focus

Forget the long to-do lists and choose one thing to be good at

April 19, 2013
Obsession
management
April 19, 2013

Success doesn’t come from a four-hour workweek or a list of seven steps.

People who are extraordinarily successful are known for just one thing, one passion, one amazing skill, says Gary Keller and co-author Jay Papasan in their new book called The One Thing. That is true for Warren Buffett choosing investments or Bill Gates and computers.

This notion comes partly from Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto’s principle, which showed that 80% of wealth was held by 20% of the people. This works elsewhere as the 80/20 principle, where a small portion of effort leads to oversized results. “Things don’t matter equally. …The smaller I make my life, the bigger it gets,” says Keller, the co-founder and chairman of Keller Williams Real Estate.

Great bosses understand that businesses will succeed when staff are encouraged to excel in one domain. “I want my phones answered extraordinarily. I want my contracts read extraordinarily. I want software done extraordinarily,” Keller said about his own real estate business.

Here are three lessons from The One Thing:

1.  Success is sequential, not simultaneous.  Many people want it all. Yet when Keller coached “a lot of very successful men and women” in the 1990s, he would see them create a list of assignments to tackle. By their next conversation, they hadn’t accomplished the most important ones. Finally, he started making them choose one thing they would concentrate on between sessions. That led to dramatically improved results. He would ask them the focusing question: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” That question runs through the book, and can serve to focus on big picture goals as well as daily priorities.

2. Nail your “one thing” by lunch.  Schedule your time block—a minimum of two hours, three or more is better—for the first part of your day when your willpower is highest. “By noon or 1 o’clock at latest, you’ve had an awesome day,” he said. “You’ve done what mattered most. Now you deal with all the other stuff.” For executive meetings, know the one thing that drives your business’ success, and make that the first item on your agenda always.

3. Everyone blows it. Keller wanted his book to be grounded in research, so the first draft came in at 400 pages. His publisher said: “Why don’t you practice what you preach?” The authors ended up cutting it in half.

Follow Vickie Elmer on Twitter @WorkingKind.  We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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