Anti-FOMO book: The ONE thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

By | October 29, 2016

This book is all about focus. It is like the Pareto Principle to the extreme. The authors argue that by narrowing your focus to ONE thing in each area of your life, you will be happier, more successful, and find things easier. It turns out that pseudo multi-tasking, and not thinking about what is most important in your life – just makes you tired and miserable. True. Sounds overly simplistic, I know, but that’s why this is effective. This is undeniably an anti-FOMO book. The ONE Thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.

“If you chase two rabbits you will not catch either one.” Russian proverb.

Focus gives you leverage. This is a platitude that we all intellectually understand, but probably don’t follow. As a simple analogy, Keller tells this story of dominos. A single domino is capable of knocking down another Domino 50% larger. 1.5x. We all know the power of geometric growth and can see where this example is going. By the 23rd domino, it is taller than the Eiffel Tower and by the 57th domino you can build a bridge to the moon.


 The point of the book is to isolate the first domino in every part of your life. 

“It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in the world.” – Og Mandino

As consultants, we are continually using data to demonstrate the Pareto principle to our clients; showing the non-linear relationship between inputs and outputs. 80/20 Rule. Stop peanut-buttering costs, right? Stop creating more SKUs which drive up inventory costs while providing nothing to revevenue. What happens if we eat our own dog-food? Apply this to our own lives? What happens if we take it from 80 / 20 /  1. Pareto principle on crack?

What is the ONE thing that will drive 80% of your results? Consultants are trained to put things in buckets, but this takes it further and asks you what is the ONE thing? What is the first domino?


1. Kill the COULD DO. Keller notes that we all make lists and try to “manage our time”, but he argues that we should do less. Get rid of the COULD DOs. Focus on the SHOULD DOs. This is the only way you can actually do what is most important. Major parallel with Cal Newport’s ideas around Deep Work (affiliate link).

2. Go small (or new). This is a concept that I read/hear so many times it is like an echo chamber of guru advice. Seth Godin talks about addressing the smallest profitable market you can serve; how to build a tribe here. Peter Thiel talks about creating monopolies in smaller markets in his book Zero to One (affiliate link). Also, let’s not forget that MBA classic Blue Ocean Strategy (affiliate link).

3. Say no. Find a smart way to drive your own calendar, thoughts, and actions. Don’t make yourself a victim to circumstance, other people’s agendas, boring, useless stuff.

The modern office is a carnival of distracting multi-tasking demands. . Multi-tasking is a scam.  Gary Keller

4. Be selectively disciplined. My favorite concept in the book goes like this. . . by narrowing your focus to ONE thing, you actually need LESS discipline to succeed because you can start to create habits – one after the other – that do the job for you. Habits are easier to follow than sheer force-of-will discipline. This is a really appetizing concept because we are all a little lazy at heart. If we can simplify and hard-wire into habits, then AMEN.

Creating habits – to me – seems way less onerous than constantly monitoring and prioritizing everything. When we are unfocused and distracted – we are continually playing a guilty trip on ourselves and trying to be more discipline. Yuk.

Great graph below that shows that pure discipline is needed in the beginning, then after day 66 or so, habits start to kick in. Graphics from The ONE Thing (affiliate link).

Keller tells the story of Michael Phelps – super Olympian – who has serious ADHD – but once his coach saw his talent and focused him on ONE thing, he swam and swam and swam. It’s all about isolating the ONE thing. Finding the first domino.

5. Do the ONE thing in the morning. Keller notes that willpower is a resource that diminishes as it is used up.  You wake up with a full battery of willpower in the morning, but then capacity goes down slowly all day; this certainly explains all the late-night TV watching, binging on snacks, and watching bad Internet. His answer may seem overly simple – do your ONE thing early in the day before the willpower is gone.

6. Think big. This is something that Peter Thiel (Tim Ferriss interview) is constantly provoking people to do. He argues that most of the developed society seems to think that we have technologically, and culturally plateau – as if there are no more frontiers or secrets to uncover. Thiel pushes us to think bigger, so does Peter Diamadias (Tim Ferriss interview) of X Prize, and so does Gary Keller. Amazing examples of thinking big in the book:

  • Arthur Guiness signs a 9,000 year lease on his first brewery.
  • J.K. Rowling thought through 7 years of Hogwarts before writing the first chapter.
  • Sam Walton thought through his estate planning before opening his first store – saving $11-$13 billion in estate taxes. Sheesh.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket quote is all wrong. I tell you “put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” Look around and take notice; men who do that do not fail often. It is easy to watch and carry the one basket. It is trying to carry too many baskets that breaks most eggs in this country. -Andrew Carnegie

When I explained the premise of the book over dinner tonight to my wife, this was her main question. How do you discover your ONE thing? That is the critical question right? Keller’s response is this focusing question:

What is the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary. – Gary Keller

7. What is the first domino? In my simple way of thinking, the question can be re-written, “What is the first domino that will start knocking over the other dominos?”

What’s the ONE thing for your:

  • Spiritual life
  • Personal life
  • Key relationships
  • Physical life
  • Business life
  • Work life
  • Financial life

Lots more in the book about purpose, priorities, and productivity. All good stuff – but like a good friend of mine says, “Business books are kind of the same; you just need to read the first 20 pages.”  For the 2nd half of this book – he is completely right. For me, this is challenging my thinking to figure out what the ONE thing (starting domino) for each area of my life. Will report back shortly. Good night.

Have you thought about your ONE thing?


2 thoughts on “Anti-FOMO book: The ONE thing, by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

  1. Bhavishya Kanjhan

    It’s a valid point. We’ve seen examples of executives who have focused on just one thing – Zuckerberg, Gates, etc. However, you do have the others who are carrying multiple baskets. Jobs had done this with Pixar and Apple (for a while), Dorsey and Musk continue to do this. I realize that success needn’t be exclusive to either model. However, taking just one basket seems like a rather large risk which multiple baskets – at least mentally – help mitigate. Thoughts?

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      Completely see your point. Still thinking about your question, but a few points in support of LESS diversification:
      – Choosing the right ONE thing is critically important. Keller talks about finding BIG and SPECIFIC goals. Not small and general, but BIG and specific. There is power in BIG (large enough to matter, make a difference, lead a tribe), and SPECIFIC (actionable, correlated to results, measureable)
      – Perhaps this varies at different parts in your life, like an S-curve. So, when you are at the beginning of the ramp stage, it makes sense to be really “heads down” and focus on one thing.
      – Believe this also argues heavily for “execution” and grit. In the age of limitless information, there is a lot of “re-packaging” of stuff, switching between choices, and general indecision.
      – By pursuing something to the end, you will get competent at it. You will gain skills, connections, point of view, and expertise. That is all fungible to other opportunities.
      – In the United States – in particular – the cost of failure is quite low. For entrepreneurs, a failure early in life is sometimes seen as a pre-requisite for experience. It’s not hard to “pivot” and convert that failure into the next winner.
      – Great question – need to think more on it.

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