“Live with purpose and you’ll know where you want to go. Live by priority and you’ll know what to do to get there.”
Going in, I thought Gary Keller’s The One Thing was simply going to reinforce what I had already read from plenty of other places about focusing and getting really good at “one thing” to see the proverbial “success” we’re all after (and whose meaning is very personal to each of us).
While yes, the book does do that, it goes beyond and digs deeper into fortifying the idea of ‘the one thing’ with fresh takes on a few ‘norms’ we tend to believe about producing good work I’d yet to hear before.
These were the most notable.
Creation first, management second
“Purpose without priority is powerless” -Gary Keller
This is something I had heard of before from Tim Ferris but then expanded on through reading The One Thing.
I’ve only recently started applying it to my own life as a freelancer and content creator and I’m already starting to see how it would make a difference in — not the amount — but the quality of work I get done every day.
When we’re up and ready to go each morning, we can tend to latch on to the easier tasks to give us that quick dopamine hit of feeling like we’re really working and creating good stuff — things like checking email, DMs and stats can give us that false sense of busyness.
But it’s the easy route to take that gives you less than stellar results. You’re ultimately scratching an itch and giving in to your lizard brain.
Usually, my day would look like: Get up, check notifications, check all email accounts, answer emails, go through the customer task list, post to Instagram and answer DMs.
The common string within all those tasks is that they’re administrative tasks and not ‘creationary’ tasks — which tend to be the ones that give you the highest return for your efforts and can also take the most emotional leg work to create.
If you want to create a more fulfilling workday for yourself, Keller explains, you should harness your energy to create first, and manage second. In other words, invert your typical workday. Keller puts it simply—
“To experience extraordinary results, be a maker in the morning and a manager in the afternoon.”
To me, this doesn’t necessarily mean wake up and get creative at 5 a.m. to see the best results —as your personal circadian rhythm and sleep cycle is for you to figure out and learn to work with. It simply means prioritize creating before managing.
Rethinking your prioritization is such a valuable piece of advice if you’re a solo business owner. You can take care of the harder and more creative work first, and then run the administrative tasks that are often done on autopilot (and with the need for a lot less brainpower) second. Simple, but effective.
The Russian Matryoshka Doll concept
Now, what's the most important thing you should be doing first each day?
It’s easy to lose sight of your goals and main message in the midst of the every day minutiae. Once you lose clarity, you’re suddenly directionless, often stagnant, and stay running in circles around your daily disciplines.
The Russian Matryoshka Doll concept can help you break out of that with a series of a few simple questions.
Keller lays out —
“It can be a little like a Russian matryoshka doll in that your ONE Thing “right now” is nested inside your ONE Thing today which is nested inside your ONE Thing this week, which is nested inside your ONE Thing this month… . It’s how a small thing can actually build up to a big one. You’re lining up your dominoes.”
In other words, when you lack clarity on where you should be focusing on any given day, question your priorities by setting your main goal within a time frame and then work backward.
As he illustrates in the book, if you have a one-year goal, then you ought to ask yourself what you can do in the month you’re in to move closer to that goal.
Now that you’ve pinpointed a monthly goal, what’s the one thing you can do this week to move you closer to that monthly goal, and finally, once you have your weekly goal, what’s the one thing you can do today, and subsequently, then the one thing you can do right now.
It ultimately leads you to ask yourself the focusing question The One Thing is based around—
“What’s the one thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
The idea is to have that one thing at the forefront of your mind, always. And when you lose sight of your goal, or are planning and strategizing for it, using the Russian doll concept can help you navigate back to the clear path of how to get there.
There’s no getting lost when you constantly ask yourself the right questions that set up the parameters of your life and squeeze out your best course of action.
Dive in: Clarity is in the doing
Keller dives deeper into time blocking, prioritizing further, finding your why, and making time to rest as an important part of your personal process.
But more importantly, he stresses that being “clear” on what your goals are and how you’ll get there each day, week, month, and beyond, and then doing your best to time block and prioritize them is the key to making progress over being aimlessly “productive.”
It’s not enough to have an effervescent dream off in the distance and hope you make your mark by feeling productive about it each day. Small changes in perspective, and asking yourself the right needle-moving questions constantly can mean the difference between getting there or staying stuck.
In the end, Keller echoes the general sentiment of any book worth its weight in gold about achieving anything.
There are no shortcuts to this — only clearer thinking and better decision making.