Why do so many of us feel like we are spinning our wheels but not reaching our goals? It all boils down to keeping our eye on the prize or “the ONE Thing,” as Gary Keller and Jay Papasan refer to it in their book, The ONE Thing The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Easy in theory, challenging in practice.
As we focus on a task, distractions seem never-ending. We can start on the right path if we write them down to return to the task at hand. Some might even have well-organized tasks and project lists, or maybe even software devoted to staying organized.
Yet after weeks, months, or even years of dedication to our tasks, we can become exasperated when our goals seem as far away as ever. Some may have stopped creating goals altogether because the recurring disappointment is just too painful. Keller says that most of us are doing as much as humanly possible to reach our goals, but the problem is that we should be doing the opposite: we should be “going small.”
Instead of completing all those tasks, we must decipher the most crucial task that gives us the biggest bang for our buck. How often do we stop to identify those needle-moving tasks? When running his real estate company, he found that his high performers were not completing their self-assigned tasks during the week. He created a “Focusing Question” to ask every day, and it made a massive shift in his company, Keller Williams Realty. Perhaps you have heard this question in articles or seminars: “What is the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”
Before even asking this all-important question, though, we must address six fallacies that lead us down the wrong path.
“Everything matters equally”
Checking items off task lists feels good in the moment, but where does it lead us? Unfortunately, not far if those tasks were not the best way to move closer to our goals. With great insight, he states, “If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.”
Instead of trying to do it all, we need to push the famous Pareto Rule (“80% of outcomes result from 20% of preceding factors,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareto_principle) to the outer limits. Once we have determined what 20% of all tasks will result in 80% of the results, we need to narrow it down to the most significant needle-moving activity.
Thankfully, those of us who ever resented that age-old interview question about multitasking (because it was not our forte) have been vindicated. Multiple studies have now shown that multitasking does not work when competing tasks demand a lot of thinking. Keller dives into more detail: we can switch tasks rapidly and do two things simultaneously, but we cannot focus on two things at the same time. Apparently, multitasking wastes 28% of workdays. Additionally, I have read that it takes our brains up to twenty minutes to return to focus after dealing with a distraction. Thus, multitasking truly seems to be a losing proposition.
“A disciplined life”
For anyone who feels guilty about a lack of discipline, fear not. Keller argues that what we enviously witness in others is not a rare quality buried deep in the DNA of high achievers. Instead, what we are seeing is a heavy reliance on habit. High achievers only need enough discipline to repeat the necessary task until it becomes a habit. Their daily routines help them reach their goals. They do not have to white-knuckle it through each day with a massive amount of discipline. What a relief to those of us who never felt like we had giant stores of discipline ready to be used at any moment.
Completing large decluttering projects becomes much easier when we engage in habit formation. Clients and I spend time removing roadblocks and collaborating on realistic strategies. Those strategies sustain habits that not only help reach organizing goals but also keep clutter at bay. (For more information on habit formation, see my articles on The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits.)
Numerous pop psychology articles reference a twenty-one-day time frame to create habits. This number always felt unrealistically low to me, unless we are talking about easily formed bad habits like eating too much junk food or spending too much time on social media. Indeed, Keller references a 2009 study determining that it takes, on average, sixty-six days to create a new habit (some took as little as eighteen days and others two-hundred fifty-four days). Last year I learned that it could take longer for those with ADHD. All this news might feel disheartening if you thought it only took twenty-one days, but I consider it to be good news. While it might take longer than initially expected to create a habit, it now means we have a more realistic timeframe. Hopefully, we will be less likely to quit a new habit on day twenty-five because we erroneously thought it should be old-hat by then.
“Willpower is always on will-call”
Similar to discipline, we cannot always rely on willpower. Keller references studies that demonstrate diminishing returns. The more we use willpower, the less available it becomes. So, it becomes imperative to tackle our most important tasks first, rather than burn through our reserves on more menial tasks.
“A balanced life”
For many years, pop culture touted life “balance.” In Keller’s opinion, one cannot reach outstanding achievements without getting out of balance. We have to invest a lot of time and energy into reaching big goals. It naturally means that other tasks will be left undone. We have to learn to be comfortable with the “chaos” of unfinished business.
Luckily this does not mean that we abandon everything else forever. What good is a life goal if we sacrifice friends, relationships, and health to achieve them? Probably not much, he insightfully argues. Instead, he instructs us to use “counterbalancing”: we cannot get so far out of balance for so long that we lose everything. He argues that it is ok to be far out of balance in work-life to reach lofty goals. In personal life, it is better to avoid those extremes.
“Big is bad”
Many of us fear success because it might mean sacrificing too much: dealing with massive levels of stress, losing social connections, or abandoning health. The good news is that as we work towards that big goal, we adapt. We learn how to manage the stressors better as we grow.
"The Focusing Question"
After addressing fallacies, he dives deeper into the Focusing Question: “What is the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?” We might be tempted to drop “such that by doing it” because it feels redundant, but he argues that it is crucial: “This qualifier seeks to declutter your life by asking you to put on blinders. This elevates the answer’s potential to change your life by doing the leveraged thing and avoiding distractions.”
Quite frequently, I advise clients to adorn make-believe “horse blinders.” When decluttering, it is easy to get distracted with related but non-essential tasks. By putting on “horse blinders,” we can more easily focus on the most rewarding decluttering action.
The Focusing Question is adaptable to both large and small goals. We can insert “right now,” “this year,” or other verbiage after the phrase “that I can do” to fit the need. We can also add qualifiers to address different areas of our lives. For example, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do today for [whatever you want] such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Ask this question every morning to stay on track.
The answers to the Focusing question are crucial. Solutions can necessitate “doable” action, “stretch” action, or activity in the realm of “possibility.” Avoid “doable” steps to reach those all-important life goals because they use our existing tools.
“Stretch” activities will take us farther. We might need to research what others are doing so that we can do the same. The task might “stretch” us to the edge of our current skillsets.
Reaching lofty life goals necessitates “possibility” actions that are well outside of our current limitations. Similar to “stretch” activities, the first task is to ask, “Has anyone else studied or accomplished this or something like it?” Unlike “stretch” tasks, the answer to that question now becomes our bare minimum effort. We need to go in the same direction as the best performers and then go beyond or potentially plot an entirely novel course. Whether the goal is personal (e.g., decluttering your home) or professional (e.g., becoming an expert in your field), “possibility” tasks are the ones that will get us there.
Taking “possibility” action net more significant rewards in the distant future, but how do we avoid the temptation of less critical tasks that net immediate (albeit smaller) rewards? Use his
“goal setting to the Now” technique to connect emotionally to distant future rewards, rather than to the smaller immediate reward.
We connect someday goals to immediate goals through a series of questions.
He argues that we cannot skip any of these steps because each phrase keeps us emotionally connected to that bigger goal, rather than menial feel-good tasks that take us off course. Avoiding this necessary technique is “why most people never get close to their goals. They haven’t connected today to all the tomorrows it will take to get there. “
So now that we know precisely what that ONE Thing is, how do we commit to it amidst competing distractions? We use time blocking. We block off sufficient time on our calendars to devote to the ONE Thing. Everything else needs to happen around this time block.
To make blocks work, we need to “get in the mindset that they can’t be moved.” First, we block out free time since we cannot sustain arduous effort without rest. Then we block off four hours to devote to the ONE Thing. He used the popular 10,000-hour theory to create his calculation of four daily hours. (For those who have not started decluttering because it is far too intimidating, try starting much smaller. Even fifteen or five minutes of decluttering a day is better than no minutes, and the fear of starting with just fifteen minutes is much smaller than four hours!)
There are a series of moves we can make to protect our time blocks:
We need to have the mindset of mastery to stick to time blocks. This essentially means “becoming your best,” which is a life-long process. When the ONE Thing becomes this important, we are more likely to commit. Additionally, we cannot stop when we reach the current limits of ability. We should use the Focusing Question to determine what we need to learn or what we need to do differently to achieve big goals.
Last but not least, we need to beware of the four “thieves” that can take us off track:
"A Life without Regrets"
In summation, he argues that the best way to live a "life without regrets" is to strive towards those lofty goals. To do that, we must always focus energy and time on that One Thing that will help us get there.
So how about it? How many tasks are on your to-do list today: are there too many to realistically complete? Are you setting yourself up to feel like a ping-pong ball in a match between Olympic athletes? Give the Focusing Question a try. You might end your day feeling great instead of exhausted because doing the ONE Thing helped you get that much closer to your most important goals.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.