In 2012 Gary Keller released a book called The One Thing. In this book, he argues that you can reach extraordinary results by focusing your efforts on the most important thing. At its core is the focusing question, which helps you find the lead domino in whatever area you are focusing on.
The question itself is as follows:
What’s the one thing you can do such that by doing it everything else is either easier or unnecessary?
On the surface, it seems like a trivial question, but if we look at each part in isolation it’s easier to understand just why it’s so powerful.
First part: “What’s the one thing you can do”.
One thing. Not top five or top three. One.
This goes directly against what many people like to do, namely to create a to-do list. These lists have their place, but they are usually just a collection of tasks. And if you have multiple priorities you don’t have any priorities.
Choosing a single thing forces you to think about what you need to focus on right now.
Then comes the second part: “such that by doing it everything else becomes either easier or unnecessary.”
Easier. Or unnecessary. What moves the needle for you?
This is about being clear about where you are going. You look at the end goal, work your way back through all the steps you need to take and then you choose the most appropriate next step. By taking this one step, you’re actually taking multiple steps. Or avoid doing what doesn’t need to be done at all.
How to use the focusing question
Using the focusing question is really about finding actionable insight. This means that you want to answer it in a way that is both specific and immediate. Clean out my inbox, call 10 customers or write documentation about that one feature that I always get questions about are all good answers. “Find time to tweak Facebook ad spend” is not. A good rule of thumb is to think about SMART goals1. The answer itself doesn’t have to be SMART, but the general idea is the same.
However, there are areas where the first answer you come up with only acts as a stepping stone to finding the real answer. An example of where I used the focusing question in this way was in early 2021 when I decided to lose some weight.
First and foremost, there are many things you can do to lose weight. But what is the one area that I should focus on that makes everything else easier or unnecessary? As anyone well-read on the subject would tell you, the key is to first focus on calorie intake.
In other words, the answer is diet.
But “diet” is neither immediate nor very specific. So I reframed the question in this new context. What is the one thing I can do with my diet such that everything else becomes easier or unnecessary? For me the answer was simple. Switch to a Huel2 based breakfast and lunch. This makes it easy for me to control my intake of calories. And since I now always have one or two Huel bags at my office, I have also completely removed the need to make decisions on what to get for lunch.
There is another non-obvious area where you can use this question. Controlling your informational diet. I always want to learn new things, but sometimes it’s hard to separate the signal from the noise out there.
In order to not have to spend too much time validating content from new authors and content I ask myself a version of the focusing question. What is the one podcast I can listen to get all the information I need for the areas I care about, such that listening to any other podcast becomes either easier or unnecessary? And what was my answer? The Tim Ferriss Show3. For me, this podcast has the perfect mix of business, tech, personal development and mental health.
This doesn’t mean that it is the only podcast that I listen to. But when choosing other podcasts to listen to it’s usually episodes with people that have already been on The Tim Ferriss Show or people that I know Tim listens to.
Not only does The Tim Ferriss Show make it easier for me to immediately discard a lot of the podcasts out there, but it also makes it easier for me to choose the ones to listen to.
As you can tell, there are multiple ways of applying the focusing question to your own life and this post only scratches the surface of the topic, though.
If you want to learn more about the focusing question and Gary Keller himself I highly recommend listening to the episode of The Tim Ferriss Show where he is the guest. Besides containing even more examples on how to apply the focusing question, it’s a great conversation around Gary Keller’s life and how he built the largest real estate company in the world.
And of course, buy the book.
As always, if you made it all the way to the end don’t hesitate to ping me on Twitter or send me an email at viktor [at] nyblom [dot] io. I would love to hear your thoughts about it and if you’re thinking about applying the focusing question to any areas of your own life.
After over a decade of building apps, teams and companies, I've now started coaching founders and CTOs through something that I call Nyblom-as-a-Service.
If this is something that would be interesting to you feel free to schedule a free discovery call to see if we are a good match for each other.