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The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller is intended for an audience of business employees who are trying to be more productive and thus hopefully more successful. This book was recommended to me when I was starting up my private practice. I felt like I was being pulled in so many directions with so many things that needed to get done. This book helped remind me to prioritize my tasks and focus on the one thing that would help me advance my private practice the most. This helped with my decision making and task list. If you’ve ever stared at your To Do List and had no idea where to start, start by reading this book.

Keller’s message is in the same vein as McKeown’s message in Essentialism; however, I felt it was easier to apply Keller’s message in the moment. As a psychologist, I love it when authors present things within a cognitive framework. Keller starts his book out with “The Lies.” These are dysfunctional thoughts that derail us and keep us stuck. He then follows that up with “The Truth.” These are healthy thoughts, that allow us to move forward. He backs these thoughts up by summarizing the research in this field (examining the evidence is the primary task of thought challenging in CBT). For example, Keller reviews why the belief that we can multitask and depend on willpower to get things done are lies. The truth is our brain can only genuinely focus on one task at a time, and our willpower is finite and it runs out (which is why resisting that bowl of cereal late at night is so hard when you’ve put in so much effort throughout the whole day to be good). The topic of willpower comes up in a lot of these types of books, most notably Mel Robbin’s The 5 Second Rule, where she talks about why we’ll “never feel like it” when it comes to doing things we know we have to. The overarching message here, is that we can’t rely on willpower and need to learn to create habits and routines to keep us on track and to basically parent ourselves.

A visualization Keller uses about the importance of choosing the One Thing right now that is the most likely to help your project, job, goal, move forward is of dominos:

You can see a video of this domino chain reaction in action here. I love this visualization, it really helps us to prioritize our life. Sure I can spend countless hours returning emails and phone calls, but what do I really need to stop procrastinating and start working on now that will help me advance my goals?

Another message from the book that I think can be applied to someone coming to therapy are what Keller calls:

The “Four Thieves” of productivity:

  • Inability to say No
  • Fear of Chaos
  • Poor Health Habits
  • Environment Doesn’t Support Your Goals

1) Inability to say No

This is one of the biggest area of skills building for my clients who are “people pleasers” or “fixers.” The irony being, if you’re really good at what you do, you get rewarded with more work! Saying No is not about hurting other’s feelings or being selfish. It’s about protecting your time so that you can focus on what really matters.

2) The Fear of Chaos

This is also another skill that many of my clients struggle with. This comes down to control. When you let go of things in order to focus on your One Thing, you relinquish control. People who have been disappointed, let down, or taken advantage of one too many times in life, have a really hard time learning not to micromanage everything. Their survival system is telling them that in order to stay safe they have to be in control of everything. Well this guarantees you will not have time to focus on your One Thing. Yes there may be chaos when you start to let the smaller things slide, but learning to do so will finally allow you to focus on what will truly help you move towards your goals, even if that goal is mental wellness.

Take note here, that I reference things my clients typically struggle with; however, all these “tips” are coming from a book written for the general public and not for an “anxiety patient.” We all struggle with these things and sometimes it is good to remind ourselves of little changes we can make that will greatly improve our lives.

3) Poor Health Habits

Keller of course talks about how health can get in the way of productivity at work, home, church, etc… Whatever it is that you are trying to achieve. This goes way beyond productivity. Health truly is at the core of our well-being. Poor sleep, poor diet, vitamin deficiencies, lack of exercise, have all been shown to exacerbate depression, PTSD, and anxiety. For some people, your One Thing just might be getting back in control of your Health.

4) Environment Doesn’t Support Your Goals

Keller gives practical advice on how to change or adapt your environment to improve your focus (keep in mind he is talking to a business audience). From putting up a do not disturb sign on the door, to turning off your wifi, to leaving your cubicle and hiding yourself up in a conference room. All things to help you focus on your One Thing. But most importantly, Keller reviews how the people in your life have the biggest effect on your performance and productivity. We all need an environment with supportive and genuine people. This is as true for performance and productivity, as it is for mental well-being and living well.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. It helped give me the spark of motivation and kick in the butt I needed to organize and focus when I was starting out my business. There are a lot of concrete, practical exercises to try out and great questions to ponder that really get the gears in your head turning in order to identify thoughts that might be keeping you stuck.


I encourage you to check out the book from your local library! In fact many libraries even have the books available as ebooks for download! All of the books I have reviewed here I borrowed from my local city and county libraries.