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Best Books for Career Development, Edition 3

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

“The One Thing” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

What it's about

In “The One Thing,” authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan provide a systematic process for setting and accomplishing your most important goals. This book helps clarify your overarching purpose, establish intentional goals aligned with your purpose, and develop a method for achievement.

As Keller and Papasan state: “When you bring your purpose to your life, know your priorities, and achieve high productivity on the priority that matters most every day, your life makes sense and the extraordinary becomes possible.”

Who should read it

If you feel like you’re drowning in professional and personal demands and endlessly working, without ever making impactful progress, this book is for you. I first read it over five years ago, when I was working in a role with a heavy, unsustainable workload. The book helped me establish ways to increase my focus and productivity so that I could accomplish the work on my plate. After recently re-reading “The One Thing”, it has helped me re-envision and identify my career goals, implement processes to optimize my focus, and take small steps each day in the direction of my biggest dreams.

A deeper Dive

“The One Thing” highlights some common misconceptions that often stand between people and success. One of those is that “everything matters equally.” Just because something crossed your mind or your desk, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a top priority that deserves your immediate attention. Keller and Papasan encourage their readers to continuously ask themselves the golden question:

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

This question can be applied to your spiritual, physical, personal, and professional life. The authors provide clear strategies for making this practice part of your daily routine.

An additional commonly misunderstood concept addressed is that multitasking is good. Simply put, “multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time” (Steve Uzzell). They explain that “The concept of humans doing more than one thing at a time has been studied by psychologists since the 1920s, but the term ‘multitasking’ didn’t arrive on the scene until the 1960s. It was used to describe computers, not people.”

That deserves repeating. The original meaning of multitasking was intended to describe computers, not people. The concept of doing two things simultaneously is misleading even for computers, as computers can only process one piece of code at a time. Keller and Papasan explain that “People can actually do two or more things at once, such as walk and talk, or chew gum and read a map; but, like computers, what we can’t do is focus on two things at once.”

The next time you’re trying to focus on a project while checking email and talking with a colleague, try eliminating the distractions. Pick the most important thing to work on, and work on only that. Increased focus will produce enhanced work. However, this is easier said than done. Once you’ve organized your list and established your top priority, you must be intentional about implementing boundaries to protect your focus.

Top Takeaways

One of my favorite takeaways from this book is the strategies provided to protect your focused time and attention. Keller and Papasan state, “Researchers estimate that workers are interrupted every 11 minutes and then spend almost a third of their day recovering from these distractions.” With this many demands and distractions throughout an average workday, focusing on one thing at a time is not easy. So, how do you do it?

  • Time blocking: The book explains the importance of time blocking. I recently blocked from 8 a.m. – 12 p.m. on my work calendar on Monday through Friday for the next couple of months. When people go to schedule meetings with me, I’m open in the afternoons. This allows me to come into work, look at my list, select the top priority, and then begin my day proactively working on what is most important. Days that I don’t do this, I fall into the trap of working reactively – answering emails, engaging in conversation, and doing whatever is requested of me, without accomplishing anything on my list. Of course, there are times this isn’t always possible. If my boss requests a meeting in the morning, I’m going to meet in the morning. But when you can, however you can – implement your blocked time to dedicate to your most focused, important work.

  • Visual reminder: The authors shared a tactic of writing down what you’re working on as a visual reminder. For example, if I'm processing applications, I put “APPLICATIONS” on a post-it, and stick that on the bottom of my screen. When I’m distracted by an email or a message, I come back to the post-it note, and remind myself – I am working on applications now, I can answer that later. Other tasks can wait.

  • Thought dumping: Often, while trying to focus, other demands flutter across our minds. When thoughts like – “I need to remember to stop by the grocery and get coffee on the way home,” or “I’ve got to fill the car up on gas,” or “I need to send that reminder email to the board members,” – instead of stopping, getting derailed, and giving my attention to those things – I write them down on a notepad on the side for later. This allows me to dump it from my mind, know I will remember, and carry on with the most important work.

In Conclusion

It’s challenging to find the words to justify the power of “The One Thing” concisely. The book provides new ways of thinking, enhances self-awareness to help determine your overarching purpose, and once your purpose is identified, offers systems and tools for accomplishing your most important goals that contribute to your purpose. It helps with ensuring you’re spending your time and energy on what matters most.

In other words, “The people who achieve extraordinary results don’t achieve them by working more hours. They achieve them by getting more done in the hours they work.”

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