What’s The ONE Thing You Can Do Today to Achieve Success?

Kimberly Renee Knowles

August 6, 2014

Recently, my team read and discussed the book, The One Thing: The Surprising Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan.   In the book, the authors dispel common myths about time management and work efficiency and encourage readers to focus their energy in order to have the greatest chance of success.  I’ve found the book to be very instructive in managing my work this summer, and I’d like to share with you the suggestions that I found most insightful.

First of all, Keller and Papasan share six common lies that they say stand between us and success:

1.    Everything Matters Equally – We in Student Affairs tend to have endless to do lists and never enough time to cross everything off of the list.  I often feel guilty about not getting to everything on my list, but the authors share that every task is not equal and it is important to focus on the tasks that are most important and have the potential to make the most difference.  Keller and Papasan remind us of the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, which says, “…the minority of your effort leads to the majority of your results (p. 37).”   Take a look at your To Do list today.  Which things on it will matter the most in six months or a year? Which things won’t even be on your radar next week?

2.    Multitasking is a Lie – As working women, we often hear that women are more efficient at multitasking then men and it is implied that this somehow makes us more effective.  Keller and Papasan debunk that myth, pointing out that “when you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or won’t do either well.”  How many times have you been listening to a student while planning out an email in your head and realized that you haven’t heard a thing they said?   The authors give the analogy of trying to chase two rabbits, saying that if you try to do so, you won’t catch either one.  Instead of multitasking, they suggest focusing on one task at a time and making it a priority to really be where you are in the moment.  Give it a try today – take one task that you typically try to complete alongside other tasks and give it your full attention today instead.  Reflect afterwards.  Did the task go more quickly?   Did you achieve higher quality results?

3.    A Disciplined Life – We often idealize successful people, assuming that they are somehow more disciplined than us and lead a more disciplined life.  I frequently encourage students to develop new habits.  In a given session, I might tell him or her to study in the library every night, get 8 hours of sleep every night, go to the gym, and start meditating. The trouble is, Keller and Papasan remind us that it takes 66 consecutive days to start a new habit and no one has the discipline to build more than one habit at a time.  What typically happens is we start on one new habit for a week, figure that we’ve got it (even though we don’t), move on to the next habit, add another one, and soon realize that we haven’t stuck with any of the habits we were trying to develop!   Try this instead.  Pick one small habit that you’d like to develop and make a plan to stick with it for 66 days.  Just focus on that one habit.  Once you’ve really got that habit down, then choose another one.

4.    Willpower is Always on Call – As adults and dedicated professionals, we like to think that we can will our way through anything.  We endeavor to power through important projects in the morning, stay compassionate and patient through student sessions in the afternoon, forgo a nap to go to the gym after work, and then prepare ourselves a healthy home-cooked meal for dinner.   Sound great, doesn’t it?  The trouble is – Keller and Papasan point out that willpower is not always at our disposal at all times.  Instead, they relate willpower to a battery because you start off full of willpower in the morning and gradually use up power throughout the day until you are running on empty.  So, maybe you do get those projects done in the morning and have some productive student sessions, but after that you’re skipping the gym and heading home to order a pizza and have a big bowl of ice cream.   What’s their solution?  Pick whatever is most important to you and do it early in the day when you are the most sharp.   Also, Keller and Papasan point out that we can increase our supply of willpower by fueling ourselves with rest, food, and exercise.  What’s the most important task you need to do this week?  Can you get a good night’s sleep tonight and arrange your schedule to do it first thing tomorrow when you are likely to have the most willpower?

5.    A Balanced Life is Lie – One of the most popular topics these days is balance.  We are all striving to achieve a perfectly balanced life, and we love to talk about how hard it is to do so.   However, Keller and Papasan argue that the goal shouldn’t be to strive for an even balance between the various parts of our lives and our jobs.  Instead, they say“To achieve an extraordinary result you must choose what matters most and give it all the time it demands.  This requires getting extremely out of balance in relation to all other work issues, with only infrequent counterbalancing to address them (p. 83).”  I’ve experimented with this concept this summer while working on a new initiative to develop an Undeclared / Exploratory Student Portal.  I’ve had to devote big blocks of time to hunker down and work on it, while emails piled up, papers stacked up on my desk, and tasks were put on hold.  It’s been chaotic at times, but by the time school starts I should have an exciting new resource to share with students that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to create without letting things get a little out of balance.   I’ve also experienced this in my personal life as well.   One week I will be doing great with Friends and Exercise, but doing awfully with Work and Finances.  The next week, I’ll be doing great with Work and Finances but never see my Friends or the Gym!   Keller and Papasan give us permission to not be in balance at all times as long as we never neglect any one area of our life for too long of a time – especially in our personal life.  Try it yourself.  Is there something so important to you that you are willing to go “out of balance” this week or next to focus on? 

6.    Big Is Bad – With their final of the six lies, Keller and Papasan remind us that it is okay to go beyond small aims and instead shoot for big hairy audacious goals.  Basically, they say that we limit ourselves by our own thoughts.  They bring in the work of Carol Dweck, who has found that children (and people) tend to use either a growth mindset that assumes you can work your way through obstacles or a fixed mindset that assumes failure is an indication that you’ve reached the limits of your ability.   You can change your mindset, and the authors encourage us to develop a growth mindset and think big.  They remind us of an old Apple ad that said, “People who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the only ones that do (p. 93).”  Don’t just think about what you want to achieve next month or next year.  Think ten or twenty years down the road.  What do you want your legacy to be?

Once Keller and Papasan dispel these six lies that hold us back, they introduce their key success habit, which is the Focusing Question.  In order to determine where to devote your time and energy and willpower in each area of your life (i.e. Work, Family, Finances, etc.), they suggest you ask yourself this question (p. 113) every day or your life and let the answer guide your day:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

This question not only gets at what is important to you but also gets at what the key task or habit is that will set up a Domino Effect leading to even bigger and bigger things.  This is the 80/20 rule taken to the extreme.  For example, if you are the leader of your organization, would hiring a Director of Operations free up your time so that you could advocate for more resources with higher ups?  Or, during a peak busy time, would fixing a glitch in your systems reduce the amount of student traffic coming by for help?   In your personal life, is there one habit you can change like preparing breakfast the night before that would make your morning routine ten times easier?

I’ve been starting to ask myself this focusing question on a regular basis, and I’ve also found the idea of honing in on The ONE thing to be a helpful in other contexts as well.  I encourage you to read The ONE Thing book for more details and the rest of Keller and Papasan’s useful tips.  In the meantime, I leave you with a number of The ONE Thingquestions to ask yourself, your team, and your students in the year ahead:

·         What is The ONE Thing you, your office, your team, your committee can do to achieve your university’s strategic goal? (E.g. 4 year graduation rate, Job placement rate, Student Engagement)? 

·         What is The ONE Thing you (or your subordinate) can do in the year ahead to improve as an employee?

·         What is The ONE Thing you can apply from the professional conference that you attended?

·         What is The ONE Thing you can do to improve your relationship with your partner, your daughter, your mom, your supervisor, etc.?

·         What is The ONE Thing you can do with the rest of your summer to set yourself up for success in the year ahead?


Keller, G., & Papasan, J. (2013). The one thing: The surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results. Austin, Tex.: Bard Press.

Kimberly Renee Knowles is Director of Developmental and Exploratory Advising Programs and an Academic Success Coach in the Center for Academic and Student Achievement at the University of San Francisco.   You can read her personal blog at http://careerintuition.blogspot.com/, connect with her on LinkedIn athttp://www.linkedin.com/in/kimberlyreneeknowles and follow her on Twitter @AdviserInspired.

Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASPA. If you agree or disagree with the content of this post, we encourage you to dialogue in the comment section below. NASPA reserves the right to remove any blog that is inaccurate or offensive.

To comment, you can login to your preferred social network. Comments are lightly moderated and we do provide the option for users to flag a comment as inappropriate.

Get in Touch with NASPA