idea.

There are 10,000 things to deal with every day. Emails. Social media. Projects. Meetings. Lunches, networking, brand building. There is too much to do and not enough time to do it. You’re harried, hurried, and stressed.

The only way you could simplify to a single thing is by moving to a deserted island with no WiFi.

Or is it?

When you look through history at the greatest and most productive people, there is a common strand: an uncommon ability to focus all their attention on a single thing.

The great creatives and leaders and CEO’s and inventors have all possessed the ability to turn up the intensity of their focus.

The great inventor Alexander Graham Bell put it this way:

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

This is the secret to great performance. Systems and apps and rituals are critical, but without the ability to focus, you’ll find your energies scattered in a thousand different directions. Instead of achieving one great thing that changes your life, you’ll accomplish 100 mediocre things. You’ll clear out your inbox instead of writing a book or finishing a huge project or creating a course.

The ability to hyper-focus is the key to success.

Of course, this sounds fantastic in theory but how do you actually make it work? How do you actually bring focus into your life?

In his book The One Thing, Gary Keller recommends these simple steps:

Step #1: Find Your One Thing


You’re probably familiar with the 80/20 rule. It states that 80% of results come from 20% of activity. 80% of revenue comes from 20% of clients. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people.

When it comes to productivity, Keller takes the 80/20 rule and puts it on steroids. You begin by identifying the 20% activities in any area. You determine which 20% of your actions lead to 80% of your results. Then you take the 20%, break it down again, and find the top 20% of that group. You keep following this process until you’ve identified the ONE thing that is most important for you to do.

The one thing that will generate the biggest results.

If you’re trying to finish a project, it’s the one action that will move it forward the most.

If you’re trying to pay off debt, it’s the one loan that will have the biggest impact.

If you’re trying to write a book, it’s the one writing ritual that will help you make the most progress.

No matter what area of life, finding the one thing is the first step toward achieving maximum productivity and progress.

Andrew Carnegie, something here that describes who he is, put it this way:

And here is the prime condition of success, the great secret— concentrate your energy, thought and capital exclusively upon the business in which you are engaged. Having begun on one line, resolve to fight it out on that line, to lead in it, adopt every improvement, have the best machinery, and know the most about it. The concerns which fail are those which have scattered their capital, which means that they have scattered their brains also.

How did Carnegie become a billionaire? He refused to let his resources scatter across a thousand different things. Rather, he concentrated everything he had – thought, energy, capital – on a single thing.

Gary Keller calls this the ONE question: What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will become easier or unnecessary?

Relentlessly applying this question allows you to boil down the many important things to the one essential thing. It allows you to strip down you “To-Do” list into a “Must-Do” list.

Action Steps:

After creating your to-do list (which will probably be large), identify the 5 most important activities for each area (work, home, health, family, etc.).

Take those 5 activities and boil it down to the three most important.

Determine which of those three activities would make the absolute BIGGEST impact. Which would make everything else either easier or unnecessary?

That single thing becomes your ONE thing. In every area of life, from health to family to business, that is your one thing. The single thing you give your focus to.

Step #2: Relentlessly Pursue Your One Thing

Focus on the goal

Once you’ve identified your one thing, you must relentlessly pursue it above all else. When you pursue your one thing above all else, you begin to experience powerful, cumulative, domino-effect results.

Keller puts it like this:

…extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous. What starts out linear becomes geometric. You do the right thing and then you do the next right thing. Over time it adds up, and the geometric potential of success is unleashed. The domino effect applies to the big picture, like your work or your business, and it applies to the smallest moment in each day when you’re trying to decide what to do next. Success builds on success, and as this happens, over and over, you move toward the highest success possible.

Concentrating all your resources on one thing leads to constantly increasing results. It is exponential growth that increases over time. The results may seem small at first, but the more time you spend on the most important things, the greater the accomplishment.

Keller explains:

You have only so much time and energy, so when you spread yourself out, you end up spread thin. You want your achievements to add up, but that actually takes subtraction, not addition. You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects.

How do you relentlessly pursue your one thing? By making it your top priority every single day. By blocking out time early in the morning every day and excluding everything else during this time.

Shutdown email. Put your phone in airplane mode. Block social media websites and put on noise cancelling headphones. Create a series of pomodoro sessions and don’t stop until you’ve completed them.

Tony Schwartz, something about who he is, puts it this way:

Do the most important thing first in the morning, preferably without interruption, for 60 to 90 minutes, with a clear start and stop time. If possible, work in a private space during this period, or with sound-reducing earphones. Finally, resist every impulse to distraction, knowing that you have a designated stopping point. The more absorbed you can get, the more productive you’ll be. When you’re done, take at least a few minutes to renew.

Multitasking is a complete lie. You simply can’t accomplish much of note if you’re keeping your inbox open, chatting distractedly with a coworker, and keeping an eye on your Twitter feed. Relentless, whole-hearted, distraction-free pursuit of your one thing is the only way.

Action Steps:

Once you’ve determined your one thing, block out the time you will work on that one thing. Ideally, that time will be first thing in the morning.

You may want to consider flowing straight out of your morning ritual into your one thing.

Step #3: String Your One Thing Moments Together

Different ideas thinking

We tend to overestimate what we can achieve in one year and underestimate we can achieve in 5 years. The reality is that 5 year results come from constantly stringing small, powerfully productive moments together.

Keller states it like this:

The truth about success is that our ability to achieve extraordinary results in the future lies in stringing together powerful moments, one after the other. What you do in any given moment determines what you experience in the next. Your “present now” and all “future nows” are undeniably determined by the priority you live in the moment. The deciding factor in determining how you set that priority is who wins the battle between your present and future selves.

Passionately pursuing your one thing probably won’t change your life in a week or a month. But as time goes on, you’ll begin to see stunning accomplishments begin to pile up. As you dedicate yourself to doing the most important work and ignoring the rest, you’ll realize bigger and bigger returns.

One of the greatest examples of the power of pursuing your one thing is author Anthony Trollope. Trollope lived from 1815-1882 and spent his days working as a postmaster. Before departing for work, he spent the first hours of his writing novels.

He noted:

It had at this time become my custom,— and is still my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient of myself,— to write with my watch before me, and to require of myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went…This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year.

When he resigned as postmaster after 33 years, he published over two dozen books.

This is the power of pursuing one thing. It’s a small practice that snowballs until it creates a staggering amount of momentum. It’s how great projects are completed and great careers are built. It’s how the top achievers reach maximum levels of focus and productivity.

Don’t scatter your attention abroad. Focus it intensely on a single, critical thing.

Action Steps:

Resolve to stick to your one thing until it is fully accomplished. Once you’ve finished, identify your next one thing and move on.

The Jerry Seinfeld productivity method can be very helpful in this regard. It involves creating a visual representation of your daily progress and creating a sense of ongoing momentum.

You may want to bring others into your thinking when it comes to your one thing. After all, to achieve complete focus means letting other things go. It means not being as timely with email or social media.

Yes, intense focus requires some sacrifice. But the results it produces far outweigh the sacrifices.


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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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