The One thing

“The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan is filled with valuable insights that can significantly impact how we approach our goals and tasks.

one quote that summarizes a lot of this page “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” Alexander Graham Bell

Here are five key takeaways from the book:


  1. The Focusing Question: One of the central concepts of the book is the Focusing Question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” This question is designed to help you constantly realign your focus to the most impactful task or goal.
  2. The Domino Effect: The authors use the analogy of a line of dominoes to explain how focusing on the most important task creates a chain reaction of productivity and success. Just as a single domino can initiate the toppling of many others, focusing on your “one thing” can set off a cascade of positive outcomes.
  3. The 80/20 Principle: The book emphasizes the Pareto Principle, which suggests that 80% of results come from 20% of efforts. By identifying and focusing on the tasks that yield the most significant results, you can achieve more with less effort.
  4. Time Blocking: Keller and Papasan advocate for time blocking as a method to ensure dedicated focus on your “one thing.” This involves setting aside a specific time in your schedule when you concentrate solely on your most important task, free from distractions.
  5. Discipline and Habit Formation: The book stresses the importance of discipline in the early stages of focusing on your one thing. Over time, this discipline transforms into a habit, making it easier to maintain focus and achieve consistent results.

The Myth of Multitasking and the Cost of Task-Switching

One of the central tenets of “The One Thing” is the critique of multitasking, a practice often glorified in our fast-paced, productivity-obsessed culture. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking does not equate to efficiency. In fact, it often leads to the opposite – decreased productivity and quality of work. This inefficiency primarily stems from the hidden cost of task-switching.

When we multitask, we aren’t truly performing multiple tasks simultaneously. Instead, we are rapidly switching our focus from one task to another. Each of these switches comes with a cognitive cost, often referred to as the “switching cost.” Our brains need time to change gears when moving from one activity to another. This adjustment period, though it may seem insignificant in the moment, accumulates over time, leading to a substantial loss in productivity.

Moreover, task-switching can degrade the quality of our work. When we continuously shift our attention, we’re never fully engaged with any single task. This lack of deep focus can result in errors, lower-quality outcomes, and a superficial understanding or execution of tasks. It’s akin to skimming the surface of the water without ever diving in to explore the depth.

The cognitive load of juggling multiple tasks also leads to increased mental fatigue. When our brains are constantly redirected, it can lead to a sense of exhaustion, stress, and even burnout. This is counterproductive not only in terms of immediate output but also in terms of long-term well-being and job satisfaction.

In essence, multitasking is a deceptive practice. It promises increased productivity but often results in more time spent, lower quality of work, and increased stress. The philosophy of “The One Thing” challenges this norm, encouraging us to embrace the power of focused, sequential task completion. By dedicating our full attention to one task at a time, we can work more efficiently, produce higher-quality results, and reduce the mental strain associated with constant task-switching. This approach underscores the idea that less can indeed be more – less scattering of attention leads to more profound, impactful, and satisfying work.

The Dangers of Multitasking: Driving While Using a Phone

The risks associated with multitasking are not just limited to decreased productivity or quality of work; in some instances, it can be downright dangerous. A quintessential example of this is the act of using a phone while driving. When drivers attempt to multitask in this manner, they are significantly increasing their risk of accidents.

Driving requires a high level of cognitive attention, encompassing everything from spatial awareness and speed control to reaction to sudden changes in the traffic environment. Introducing a phone into this scenario divides the driver’s attention. Texting, browsing, or even talking on the phone while driving leads to a dramatic reduction in the brain’s ability to fully process the task of driving. This divided attention can result in slower reaction times, missed signals, and a decreased awareness of other vehicles and pedestrians.

Statistics and studies consistently show that driving while using a phone is a leading cause of road accidents, often with tragic consequences. This is a clear, real-world example of how attempting to split focus between two complex tasks can lead to severe, sometimes irreversible, outcomes. It underscores the importance of focusing on one task at a time, not just for efficiency and productivity but for safety and well-being. In contexts like driving, multitasking isn’t just unproductive; it’s irresponsible and hazardous. This example amplifies the message of “The One Thing”: the necessity of singular focus in situations where the stakes are high, and the cost of distraction is immense.

The Imperative of Focus in Surgery: The Surgeon’s Need to Avoid Multitasking

Another poignant example of the critical need for singular focus can be found in the operating room with surgeons performing complex procedures. In surgery, the stakes are incredibly high, with patient safety and outcomes directly hinging on the surgeon’s ability to concentrate and perform with precision. Multitasking in such a setting is not just impractical; it’s potentially life-threatening.

Surgical procedures require an intense level of detail, coordination, and situational awareness. Surgeons must be attuned to the nuances of the human body, the specifics of the procedure at hand, and the dynamics of the surgical team. Introducing additional tasks or distractions into this environment can compromise the surgeon’s attention, leading to errors, oversights, and in the worst cases, critical complications. For instance, a surgeon attempting to consult notes or communicate about unrelated matters while performing surgery could miss vital cues or make imprecise movements.

This scenario emphasizes the importance of undivided attention and the dangers of task-splitting in high-stakes professions. It is a testament to the core principle of “The One Thing” – that excellence in any complex, high-precision task demands an unwavering focus. In the case of surgeons, the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time isn’t just a matter of efficiency or productivity; it’s a matter of professional responsibility and ethical practice, where the cost of distraction could be a human life. Such examples powerfully illustrate the broader implications of the principles discussed in the book, extending beyond the realms of personal productivity into areas where focus can have profound and far-reaching consequences.

Test your own multitasking

To test your multitasking ability, try the below simple test

You should time yourself during each iteration to see how long it takes.

For me it took almost twice as long while trying to multask.

Iteration 1 (not mulitasking)

  1. Write the sentence “Hello world a wonderful day”.
  2. On the next line, write the numbers “12345 67 8 9101112131415”.

Iteration 2 (mulitasking)

  1. Write the letter ‘H’ on line 1.
  2. Write the number ‘1’ on line 2.
  3. Write the next letter ‘e’ on line 1.
  4. Write the next number ‘2’ on line 2.
  5. Continue this pattern until you have written the entire sentence “Hello world a wonderful day” and the numbers “12345 67 8 9101112131415”.

Time yourself during each iteration to see how long it takes to complete the tasks.

This will give you insight into how multitasking impacts your speed and accuracy.

The Parable of the Stonecutter

Once there was a stonecutter. He was tasked with breaking a huge boulder. He struck the rock with his hammer and chisel once, twice, a hundred times, and the boulder remained unyielding. Yet, he persisted, focusing on one specific spot. On the 101st blow, the boulder finally split in two. It wasn’t the final blow that did it, but all 101 hits combined, each one building upon the last. His success was the result of his unwavering focus and persistent effort on one spot, one task.

Video Summary


“The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan teaches us about the power of focusing on our most impactful tasks. It isn’t about doing more things; it’s about doing the right things and doing them well. The parable of the stonecutter mirrors this philosophy. The stonecutter’s success was not a result of a singular, powerful strike but rather the cumulative effect of consistent, focused effort.

In our own lives, whether in personal or professional arenas, the key to extraordinary results lies in identifying and committing to our “one thing.” By asking ourselves the focusing question, embracing the domino effect, applying the 80/20 principle, dedicating time specifically for our crucial tasks, and building disciplined habits, we can achieve more than we thought possible.

The lessons from “The One Thing” are simple yet profound. They challenge the multitasking, ‘busy equals productive’ mindset that often dominates our work culture. Instead, the book guides us towards a more thoughtful, purposeful approach to our goals and actions. By focusing our efforts like the stonecutter, we can create our own series of impactful, successful strikes in life and work.