8 things I took from The ONE Thing

Amy Boylan

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Fewer distractions? Less on my plate? More time for myself?

Sign me up, please.

Promising to uncover the essential truths that’ll boost my productivity, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller The ONE Thing: The Surprising Truth Behind Extraordinary Results seemed like a cracker to start my 2020 reading list.

The book’s suggestion of letting “what matters most to drive your day” sounds deliciously simple. But what does matter most?

Here are 8 things I took from The ONE Thing to get my work and life challenges in order.

1. Ask the ONE question

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

This is the crux of the book. In every area of my life, I’m supposed to ask and answer what Keller calls “The Focusing Question.”

This one thing is my big vision. The thing that will lead me to my extraordinary life. And with that eureka, I can work backwards to plan my ONE thing this year, this week, today and right now.

How does this question help me?

If I think about my copywriting business: continuously pushing my writing skills, so I’m more creative, more compelling and faster at client projects is the order of the day.

With my kids, I have to start small, but the ONE thing might just be meditation at bedtime. A small, snuggly wind down that reminds us all why we like each other after World War Shoe.

And, stack days and weeks of meditation together, and we’re prepped for a more mindful life.

2. Think big and act big to succeed big

“Don’t fear big… Only living big will let you experience your true life and work potential.”

Apple, Guinness, Walmart, Microsoft and a host of world-changing individuals and organisations are listed as examples of extraordinary results.

A section of the book is titled “Blowing up your life.” We’re encouraged to set goals in three categories: do-able, stretch, and exploring the very edge of human possibility.

This caught me by surprise as this is far beyond the blurb’s promise of simplifying life and becoming more productive. At this point, I had a wobble and wondered if the book was about to nosedive into 120-hour weeks and sleep hacking.

But I found relatable ground with discussion of “growth” versus “fixed” mindsets and the reminder that we grow as we achieve new goals.

Flexibility is at the heart of being a freelancer, taking on new topics and projects all the time. And personal growth is the inevitable – and magical – outcome.

3. Find your purpose

“The surest path to achieving lasting happiness happens when you make your life about something bigger, when you bring meaning and purpose to your everyday actions.”

Now we’re talking what I came here for. Paring down all the demands on my time to those that serve what I want my life to be about – my true purpose.

Copywriting is my fourth career after geology, finance and a brief stint as a blogger. Each step moved writing closer to the centre of my job description.

Keller says teaching is his ONE Thing. Writing is mine.

For me, an extraordinary life is one where I get paid to write.

It’s almost a shame the Apple and the Google and the Hotmail examples are even here. They almost put me off an otherwise-excellent message to explore my goals with intention, rather than wander aimlessly.

4. Swap willpower and discipline for habit

“Willpower has a limited battery life…”

This is fascinating to me because my willpower is woeful. I’m excellent at making excuses not to do stuff I don’t want to.

But I do some big things every day – time-consuming, tough and sometimes dull things – without a second thought. Why? Because they’re habits and so they just get done.

Resisting temptation, trying a new behaviour or filtering distractions uses up a bit of our daily willpower reserves, apparently. The more actions I can turn into habits, the more spare determination I’ll have for thinking and working creatively.

And all the toughest stuff in a day needs to be scheduled for when I have a full tank. Along with the rest and healthy actions to keep refuelling my willpower.

Keller urges practising my ONE Thing consistently. Because in around 66 days it’ll become a new habit and then it’s easy to keep making it happen.

5. Process and structure are vital

“Extraordinary results become possible when where you want to go is completely aligned with what you do today.”

This is one I’m beginning to do instinctively. When I set out my goals for the year, I break them up into daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly actions.

Of course, Keller wants our five-year goals and someday goals on here, too.

But the important bit is that we visualise every step of the process to get where we’re going. Coming back to habits and willpower, there’s no wondering what our priority is today. It’s there on the list already.

6) Forget balance, try counterbalance

“Start leading a counterbalanced life. Let the right things take precedence when they should and get to the rest when you can.”

I’m not sure I followed this chapter, but Keller argues that the idea of balance is a myth.

We need to throw ourselves into what matters because that’s the only way to achieve extraordinary things professionally. Then we duck back and pick up whatever other bits of the job we can, whenever we can (tough to apply to a freelance life – maybe know when to hire a VA?).

But that approach will have us sick and lonely if we apply it to our health and family.

Keller includes a quote from a James Patterson book that talks of life as juggling five “balls” of work, family, health, friends and integrity. Work is made of rubber and family, health, friends and integrity are glass.

If we drop work, it’ll bounce right back up. But if we drop any of the others, they’ll probably chip or even shatter.

7. Make space for the ONE Thing

Having found the ONE Thing I’m going to devote my time to, I now need to make that happen.

First, it goes into my diary. And I should be devoting four hours a day as a minimum. I also need to block out time every week and year to plan, along with my holidays and breaks.

Then there are the behavioural bits that will help me focus.

I have to say “No” to everything that isn’t the ONE Thing, I’ll need to accept the chaos that’ll happen in other areas of my life (see my laundry pile), and I’ll need the support of those closest to me.

Finally, I’ll need a “bunker” with plenty of supplies, no distractions and an impassable threshold to stop fly-by requests and interruptions.

So, that’s all something to aim for while life gets in the way…

8. Get accountable

“…future elite performers seek out teachers and coaches and engage in supervised training…”

I don’t know about the “elite” and “mastery” that are repeated all over this chapter, but I know that I’m happier, grow faster and achieve far more when I’m learning and accountable to someone other than me.

In fact, this chapter prompted me to stop mulling over the idea of getting a coach and get on and hire one.

“Don’t just settle for what comes naturally – be open to new skills, new thinking and new relationships.” has to be one of my favourite quotes from the book and my very favourite way to live.

That’s the essence of copywriting. Finding unusual inspiration, smashing surprising ideas together and constantly looking for ways to be better.

For a book titled The ONE Thing, there are a lot of things going on. And more everyday examples of the ideas in action would have been useful.

But there’s plenty to chew on here, and I’ve already skimmed the book again.

I don’t aspire to be Bill Gates, but putting writing front and centre every day is essential when big and shiny business distractions get in my way.

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