I read The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan because I saw Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega mention it on his Twitter feed. I thought it would be a useful book for my work with academic writers in The Productivity Pipeline and Simple Productivity. Although this isn’t an academic productivity book, it holds insights that are relevant for people working in academia. I think it would benefit academics at any stage of their career but is especially valuable for writers juggling multiple projects (so basically everyone!).
The most important observation I took away from this book is that time management is really focus management. After all, the premise of the book is that you select one thing and give it your undivided attention. As Keller and Papasan write, “extraordinary results are determined by how narrow you can make your focus” (9). In an academic environment where everyone from undergraduates to senior faculty is pulled in a million directions and expected to “do more with less,” this is invaluable advice that bears repeating (over and over and over).
Based on the title, the book seems to promise a lot. It does, however, live up to the first part of its name. The advice is simple, straightforward, and communicated clearly, which I appreciate (the important points are already underlined – how’s that for convenient?). I discourage the writers I work with from reading too much productivity research because that quickly becomes its own form of procrastination. This is a book I’d be happy to recommend, as it’s a quick read with actionable advice.
The One Thing is divided into three parts – “The Lies,” “The Truths,” and ‘Extraordinary Results.” In the first section, the authors argue that there are six lies that get in the way of focusing on our “one thing.” The lies are: everything matters equally; multitasking is possible and/or desirable; you must live a disciplined life; willpower is always on call; you should strive for a balanced life; and big is bad. When we believe these myths, we’re setting ourselves up to fail. If you reject them, you’ll realize that you must be ruthless with your choices but patient with yourself when you prioritize. You must also be willing to do the work. Luckily, that works becomes easier – or at the very least, more transparent – when you focus on just one thing.
In the second section, they explain the path to productivity. Here, they double down on the importance of focus. For the authors (although really Keller, as it’s written in his voice), focus requires asking the right questions so that you can take the right action. The most important question in the book is what they call the Focusing Question: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” (113). They then provide helpful examples of how to answer this question but more importantly how to think about the question.
In the third and final section, they explain the practical matters of how to achieve results. Here, they argue for the importance of goal-setting and time blocking. The concept of “Goal Setting to the Now” will likely be familiar to anyone who’s developed a 5-year plan. This form of goal setting helps you establish daily, weekly, and monthly goals that are in service to your long-term goals.
The advice on time-blocking reminded me of Cal Newport’s Deep Work, a book about which I have mixed feelings. In The One Thing, the authors suggest a time block of a minimum of four hours in order to be truly productive. I don’t think that time blocking is realistic for most academics, especially those in precarious positions. It’s also at odds with the incremental writing championed in many books on academic writing productivity. Yet, just because the structural constraints of academia (and most modern workplaces) prevent this type of work doesn’t mean we should dismiss the value of time blocking.
What I appreciated most about this book was the emphasis on prioritizing, because it forces the reader to make a choice. In order to focus, we have to decide that something’s worth our time. When we opt to believe that everything is important, nothing ends up being important. This is obvious in how we document our tasks – with to-do lists. Because I also despise to-do lists, I was definitely nodding my head at this: “To-do lists inherently lack the intent of success. In fact, most to-do lists are actually just survival lists – getting you through your day and your life, but not making each day a stepping-stone for the next so that you sequentially build a successful life” (35). When we make choices, we engage in an act of deliberation that I think is essential. You can’t have a thriving writing practice unless you’re intentional about it.
Overall, I think The One Thing provides the foundation for a time management system that will help you be more thoughtful about setting and achieving your goals. If you struggle with prioritizing you’ll find this book especially useful. While you may find that certain strategies aren’t realistic for you, the principles behind those strategies are worth consideration.