The One Thing: The surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results, by Gary Keller (Book Review)
Gary Keller proposes a framework for achieving extraordinary results in work and in life in general. The author’s premise is that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus, or more precisely, by focusing on the One Thing.
[Achievers] have an eye for the essential. They pause just long enough to decide what matters and then allow what matters to drive their day. Achievers do sooner what others plan to do later and defer, perhaps indefinitely, what others do sooner. The difference isn’t in intent, but in right of way. Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.
The author explains how getting things done is not a matter of discipline but of developing habits that will help you focus on the task at hand. Discipline is needed to acquire the habit, but we cannot run on discipline in the long term.
Achieving extraordinary results requires making extraordinary efforts. In that sense, Keller does not believe in a balanced life as a goal to be achieved or a state of balance, but in counterbalancing your life as an every day reality, an act of balancing.
If you think of balance as the middle, then out of balance is when you’re away from it. Get too far away from the middle and you’re living at the extremes. The problem with living in the middle is that it prevents you from making extraordinary time commitments to anything. In your effort to attend to all things, everything gets shortchanged and nothing gets its due. Sometimes this can be okay and sometimes not. Knowing when to pursue the middle and when to pursue the extremes is in essence the true beginning of wisdom. Extraordinary results are achieved by this negotiation with your time.
One day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls—family, health, friends, integrity—are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.
The book mentions the now-more-known Stanford Marshmallow Experiment by Walter Mischel, which relates the effect of delayed gratification and developing grit with outcome and success in different areas in life.
Keller also cites Carol Dweck‘s research on growth-mindsets vs fixed mindsets as an example of how your perception of things strongly affect what you can achieve:
Dweck’s work with children revealed two mindsets in action—a “growth” mindset that generally thinks big and seeks growth and a “fixed” mindset that places artificial limits and avoids failure. Growth-minded students, as she calls them, employ better learning strategies, experience less helplessness, exhibit more positive effort, and achieve more in the classroom than their fixed-minded peers. They are less likely to place limits on their lives and more likely to reach for their potential
Keller’s framework is constructed on applying what he calls the Focusing Question to the different areas of your life: What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
Productivity isn’t about being a workhorse, keeping busy or burning the midnight oil…. It’s more about priorities, planning, and fiercely protecting your time.
To stay on track for the best possible day, month, year, or career, you must keep asking the Focusing Question. Ask it again and again, and it forces you to line up tasks in their levered order of importance. (…) you can drive yourself nuts analyzing every little aspect of everything you might do. I don’t do that, and you shouldn’t either. Start with the big stuff and see where it takes you. Over time, you’ll develop your own sense of when to use the big-picture question and when to use the small-focus question.
Answers to the Focusing Question come in three categories: doable (something that is already within your reach), stretch (at the farthest end of your range), and possibility (an answer that exists beyond what is already known and being done). “Highly successful people”, explains Keller, “choose to live at the outer limits of achievement. They not only dream of but deeply crave what is beyond their natural grasp.”
The Focusing Question, however, is not enough. Adopting the mindset of someone seeking mastery is needed (the commitment to becoming your best, and embrace the effort it represents).
More than anything else, expertise tracks with hours invested. Michelangelo once said, “If the people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.”
You will also need to deal with the natural ceiling of achievement with a purposeful mindset (not accepting the limitations of our natural approach as the last word), and learn to be accountable for the outcome of your lives (in contrast with being a victim of the situation). This is essential —according to Keller— to achieve extraordinary results.
If you have to beg, then beg. If you have to barter, then barter. If you have to be creative, then be creative. Just don’t be a victim of your circumstances.
Almost finishing the book, Keller warns the reader against the four thieves that can stand in our way to extraordinary results. The inhability to say “No” , the fear of chaos —”pursuing your One Thing moves other things to the back burner (…) chaos is unavoidable. Make peace with it. Learn to deal with it”— , poor health habits, and an environment that doesn’t support your goals.
I enjoyed reading the book and strongly agree with most of what the author proposes. You can use the framework “as-is” or adapt it to suit your needs.
Tags: personal productivity, focus, achievers, high performers
Achievers have an eye for the essential. They have acquired the habit of aligning their long-term goals with their day-to-day actions. They are aware that while they can decide to do whatever they want, they cannot do everything. They live their days by Pareto’s Principle: a minority of causes, inputs, or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards.1. Achievers focus their attention on what’s important, and say no to other things so they can produce extraordinary results.
“Highly successful people choose to live at the outer limits of achievement.” Answers to big problems and big challenges “exist beyond what is already known and being done”, and “rarely come from an ordinary process”, but by benchmarking and trending.
First, “you uncover the best research and study the highest achievers. You search for clue and role models to point you in the right direction. (…) Has anyone else studied or accomplished this or something like it? (…) Armed with this knowledge, you can establish a benchmark, the current high-water mark for all that is known and being done.” Before research, “this was your maximum, but is now your minimum. (…) it becomes the hilltop where you’ll stand to see if you can spot what might come next. This is called trending”.
“Whether it’s figuring out how to leapfrog the competition, finding a cure for a disease, or coming up with an action step for a personal goal, benchmarking and trending is your best option. Because your answer will be original, you’ll probably have to reinvent yourself in some way to implement it.”
Why being objective is hard and how it affects your decision-making
People whose work involve managing other people, evaluating their work, or somehow passing judgment about other people, know that soft skills, attributes, and people’s behaviors in general are hard to gauge objectively.
Being objective is hard. While we have some experience managing the tension between emotional and rational arguments —we are rarely detached from the situation at hand— more often than we think we judge and make decisions based on our intuitions and affected by our biases1. We like to believe that we are always rational, but we really should know better. Most often than not, we unconsciously backwards-rationalize our not-so-rational decisions2.
For example, consider a concept like executive presence. Jenna Goudreau writes in Forbes that, according to a 2012 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, feedback on executive presence is often contradictory and confusing. However, the same study finds that executive presence counts for 26% of what it takes to be promoted. Executive presence certainly can be a factor for a promotion, but only if we understand what it entails as an evaluation criteria.
Another example is when we let our perception of someone or a situation get affected by circumstantial comments or facts. It takes consistent results and effort over a long period of time for an employee to gain his or her bosses’ trust3. Making echo of some anecdotal negative incident about that employee can unjustly hinder or destroy his or her reputation in no time.
What can we do? One solution is to acquire habits that help us step over our biases and separate perceptions from concrete and factual information; distinguish anecdotal gossip from consistent behaviors… to the point that it becomes second nature to us, an almost unconscious way of thinking and reasoning. That is, it becomes part of your identity.
Acquiring this kind of habits can be hard. But it can be done. Four things you can try:
Always be specific when expressing your opinion about other people or situations
Nobody is a complete mess or totally a star. Be clear and concise when presenting the information. Be polite, but firm when refuting. Listen, and recognize when you are wrong.
For example, if a colleague says about someone that he always arrives late, you could ask how many times in the last three months? to verify if it is a fact or just a perception. To an opinion that someone cannot be considered for a position because she lacks executive presence, you could ask what would be the three most important things that person would need to work on in order to be ready for promotion in the next six months.
Make no negative comments about anyone
If you need to refer to anything negative, refer to the facts and not the person. And do it as you would if the person responsible was sitting in front of you.
Ask a colleague to help you by pointing out each time you fail4 at this.
Learn to be discrete when talking about other people
There is a quote by an author from the 6th century AC that comes to mind5:
Be the one who presides discrete in silence, and [useful] when speaking, so that he does not speak when he should not, nor remain quiet when he should speak. Because as careless speaking can lead others to error, not speaking up can leave others in error.”
Do your homework before passing judgement
This is very relevant if you are going to say something important that will affect other people.
For example, if you work for a company that has annual performance reviews, and have a team to evaluate, do your work throughout the year, not just the week before the evaluation meeting. Have a mental framework for the evaluation. Ask other’s for feedback about your reports, specially those who are likely to attend the meeting6.
Biases —cognitive biases— are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgment. See, for example, Wikipedia, List of Cognitive biases. ↩
Optional: make the compromise to donate a fixed amount of money to a worthy cause each time you fail. ↩
Translated from the text in Spanish: “Sea el que preside discreto en el silencio y útil cuando hable, de modo que ni diga lo que se debe callar, ni calle lo que se debe decir; porque así como el hablar imprudente conduce al error, así también el silencio indiscreto deja en el error a los que podrían ser instruidos” (San Gregorio Magno, Regula Pastoralis, II, 4) ↩
Ask for general feedback and you will find yourself with vague answers. Some people tend to remember anecdotical examples from the last weeks. So, ask for feedback about specific points. ↩
Tags: identity based decision making, decision-making, rational thinking, objectivity, managing people
Finally one of the Big Five publishers is trying an alternative business model for selling e-books. In the coming weeks, Macmillan will test the subscription model for e-books, probably through third party companies.
Through great innovation and prodigious amounts of risk and hard work, Amazon holds a 64% market share of Macmillan’s e-book business. As publishers, authors, illustrators, and agents, we need broader channels to reach our readers.
Matt Gemmell on the classic question How do you get your ideas, or the relation between reading, writing, and the idea-flow:
The corresponding answer is usually something like “they just come to me”, but it’s a half-truth. We all know that, deep down. The reality is more prosaic: your outlook alters, such that everything is an idea. In the same way that a former spy can never fully switch off their vigilance, a writer’s imagination just becomes perpetually active.
Reading is what makes it possible - you have to read in order to be able to write - but you have to write to actually activate this shift in perspective. It happens fast: within days. The problem isn’t ever finding ideas; it’s filtering them.
Reading is important, even if you are not a writer yourself. Finding time for reading long form —books, long articles, etc.— is crucial, even if it seems to be increasingly difficult.
Book review: Influencing Virtual Teams by Hassan Osman
Hassan Osman has been managing virtual teams for a living for over ten years. In Influencing Virtual Teams, he shares his experience in the form of 17 tactics. The value of these tactics lies not on their novelty, but in that they have been successfully applied over the years to real projects. Although the book is titled “Influencing Virtual Teams”, the tactics on this book can be also applied successfuly to local teams.
Although the author includes references to case studies and scientific material, his intention is not to focus on why certain a tactic works, but help you manage your team. Nor will this book give you arguments to convince upper-management on the advantages of working remote. It just assumes the reality that in many companies, projects are handled by people that don’t work physically in the same place.
I couldn’t help but remember a quote from “The Checklist Manifesto”, by Atul Gawande: “Checklists gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (…), and lets it rise above to focus on the hard stuff”. Something similar can be said about the tactics in this book. You may have heard some or most of them before. They certainly don’t cover all possible scenarios, and don’t delve in the complexity of managing people. But if you use them systematically and consistently, they will help you manage your team team work with effectiveness and efficiency, so you can focus on getting the work done.
If you have experience managing teams, this book will give you some clear actions you can do to improve the way you delegate and communicate with your team. It also makes a good read for your reports if they are not familiar with the tactics discussed.
(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review)
Tags: virtual teams, remote work, team management, best practices