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BOOK REVIEW: The One Thing


The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

by Gary Kellar and Jay Papasan Hardcover, April 2013

I’m late to this game, but The One Thing (2013) is still a great, easy-to-read motivational book. But be warned: The One Thing isn’t for the typical New Year’s Eve Resolutioner. It recommends you find ONE THING you want to accomplish and concentrate on that. When the authors say concentrate, they mean *really* concentrate. Like, the 4 hours/day kind of concentration. 

I’m writing this review after trying this 4-hour thing for a few days. Taking it easy on myself, my requirement for the 4-hours was not only physically writing fiction. It was simply “butt-in-chair,” i.e., sitting at my desk, with my notebooks and other writing tools. I could write, I could outline, I could plot. Whatever. My goal was to sit for 4 hours each weekday and allow myself to be immersed in the story. I set a timer on my phone. I paused it for every break (which I kept short) and restarted it when I sat back down. 

Most of us have never focused on one thing for 4 hours every weekday. Unless your job requires intense concentration on a specific task, focusing on one thing day after day is a lifestyle choice very foreign to us. The One Thing tells us the road to greatness is focus.

My fiction writing used to occur in hour-long or maybe two-hour-long spurts. Being a parent and a freelance writer, I allowed many interruptions to derail my project. Sometimes days or even weeks would go by before I got back to it. This was acceptable, obviously, because I allowed it to continue. Sometimes I’d wonder if I’d ever have “enough time” to write fiction. 

Kellar and Papasan use various images and examples in the book to demonstrate the effects of the same focused effort applied day after day. It’s kind of a drop-in-the-bucket theory we’ve all heard before: slow and steady wins the race.

The One Thing proves to be quite essential not for its time-worn advice or even it’s radical-focus solution, but for its myth-busting sections. The authors go over 6 myths that derail the determined go-getter. They call them “The Six Lies Between You and Success.” Here they are:

  1. Everything Matters Equally
  2. Multitasking
  3. A Disciplined Life
  4. Willpower Is Always on Will-Call
  5. A Balanced Life
  6. Big is Bad

We can pretty much figure out how the authors will handle #1 and #2 simply by rereading the title of the book. And for the love of Pete, if you are still clinging to the idea that you can multitask and get either task done effectively, please go stick your head or your phone in the microwave. Or read some psych and fMRI research. 

What stopped me in my tracks was #3. ALL of the motivational crap out there talks about discipline. Some advice I’ve read everywhere else: Have the same exact sleep schedule every day. Follow a morning ritual. Have a bedtime ritual. Plan meals. Eat the same thing everyday. Wear the same type of outfit. Blah, blah, blah. You know the drill. 

Then I got to #3. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“There is a pervasive idea that the successful person is the ‘disciplined person’ who leads a ‘disciplined life.’
It’s a lie.
The truth is we don’t need any more discipline than we already have. We just need to direct and manage it a little better.”

Experiencing paradigm-shifting shock when reading a motivational book is rare. I’ve read so many behavioral economics, psychology, sociology, and human studies books, I’m inured to their oft-similar messages. I’d believed their hype about self-control so strongly I’d internalized the message: if I am not wholly living a strictly disciplined life, I will achieve nothing. I accepted my lack of a published novel for many reasons, one of them being I don’t have a life conducive to living like a monk or an Olympic athlete. The authors tell us to ditch this restrictive idea. We don’t need a disciplined life, we just need enough discipline to get us through establishing a habit (about 66 days in their estimation).

I wish I could reproduce the whole chapter here. If this concept speaks to you, get the book. If you are disillusioned like I was, this chapter alone is worth the read. It’s available at libraries in ebook and hardcover forms. 

#4’s chapter on willpower is sadly a bit out-of-date. The concept that willpower is a limited resource has been debunked in various studies. This book is from 2013 and needs an update in this area. “Ego depletion” is not a set thing. 

The other chapters are definitely worth a look, though. There is a little trick on how to use the concept of “The One Thing” in everything you do. It’s a real insight into how very successful entrepreneurs think. 

I liked the book a lot, and if you’re after a certain type of success, like writing a novel, for example, I think you’ll find a few gems in The One Thing. I’m going to stick with the 4-hour/day (weekdays) of my One Thing.


Here’s a youtube video of some dude explaining some of the points in The One Thing book.
Why what they’ve been telling you about willpower isn’t exactly right, from the American Psychological Association (pdf).