Main The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

Since its April, 2013 publication The ONE Thing has made more than 125 appearances on national bestseller lists, including #1 Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, BookScan, and 800CEOREAD.

The ONE Thing was chosen one of the Top 5 Business Books of 2013 by Hudson’s Booksellers and one of Top 30 Business Books of 2013 by Executive Book Summaries.

People are using this simple, powerful concept to avoid overwhelming distractions in their personal and work lives so they can focus on what matters most. Companies are helping their employees be more productive with study groups, training, and coaching. Churches are conducting classes and recommending from the pulpit.


You want fewer distractions and less on your plate. The daily barrage of e-mails, texts, tweets, messages, and meetings distract you and stress you out. The simultaneous demands of work and family are taking a toll. And what’s the cost? Second-rate work, missed deadlines, smaller paychecks, fewer promotions—and lots of stress.


You want more productivity from your work. More income for a better lifestyle. You want more satisfaction from life, and more time for yourself, your family, and your friends.


The ONE Thing, you’ll learn to

• cut through the clutter

• achieve better results in less time

• build momentum toward your goal

• dial down the stress

• overcome that overwhelmed feeling

• revive your energy

• stay on track

• master what matters to you

The ONE Thing delivers extraordinary results in every area of your life—work, personal, family, and spiritual.

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1. The ONE Thing

2. The Domino Effect

3. Success Leaves Clues




4. Everything Matters Equally

5. Multitasking

6. A Disciplined Life

7. Willpower Is Always on Will-Call

8. A Balanced Life

9. Big Is Bad




10. The Focusing Question

11. The Success Habit

12. The Path to Great Answers




13. Live with Purpose

14. Live by Priority

15. Live for Productivity

16. The Three Commitments

17. The Four Thieves

18. The Journey

Putting The ONE Thing to Work

On the Research



About the Authors




	“Be like a postage stamp— stick to one thing until you get there.”

	—Josh Billings

On June 7, 1991, the earth moved for 112 minutes. Not really, but it felt that way.

I was watching the hit comedy City Slickers, and the audience’s laughter rattled and rocked the theater. Considered one of the funniest movies of all time, it also sprinkled in unexpected doses of wisdom and insight. In one memorable scene, Curly, the gritty cowboy played by the late Jack Palance, and city slicker Mitch, played by Billy Crystal, leave the group to search for stray cattle. Although they had clashed for most of the movie, riding along together they finally connect over a conversation about life. Suddenly Curly reins his horse to a stop and turns in the saddle to face Mitch.

	Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?

	Mitch: No. What?

	Curly: This. [He holds up one finger.]

	Mitch: Your finger?

	Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean sh*t.

	Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the “one thing”?

	Curly: That’s what you’ve got to figure out.

Out of the mouth of a fictional character to our ears comes the secret of success. Whether the writers knew it or unwi; ttingly stumbled on it, what they wrote was the absolute truth. The ONE Thing is the best approach to getting what you want.

I didn’t really get this until much later. I’d experienced success in the past, but it wasn’t until I hit a wall that I began to connect my results with my approach. In less than a decade we’d built a successful company with national and international ambitions, but all of a sudden things weren’t working out. For all the dedication and hard work, my life was in turmoil and it felt as if everything was crumbling around me.

I was failing.


At the end of a short rope that looked eerily like a noose, I sought help and found it in the form of a coach. I walked him through my situation and talked through the challenges I faced, both personal and professional. We revisited my goals and the trajectory I wanted for my life, and with a full grasp of the issues, he set out in search of answers. His research was thorough. When we got back together, he had my organizational chart—essentially a bird’s-eye view of the entire company—up on the wall.

Our discussion started with a simple question: “Do you know what you need to do to turn things around?” I hadn’t a clue.

He said there was only one thing I needed to do. He had identified 14 positions that needed new faces, and he believed that with the right individuals in those key spots, the company, my job, and my life would see a radical change for the better. I was shocked and let him know I thought it would take a lot more than that.

He said, “No. Jesus needed 12, but you’ll need 14.”

It was a transformational moment. I had never considered how so few could change so much. What became obvious is that, as focused as I thought I was, I wasn’t focused enough. Finding 14 people was clearly the most important thing I could do. So, based on this meeting, I made a huge decision. I fired myself.

I stepped down as CEO and made finding those 14 people my singular focus.

This time the earth really did move. Within three years, we began a period of sustained growth that averaged 40 percent year-over-year for almost a decade. We grew from a regional player to an international contender. Extraordinary success showed up, and we never looked back.

As success begat success, something else happened along the way. The language of the ONE Thing emerged.

Having found the 14, I began working with our top people individually to build their careers and businesses. Out of habit, I would end our coaching calls with a recap of the handful of things they were agreeing to accomplish before our next session. Unfortunately, many would get most of them done, but not necessarily what mattered most. Results suffered. Frustration followed. So, in an effort to help them succeed, I started shortening my list: If you can do just three things this week. ... If you can do just two things this week. ... Finally, out of desperation, I went as small as I could possibly go and asked: “What’s the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?” And the most awesome thing happened.

Results went through the roof.

After these experiences, I looked back at my successes and failures and discovered an interesting pattern. Where I’d had huge success, I had narrowed my concentration to one thing, and where my success varied, my focus had too.

And the light came on.


If everyone has the same number of hours in a day, why do some people seem to get so much more done than others? How do they do more, achieve more, earn more, have more? If time is the currency of achievement, then why are some able to cash in their allotment for more chips than others? The answer is they make getting to the heart of things the heart of their approach. They go small.

When you want the absolute best chance to succeed at anything you want, your approach should always be the same. Go small.

“Going small” is ignoring all the things you could do and doing what you should do. It’s recognizing that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most. It’s a tighter way to connect what you do with what you want. It’s realizing that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus.

The way to get the most out of your work and your life is to go as small as possible. Most people think just the opposite. They think big success is time consuming and complicated. As a result, their calendars and to-do lists become overloaded and overwhelming. Success starts to feel out of reach, so they settle for less. Unaware that big success comes when we do a few things well, they get lost trying to do too much and in the end accomplish too little. Over time they lower their expectations, abandon their dreams, and allow their life to get small. This is the wrong thing to make small.

You have only so much time and energy, so when you spread yourself out, you end up spread thin. You want your achievements to add up, but that actually takes subtraction, not addition. You need to be doing fewer things for more effect instead of doing more things with side effects. The problem with trying to do too much is that even if it works, adding more to your work and your life without cutting anything brings a lot of bad with it: missed deadlines, disappointing results, high stress, long hours, lost sleep, poor diet, no exercise, and missed moments with family and friends— all in the name of going after something that is easier to get than you might imagine.

Going small is a simple approach to extraordinary results, and it works. It works all the time, anywhere and on anything. Why? Because it has only one purpose—to ultimately get you to the point.

When you go as small as possible, you’ll be staring at one thing. And that’s the point.


	“Every great change starts like falling dominoes.”

	— BJ Thornton

In Leeuwarden, The Netherlands, on Domino Day, November 13, 2009, Weijers Domino Productions coordinated the world record domino fall by lining up more than 4,491,863 dominoes in a dazzling display In this instance, a single domino set in motion a domino fall that cumulatively unleashed more than 94,000 joules of energy, which is as much energy as it takes for an average-sized male to do 545 pushups.

Each standing domino represents a small amount of potential energy; the more you line up, the more potential energy you’ve accumulated. Line up enough and, with a simple flick, you can start a chain reaction of surprising power. And Weijers Domino Productions proved it. When one thing, the right thing, is set in motion, it can topple many things. And that’s not all.

In 1983, Lorne Whitehead wrote in the American Journal of Physics that he’d discovered that domino falls could not only topple many things, they could also topple bigger things. He described how a single domino is capable of bringing down another domino that is actually 50 percent larger.

FIG. 1 A geometric domino progression.

FIG. 2 A geometric progression is like a long, long train — it starts out too slow to notice until it’s moving too fast to stop.

Do you see the implication? Not only can one knock over others but also others that are successively larger. In 2001 a physicist from San Francisco’s Exploratorium reproduced Whitehead’s experiment by creating eight dominoes out of plywood, each of which was 50 percent larger than the one before. The first was a mere two inches, the last almost three feet tall. The resulting domino fall began with a gentle tick and quickly ended “with a loud SLAM.”

Imagine what would happen if this kept going. If a regular domino fall is a linear progression, Whitehead’s would be described as a geometric progression. The result could defy the imagination. The 10th domino would be almost as tall as NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. By the 18th, you’re looking at a domino that would rival the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The 23rd domino would tower over the Eiffel Tower and the 31st domino would loom over Mount Everest by almost 3,000 feet. Number 57 would practically bridge the distance between the earth and the moon!


So when you think about success, shoot for the moon. The moon is reachable if you prioritize everything and put all of your energy into accomplishing the most important thing. Getting extraordinary results is all about creating a domino effect in your life.

Toppling dominoes is pretty straightforward. You line them up and tip over the first one. In the real world, though, it’s a bit more complicated. The challenge is that life doesn’t line everything up for us and say, “Here’s where you should start.” Highly successful people know this. So every day they line up their priorities anew, find the lead domino, and whack away at it until it falls.

Why does this approach work? Because extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous. What starts out linear becomes geometric. You do the right thing and then you do the next right thing. Over time it adds up, and the geometric potential of success is unleashed. The domino effect applies to the big picture, like your work or your business, and it applies to the smallest moment in each day when you’re trying to decide what to do next. Success builds on success, and as this happens, over and over, you move toward the highest success possible.

When you see someone who has a lot of knowledge, they learned it over time. When you see someone who has a lot of skills, they developed them over time. When you see someone who has done a lot, they accomplished it over time. When you see someone who has a lot of money, they earned it over time.

The key is over time. Success is built sequentially. It’s one thing at a time.


	“It is those who concentrate on but one thing at a time who advance in this world.”

	— Og Mandino

Proof of the ONE Thing is everywhere. Look closely and you’ll always find it.


Extraordinarily successful companies always have one product or service they’re most known for or that makes them the most money. Colonel Sanders started KFC with a single secret chicken recipe. The Adolph Coors Company grew 1,500 percent from 1947 to 1967 with only one product, made in a single brewery. Microprocessors generate the vast majority of Intel’s net revenue. And Starbucks? I think you know.

The list of businesses that have achieved extraordinary results through the power of the ONE Thing is endless. Sometimes what is made or delivered is also what is sold, sometimes not. Take Google. Their ONE Thing is search, which makes selling advertising, its key source of revenue, possible.

And what about Star Wars? Is the ONE Thing movies or merchandise? If you guessed merchandise, you’d be right— and you’d be wrong. Revenue from toys recently totaled over $10 billion, while combined worldwide box office revenue for the six main films totaled less than half that, $4.3 billion. From where I sit, movies are the ONE Thing because they make the toys and products possible.

The answer isn’t always clear, but that doesn’t make finding it any less important. Technological innovations, cultural shifts, and competitive forces will often dictate that a business’s ONE Thing evolve or transform. The most successful companies know this and are always asking: “What’s our ONE Thing?”

Apple is a study in creating an environment where an extraordinary ONE Thing can exist while transitioning to another extraordinary ONE Thing. From 1998 to 2012, Apple’s ONE Thing moved from Macs to iMacs to iTunes to iPods to iPhones, with the iPad already jockeying for the pole position at the head of the product line. As each new “golden gadget” entered the limelight, the other products weren’t discontinued or relegated to the discount tables. Those lines, plus others, continued to be refined while the current ONE Thing created a well-documented halo effect, making the user more likely to adopt the whole Apple product family

	“There can only be one most important thing. Many things may be important, but only one can be the most important.”

	—Ross Garber

When you get the ONE Thing, you begin to see the business world differently If today your company doesn’t know what its ONE Thing is, then the company’s ONE Thing is to find out.


The ONE Thing is a dominant theme that shows up in different ways. Take the concept and apply it to people, and you’ll see where one person makes all the difference. As a freshman in high school, Walt Disney took night courses at the Chicago Art Institute and became the cartoonist for his school newspaper. After graduation, he wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist but couldn’t get a job, so his brother Roy, a businessman and banker, got him work at an art studio. It was there he learned animation and began creating animated cartoons. When Walt was young, his one person was Roy.

For Sam Walton, early on it was L. S. Robson, his father-in-law, who loaned him the $20,000 he needed to start his first retail business, a Ben Franklin franchise store. Then, when Sam was opening his first Wal-Mart, Robson secretly paid a landlord $20,000 to provide a pivotal expansion lease.

Albert Einstein had Max Talmud, his first mentor. It was Max who introduced a ten-year-old Einstein to key texts in math, science, and philosophy. Max took one meal a week with the Einstein family for six years while guiding young Albert.

No one is self-made.

Oprah Winfrey credits her father, and the time she spent with him and his wife, for “saving” her. She told Jill Nelson of The Washington Post Magazine, “If I hadn’t been sent to my father, I would have gone in another direction.” Professionally, it started with Jeffrey D. Jacobs, the “lawyer, agent, manager and financial adviser” who, when Oprah was looking for employment contract advice, persuaded her to establish her own company rather than simply be a talent for hire. Harpo Productions, Inc., was born.

The world is familiar with the influence that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had on each other’s songwriting success, but in the recording studio there was George Martin. Considered one of the greatest record producers of all time, George has often been referred to as the “Fifth Beatle” for his extensive involvement on the Beatles’ original albums. Martin’s musical expertise helped fill the gaps between the Beatles’ raw talent and the sound they wanted to achieve. Most of the Beatles’ orchestral arrangements and instrumentation, as well as numerous keyboard parts on the early records, were written or performed by Martin in collaboration with the band.

Everyone has one person who either means the most to them or was the first to influence, train, or manage them.

No one succeeds alone. No one.


Look behind any story of extraordinary success and the ONE Thing is always there. It shows up in the life of any successful business and in the professional life of anyone successful. It also shows up around personal passions and skills. We each have passions and skills, but you’ll see extraordinarily successful people with one intense emotion or one learned ability that shines through, defining them or driving them more than anything else.

	“You must be single-minded. Drive for the one thing on which you have decided.”

	—General George S. Patton

Often, the line between passion and skill can be blurry. That’s because they’re almost always connected. Pat Matthews, one of America’s great impressionist painters, says he turned his passion for painting into a skill, and ultimately a profession, by simply painting one painting a day. Angelo Amorico, Italy’s most successful tour guide, says he developed his skills and ultimately his business from his singular passion for his country and the deep desire to share it with others. This is the story line for extraordinary success stories. Passion for something leads to disproportionate time practicing or working at it. That time spent eventually translates to skill, and when skill improves, results improve. Better results generally lead to more enjoyment, and more passion and more time is invested. It can be a virtuous cycle all the way to extraordinary results.

Gilbert Tuhabonye’s one passion is running. Gilbert is an American long-distance runner born in Songa, Burundi, whose early love of track and field helped him win the Burundi National Championship in the men’s 400 and 800 meters while only a junior in high school. This passion helped save his life.

On October 21, 1993, members of the Hutu tribe invaded Gilbert’s high school and captured the students of the Tutsi tribe. Those not immediately killed were beaten and burned alive in a nearby building. After nine hours buried beneath burning bodies, Gilbert managed to escape and outrun his captors to the safety of a nearby hospital. He was the lone survivor.

	“Success demands singleness of purpose.”

	— Vince Lombardi

He came to Texas and kept competing, honing his skills. Recruited by Abilene Christian University, Gilbert earned All-America honors six times. After graduation he moved to Austin, where by all accounts he is the most popular running coach in the city. To drill for water in Burundi, he cofounded the Gazelle Foundation, whose main fundraiser is—wait for it—“Run for the Water,” a sponsored run through the streets of Austin. Do you see the theme running through his life?

From competitor to survivor, from college to career to charity, Gilbert Tuhabonye’s passion for running became a skill that led to a profession that opened up an opportunity to give back. The smile he greets fellow runners with on the trails around Austin’s Lady Bird Lake symbolizes how one passion can become one skill, and together ignite and define an extraordinary life.

The ONE Thing shows up time and again in the lives of the successful because it’s a fundamental truth. It showed up for me, and if you let it, it will show up for you. Applying the ONE Thing to your work—and in your life—is the simplest and smartest thing you can do to propel yourself toward the success you want.


If I had to choose only one example of someone who has harnessed the ONE Thing to build an extraordinary life, it would be American businessman Bill Gates. Bill’s one passion in high school was computers, which led him to develop one skill, computer programming. While in high school he met one person, Paul Allen, who gave him his first job and became his partner in forming Microsoft. This happened as the result of one letter they sent to one person, Ed Roberts, who changed their lives forever by giving them a shot at writing the code for one computer, the Altair 8800—and they needed only one shot. Microsoft began its life to do one thing, develop and sell BASIC interpreters for the Altair 8800, which eventually made Bill Gates the richest man in the world for 15 straight years. When he retired from Microsoft, Bill chose one person to replace him as CEO— Steve Ballmer, whom he met in college. By the way, Steve was Microsoft’s 30th employee but the first business manager hired by Bill. And the story doesn’t end there.

Bill and Melinda Gates decided to put their wealth to work making a difference in the world. Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, they formed one foundation to do ONE Thing: to tackle “really tough problems” like health and education. Since its inception, the majority of the foundation’s grants have gone to one area, Bill and Melinda’s Global Health Program. This ambitious program’s one goal is to harness advances in science and technology to save lives in poor countries. To do this they eventually settled on one thing— stamp out infectious disease as a major cause of death in their lifetime. At some point in their journey, they made a decision to focus on one thing that would do this—vaccines. Bill explained the decision by saying, “We had to choose what the most impactful thing to give would be... . The magic tool of health intervention is vaccines, because they can be made inexpensively.” A singular line of questioning led them down this one path when Melinda asked, “Where’s the place you can have the biggest impact with the money?” Bill and Melinda Gates are living proof of the power of the ONE Thing.


The doors to the world have been flung wide open, and the view that’s available is staggering. Through technology and innovation, opportunities abound and possibilities seem endless. As inspiring as this can be, it can be equally overwhelming. The unintended consequence of abundance is that we are bombarded with more information and choices in a day than our ancestors received in a lifetime. Harried and hurried, a nagging sense that we attempt too much and accomplish too little haunts our days.

We sense intuitively that the path to more is through less, but the question is, Where to begin? From all that life has to offer, how do you choose? How do you make the best decisions possible, experience life at an extraordinary level, and never look back?

Live the ONE Thing.

What Curly knew, all successful people know. The ONE Thing sits at the heart of success and is the starting point for achieving extraordinary results. Based on research and real-life experience, it’s a big idea about success wrapped in a disarmingly simple package. Explaining it is easy; buying into it can be tough.

So, before we can have a frank, heart-to-heart discussion about how the ONE Thing actually works, I want to openly discuss the myths and misinformation that keep us from accepting it. They are the lies of success.

Once we banish these from our minds, we can take up the ONE Thing with an open mind and a clear path.




	“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

	—Mark Twain


In 2003, Merriam-Webster began analyzing searches on their online dictionary to determine the “Word of the Year.” The idea was that since online searches for words reveal whatever is on our collective minds, then the most searched-for word should capture the spirit of the times. The debut winner delivered. On the heels of the invasion of Iraq, it seems everyone wanted to know what “democracy” really meant. The next year, “blog,” a little made-up word that described a new way to communicate, topped the list. After all the political scandals of 2005, “integrity” earned top honors.

Then, in 2006, Merriam-Webster added a twist. Site visitors could nominate candidates and subsequently vote on the “Word of the Year.” You could say it was an effort to instill a quantitative exercise with qualitative feedback, or you could just call it good marketing. The winner, by a five-to-one landslide, was “truthiness,” a word comedian Stephen Colbert coined as “truth that comes from the gut, not books” on the debut episode of his Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report. In an Information Age driven by round-the-clock news, ranting talk radio, and editorless blogging, truthiness captures all the incidental, accidental, and even intentional falsehoods that sound just “truthy” enough for us to accept as true.

The problem is we tend to act on what we believe even when what we believe isn’t anything we should. As a result, buying into The ONE Thing becomes difficult because we’ve unfortunately bought into too many others—and more often than not those “other things” muddle our thinking, misguide our actions, and sidetrack our success.

Life is too short to chase unicorns. It’s too precious to rely on a rabbit’s foot. The real solutions we seek are almost always hiding in plain sight; unfortunately, they’ve usually been obscured by an unbelievable amount of bunk, an astounding flood of “common sense” that turns out to be nonsense. Ever hear your boss evoke the frog-in-boiling-water metaphor? (“Toss a frog into a pot of hot water and it will jump right back out. But if you place a frog in lukewarm water and slowly raise the temperature, it will boil to death.”) It’s a lie—a very truthy lie, but a lie nonetheless. Anyone ever tell you “fish stink from the head down”? Not true. Just a fish tale that actually turns out to be fishy. Ever hear about how the explorer Cortez burned his ships on arriving at the Americas to motivate his men? Not true. Another lie. “Bet on the jockey, not the horse!” has long been a rallying cry for placing your faith in a company’s leadership. However, as a betting strategy, this maxim will put you on the fast track to the pauper’s house, which makes you wonder how it ever became a maxim at all. Over time, myths and mistruths get thrown around so often they eventually feel familiar and start to sound like the truth.

Then we start basing important decisions on them.

The challenge we all face when forming our success strategies is that, just like tales of frogs, fish, explorers, and jockeys, success has its own lies too. “I just have too much that has to be done.” “I’ll get more done by doing things at the same time.” “I need to be a more disciplined person.” “I should be able to do what I want whenever I want.” “I need more balance in my life.” “Maybe I shouldn’t dream so big.” Repeat these thoughts often enough and they become the six lies about success that keep us from living The ONE Thing.


		 		Everything Matters Equally


		A Disciplined Life

		Willpower Is Always on Will-Call

		A Balanced Life

		Big Is Bad

The six lies are beliefs that get into our heads and become operational principles driving us the wrong way. Highways that end as bunny trails. Fool’s gold that diverts us from the mother lode. If we’re going to maximize our potential, we’re going to have to make sure we put these lies to bed.


	“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

	—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Equality is a worthy ideal pursued in the name of justice and human rights. In the real world of results, however, things are never equal. No matter how teachers grade—two students are not equal. No matter how fair officials try to be—contests are not equal. No matter how talented people are—no two are ever equal. A dime equals ten cents and people must absolutely be treated fairly, but in the world of achievement everything doesn’t matter equally.

Equality is a lie.

Understanding this is the basis of all great decisions.

So, how do you decide? When you have a lot to get done in the day, how do you decide what to do first? As kids, we mostly did things we needed to do when it was time to do them. It’s breakfast time. It’s time to go to school, time to do homework, time to do chores, bath time, bedtime. Then, as we got older, we were given a measure of discretion. You can go out and play as long as you get your homework done before dinner. Later, as we became adults, everything became discretionary. It all became our choice. And when our lives are defined by our choices, the all-important question becomes, How do we make good ones?

Complicating matters, the older we get, it seems there is more and more piled on that we believe “simply must get done.” Overbooked, overextended, and overcommitted. “In the weeds” overwhelmingly becomes our collective condition.

That’s when the battle for the right of way gets fierce and frantic. Lacking a clear formula for making decisions, we get reactive and fall back on familiar, comfortable ways to decide what to do. As a result, we haphazardly select approaches that undermine our success. Pinballing through our day like a confused character in a B-horror movie, we end up running up the stairs instead of out the front door. The best decision gets traded for any decision, and what should be progress simply becomes a trap.

When everything feels urgent and important, everything seems equal. We become active and busy, but this doesn’t actually move us any closer to success. Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.

	“The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.”

	—Bob Hawke

As Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” Knocking out a hundred tasks for whatever the reason is a poor substitute for doing even one task that’s meaningful. Not everything matters equally, and success isn’t a game won by whoever does the most. Yet that is exactly how most play it on a daily basis.


To-do lists are a staple of the time-management-and-success industry. With our wants and others’ wishes flying at us right and left, we impulsively jot them down on scraps of paper in moments of clarity or build them methodically on printed notepads. Time planners reserve valuable space for daily, weekly, and monthly task lists. Apps abound for taking to-dos mobile, and software programs code them right into their menus. It seems that everywhere we turn we’re encouraged to make lists—and though lists are invaluable, they have a dark side.

While to-dos serve as a useful collection of our best intentions, they also tyrannize us with trivial, unimportant stuff that we feel obligated to get done—because it’s on our list. Which is why most of us have a love-hate relationship with our to-dos. If allowed, they set our priorities the same way an inbox can dictate our day. Most inboxes overflow with unimportant e-mails masquerading as priorities. Tackling these tasks in the order we receive them is behaving as if the squeaky wheel immediately deserves the grease. But, as Australian prime minister Bob Hawke duly noted, “The things which are most important don’t always scream the loudest.”

Achievers operate differently. They 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.

Left in its raw state, as a simple inventory, a to-do list can easily lead you astray. A to-do list is simply the things you think you need to do; the first thing on your list is just the first thing you thought of. To-do lists inherently lack the intent of success. In fact, most to-do lists are actually just survival lists—getting you through your day and your life, but not making each day a stepping-stone for the next so that you sequentially build a successful life. Long hours spent checking off a to-do list and ending the day with a full trash can and a clean desk are not virtuous and have nothing to do with success. Instead of a to-do list, you need a success list—a list that is purposefully created around extraordinary results.

To-do lists tend to be long; success lists are short. One pulls you in all directions; the other aims you in a specific direction. One is a disorganized directory and the other is an organized directive. If a list isn’t built around success, then that’s not where it takes you. If your to-do list contains everything, then it’s probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go.

So how does a successful person turn a to-do list into a success list? With so many things you could do, how do you decide what matters most at any given moment on any given day?

Just follow Juran’s lead.


In the late ’30s a group of managers at General Motors made an intriguing discovery that opened the door for an amazing breakthrough. One of their card readers (input devices for early computers) started producing gibberish. While investigating the faulty machine, they stumbled on a way to encode secret messages. This was a big deal at the time. Since Germany’s infamous Enigma coding machines first appeared in World War I, both code making and code breaking were the stuff of high national security and even higher public curiosity. The GM managers quickly became convinced that their accidental cipher was unbreakable. One man, a visiting Western Electric consultant, disagreed. He took up the code-breaking challenge, worked into the night, and cracked the code by three o’clock the following morning. His name was Joseph M. Juran.

Juran later cited this incident as the starting point for cracking an even bigger code and making one of his greatest contributions to science and business. As a result of his deciphering success, a GM executive invited him to review research on management compensation that followed a formula described by a little-known Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto. In the 19th century, Pareto had written a mathematical model for income distribution in Italy that stated that 80 percent of the land was owned by 20 percent of the people. Wealth was not evenly distributed. In fact, according to Pareto, it was actually concentrated in a highly predictable way. A pioneer of quality-control management, Juran had noticed that a handful of flaws would usually produce a majority of the defects. This imbalance not only rang true to his experience, but he suspected it might even be a universal law—and that what Pareto had observed might be bigger than even Pareto had imagined.

While writing his seminal book Quality Control Handbook, Juran wanted to give a short name to the concept of the “vital few and trivial many.” One of the many illustrations in his manuscript was labeled “Pareto’s principle of unequal distribution... .” Where another might have called it Juran’s Rule, he called it Pareto’s Principle.

Pareto’s Principle, it turns out, is as real as the law of gravity, and yet most people fail to see the gravity of it. It’s not just a theory—it is a provable, predictable certainty of nature and one of the greatest productivity truths ever discovered. Richard Koch, in his book The 80/20 Principle, defined it about as well as anyone: “The 80/20 Principle asserts that a minority of causes, inputs, or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards.” In other words, in the world of success, things aren’t equal. A small amount of causes creates most of the results. Just the right input creates most of the output. Selected effort creates almost all of the rewards.

FIG. 3 The 80/20 Principle says the minority of your effort leads to the majority of your results.

Pareto points us in a very clear direction: the majority of what you want will come from the minority of what you do. Extraordinary results are disproportionately created by fewer actions than most realize.

Don’t get hung up on the numbers. Pareto’s truth is about inequality, and though often stated as an 80/20 ratio, it can actually take a variety of proportions. Depending on the circumstances, it can easily play out as, say, 90/20, where 90 percent of your success comes from 20 percent of your effort. Or 70/10 or 65/5. But understand that these are all fundamentally working off the same principle. Juran’s great insight was that not everything matters equally; some things matter more than others—a lot more. A to-do list becomes a success list when you apply Pareto’s Principle to it.

FIG. 4 A to-do list becomes a success list when you prioritize it.

The 80/20 Principle has been one of the most important guiding success rules in my career. It describes the phenomenon which, like Juran, I’ve observed in my own life over and over again. A few ideas gave me most of my results. Some clients were far more valuable than others; a small number of people created most of my business success; and a handful of investments put the most money in my pocket. Everywhere I turned, the concept of unequal distribution popped up. The more it showed up, the more I paid attention—and the more I paid attention, the more it showed up. Finally I quit thinking it was a coincidence and began to apply it as the absolute principle of success that it is—not only to my life, but also in working with everyone else, as well. And the results were extraordinary.


Pareto proves everything I’m telling you—but there’s a catch. He doesn’t go far enough. I want you to go further. I want you to take Pareto’s Principle to an extreme. I want you to go small by identifying the 20 percent, and then I want you to go even smaller by finding the vital few of the vital few. The 80/20 rule is the first word, but not the last, about success. What Pareto started, you’ve got to finish. Success requires that you follow the 80/20 Principle, but you don’t have to stop there.

FIG. 5 No matter how many to-dos you start with, you can always narrow it to one.

Keep going. You can actually take 20 percent of the 20 percent of the 20 percent and continue until you get to the single most important thing! (See figure 5.) No matter the task, mission, or goal. Big or small. Start with as large a list as you want, but develop the mindset that you will whittle your way from there to the critical few and not stop until you end with the essential ONE. The imperative ONE. The ONE Thing.

In 2001, I called a meeting of our key executive team. As fast as we were growing, we were still not acknowledged by the very top people in our industry. I challenged our group to brainstorm 100 ways to turn this situation around. It took us all day to come up with the list. The next morning, we narrowed the list down to ten ideas, and from there we chose just one big idea. The one that we decided on was that I would write a book on how to become an elite performer in our industry. It worked. Eight years later that one book had not only become a national bestseller, but also had morphed into a series of books with total sales of over a million copies. In an industry of about a million people, one thing changed our image forever.

Now, again, stop and do the math. One idea out of 100. That is Pareto to the extreme. That’s thinking big, but going very small. That’s applying the ONE Thing to a business challenge in a truly powerful way.

But this doesn’t just apply to business. On my 40th birthday, I started taking guitar lessons and quickly discovered I could give only 20 minutes a day to practice. This wasn’t much, so I knew I had to narrow down what I learned. I asked my friend Eric Johnson (one of the greatest guitarists ever) for advice. Eric said that if I could do only one thing, then I should practice my scales. So, I took his advice and chose the minor blues scale. What I discovered was that if I learned that scale, then I could play many of the solos of great classic rock guitarists from Eric Clapton to Billy Gibbons and, maybe someday, even Eric Johnson. That scale became my ONE Thing for the guitar, and it unlocked the world of rock ’n’ roll for me.

The inequality of effort for results is everywhere in your life if you will simply look for it. And if you apply this principle, it will unlock the success you seek in anything that matters to you. There will always be just a few things that matter more than the rest, and out of those, one will matter most. Internalizing this concept is like being handed a magic compass. Whenever you feel lost or lacking direction, you can pull it out to remind yourself to discover what matters most.


	Go small. Don’t focus on being busy; focus on being productive. Allow what matters most to drive your day.

	Go extreme. Once you’ve figured out what actually matters, keep asking what matters most until there is only one thing left. That core activity goes at the top of your success list.

	Say no. Whether you say “later” or “never,” the point is to say “not now” to anything else you could do until your most important work is done.

	Don’t get trapped in the “check off” game. If we believe things don’t matter equally, we must act accordingly. We can’t fall prey to the notion that everything has to be done, that checking things off our list is what success is all about. We can’t be trapped in a game of “check off” that never produces a winner. The truth is that things don’t matter equally and success is found in doing what matters most.

Sometimes it’s the first thing you do. Sometimes it’s the only thing you do. Regardless, doing the most important thing is always the most important thing.


	“To do two things at once is to do neither.”

	—Publilius Syrus

So, if doing the most important thing is the most important thing, why would you try to do anything else at the same time? It’s a great question.

In the summer of 2009, Clifford Nass set out to answer just that. His mission? To find out how well so-called multitaskers multitasked. Nass, a professor at Stanford University, told the New York Times that he had been “in awe” of multitaskers and deemed himself to be a poor one. So he and his team of researchers gave 262 students questionnaires to determine how often they multitasked. They divided their test subjects into two groups of high and low multitaskers and began with the presumption that the frequent multitaskers would perform better. They were wrong.

“I was sure they had some secret ability” said Nass. “But it turns out that high multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy.” They were outperformed on every measure. Although they’d convinced themselves and the world that they were great at it, there was just one problem. To quote Nass, “Multitaskers were just lousy at everything.”

Multitasking is a lie.

It’s a lie because nearly everyone accepts it as an effective thing to do. It’s become so mainstream that people actually think it’s something they should do, and do as often as possible. We not only hear talk about doing it, we even hear talk about getting better at it. More than six million webpages offer answers on how to do it, and career websites list “multitasking” as a skill for employers to target and for prospective hires to list as a strength. Some have gone so far as to be proud of their supposed skill and have adopted it as a way of life. But it’s actually a “way of lie,” for the truth is multitasking is neither efficient nor effective. In the world of results, it will fail you every time.

	“Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.”

	—Steve Uzzell

When you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or won’t do either well. If you think multitasking is an effective way to get more done, you’ve got it backward. It’s an effective way to get less done. As Steve Uzzell said, “Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.”


The concept of humans doing more than one thing at a time has been studied by psychologists since the 1920s, but the term “multitasking” didn’t arrive on the scene until the 1960s. It was used to describe computers, not people. Back then, ten megahertz was apparently so mind-bogglingly fast that a whole new word was needed to describe a computer’s ability to quickly perform many tasks. In retrospect, they probably made a poor choice, for the expression “multitasking” is inherently deceptive. Multitasking is about multiple tasks alternately sharing one resource (the CPU), but in time the context was flipped and it became interpreted to mean multiple tasks being done simultaneously by one resource (a person). It was a clever turn of phrase that’s misleading, for even computers can process only one piece of code at a time. When they “multitask,” they switch back and forth, alternating their attention until both tasks are done. The speed with which computers tackle multiple tasks feeds the illusion that everything happens at the same time, so comparing computers to humans can be confusing.

People can actually do two or more things at once, such as walk and talk, or chew gum and read a map; but, like computers, what we can’t do is focus on two things at once. Our attention bounces back and forth. This is fine for computers, but it has serious repercussions in humans. Two airliners are cleared to land on the same runway. A patient is given the wrong medicine. A toddler is left unattended in the bathtub. What all these potential tragedies share is that people are trying to do too many things at once and forget to do something they should do.

It’s strange, but somehow over time the image of the modern human has become one of a multitasker. We think we can, so we think we should. Kids studying while texting, listening to music, or watching television. Adults driving while talking on the phone, eating, applying makeup, or even shaving. Doing something in one room while talking to someone in the next. Smartphones in hands before napkins hit laps. It’s not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it’s that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have. So we double and triple up in the hope of getting everything done.

And then there’s work.

The modern office is a carnival of distracting multitasking demands. While you diligently try to complete a project, someone has a coughing fit in a nearby cubicle and asks if you have a lozenge. The office paging system continually calls out messages that anyone within earshot of an intercom hears. You’re alerted around the clock to new e-mails arriving in your inbox while your social media newsfeed keeps trying to catch your eye and your cell phone intermittently vibrates on the desk to the tune of a new text. A stack of unopened mail and piles of unfinished work sit within sight as people keep swinging by your desk all day to ask you questions. Distraction, disturbance, disruption. Staying on task is exhausting. Researchers estimate that workers are interrupted every 11 minutes and then spend almost a third of their day recovering from these distractions. And yet amid all of this we still assume we can rise above it and do what has to be done within our deadlines.

But we’re fooling ourselves. Multitasking is a scam. Poet laureate Billy Collins summed it up well: “We call it multitasking, which makes it sound like an ability to do lots of things at the same time. ... A Buddhist would call this monkey mind.” We think we’re mastering multitasking, but we’re just driving ourselves bananas.


We come by it naturally. With an average of 4,000 thoughts a day flying in and out of our heads, it’s easy to see why we try to multitask. If a change in thought every 14 seconds is an invitation to change direction, then it’s rather obvious we’re continually tempted to try to do too much at once. While doing one thing we’re only seconds away from thinking of something else we could do. Moreover, history suggests that our continued existence may have required that human beings evolve to be able to oversee multiple tasks at the same time. Our ancestors wouldn’t have lasted long if they couldn’t scan for predators while gathering berries, tanning hides, or just idling by the fire after a hard day hunting. The pull to juggle more than one task at a time is not only at the core of how we’re wired, but was most likely a necessity for survival.

But juggling isn’t multitasking.

Juggling is an illusion. To the casual observer, a juggler is juggling three balls at once. In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession. Catch, toss, catch, toss, catch, toss. One ball at a time. It’s what researchers refer to as “task switching.”

When you switch from one task to another, voluntarily or not, two things happen. The first is nearly instantaneous: you decide to switch. The second is less predictable: you have to activate the “rules” for whatever you’re about to do (see figure 6). Switching between two simple tasks—like watching television and folding clothes—is quick and relatively painless. However, if you’re working on a spreadsheet and a co-worker pops into your office to discuss a business problem, the relative complexity of those tasks makes it impossible to easily jump back and forth. It always takes some time to start a new task and restart the one you quit, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever pick up exactly where you left off. There is a price for this. “The cost in terms of extra time from having to task switch depends on how complex or simple the tasks are,” reports researcher Dr. David Meyer. “It can range from time increases of 25 percent or less for simple tasks to well over 100 percent or more for very complicated tasks.” Task switching exacts a cost few realize they’re even paying.

FIG. 6 Multitasking doesn’t save time —it wastes time.


So, what’s happening when we’re actually doing two things at once? It’s simple. We’ve separated them. Our brain has channels, and as a result we’re able to process different kinds of data in different parts of our brain. This is why you can talk and walk at the same time. There is no channel interference. But here’s the catch: you’re not really focused on both activities. One is happening in the foreground and the other in the background. If you were trying to talk a passenger through landing a DC-10, you’d stop walking. Likewise, if you were walking across a gorge on a rope bridge, you’d likely stop talking. You can do two things at once, but you can’t focus effectively on two things at once. Even my dog Max knows this. When I get caught up with a basketball game on TV, he gives me a good nudge. Apparently, background scratches can be pretty unsatisfying.

Many think that because their body is functioning without their conscious direction, they’re multitasking. This is true, but not the way they mean it. A lot of our physical actions, like breathing, are being directed from a different part of our brain than where focus comes from. As a result, there’s no channel conflict. We’re right when we say something is “front and center” or “top of mind,” because that’s where focus occurs—in the prefrontal cortex. When you focus, it’s like shining a spotlight on what matters. You can actually give attention to two things, but that is what’s called “divided attention.” And make no mistake. Take on two things and your attention gets divided. Take on a third and something gets dropped.

The problem of trying to focus on two things at once shows up when one task demands more attention or if it crosses into a channel already in use. When your spouse is describing the way the living room furniture has been rearranged, you engage your visual cortex to see it in your mind’s eye. If you happen to be driving at that moment, this channel interference means you are now seeing the new sofa and love seat combination and are effectively blind to the car braking in front of you. You simply can’t effectively focus on two important things at the same time.

Every time we try to do two or more things at once, we’re simply dividing up our focus and dumbing down all of the outcomes in the process. Here’s the short list of how multitasking short-circuits us:

	There is just so much brain capability at any one time. Divide it up as much as you want, but you’ll pay a price in time and effectiveness.

	The more time you spend switched to another task, the less likely you are to get back to your original task. This is how loose ends pile up.

	Bounce between one activity and another and you lose time as your brain reorients to the new task. Those milliseconds add up. Researchers estimate we lose 28 percent of an average workday to multitasking ineffectiveness.

	Chronic multitaskers develop a distorted sense of how long it takes to do things. They almost always believe tasks take longer to complete than is actually required.

	Multitaskers make more mistakes than non-multitaskers. They often make poorer decisions because they favor new information over old, even if the older information is more valuable.

	Multitaskers experience more life-reducing, happiness-squelching stress.

With research overwhelmingly clear, it seems insane that—knowing how multitasking leads to mistakes, poor choices, and stress—we attempt it anyway Maybe it’s just too tempting. Workers who use computers during the day change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour. Being in a distractible setting sets us up to be more distractible. Or maybe it’s the high. Media multitaskers actually experience a thrill with switching—a burst of dopamine—that can be addictive. Without it, they can feel bored. For whatever the reason, the results are unambiguous: multitasking slows us down and makes us slower witted.


In 2009, New York Times reporter Matt Richtel earned a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting with a series of articles (“Driven to Distraction”) on the dangers of driving while texting or using cell phones. He found that distracted driving is responsible for 16 percent of all traffic fatalities and nearly half a million injuries annually. Even an idle phone conversation when driving takes a 40 percent bite out of your focus and, surprisingly, can have the same effect as being drunk. The evidence is so compelling that many states and municipalities have outlawed cell phone use while driving. This makes sense. Though some of us at times have been guilty, we’d never condone it for our teenage kids. All it takes is a text message to turn the family SUV into a deadly, two-ton battering ram. Multitasking can cause more than one type of wreck.

We know that multitasking can even be fatal when lives are at stake. In fact, we fully expect pilots and surgeons to focus on their jobs to the exclusion of everything else. And we expect that anyone in their position who gets caught doing otherwise will always be taken severely to task. We accept no arguments and have no tolerance for anything but total concentration from these professionals. And yet, here the rest of us are—living another standard. Do we not value our own job or take it as seriously? Why would we ever tolerate multitasking when we’re doing our most important work? Just because our day job doesn’t involve bypass surgery shouldn’t make focus any less critical to our success or the success of others. Your work deserves no less respect. It may not seem so in the moment, but the connectivity of everything we do ultimately means that we each not only have a job to do, but a job that deserves to be done well. Think of it this way. If we really lose almost a third of our workday to distractions, what is the cumulative loss over a career? What is the loss to other careers? To businesses? When you think about it, you might just discover that if you don’t figure out a way to resolve this, you could in fact lose your career or your business. Or worse, cause others to lose theirs.

On top of work, what sort of toll do our distractions take on our personal lives? Author Dave Crenshaw put it just right when he wrote, “The people we live with and work with on a daily basis deserve our full attention. When we give people segmented attention, piecemeal time, switching back and forth, the switching cost is higher than just the time involved. We end up damaging relationships.” Every time I see a couple dining with one partner trying earnestly to communicate while the other is texting under the table, I’m reminded of the simple truth of that statement.


	Distraction is natural. Don’t feel bad when you get distracted. Everyone gets distracted.

	Multitasking takes a toll. At home or at work, distractions lead to poor choices, painful mistakes, and unnecessary stress.

	Distraction undermines results. When you try to do too much at once, you can end up doing nothing well. Figure out what matters most in the moment and give it your undivided attention.

In order to be able to put the principle of The ONE Thing to work, you can’t buy into the lie that trying to do two things at once is a good idea. Though multitasking is sometimes possible, it’s never possible to do it effectively.


	“It’s one of the most prevalent myths of our culture: self-discipline.”

	—Leo Babauta

There is this pervasive idea that the successful person is the “disciplined person” who leads a “disciplined life.”

It’s a lie.

The truth is we don’t need any more discipline than we already have. We just need to direct and manage it a little better.

Contrary to what most people believe, success is not a marathon of disciplined action. Achievement doesn’t require you to be a full-time disciplined person where your every action is trained and where control is the solution to every situation. Success is actually a short race—a sprint fueled by discipline just long enough for habit to kick in and take over.

When we know something that needs to be done but isn’t currently getting done, we often say, “I just need more discipline.” Actually, we need the habit of doing it. And we need just enough discipline to build the habit.

In any discussion about success, the words “discipline” and “habit” ultimately intersect. Though separate in meaning, they powerfully connect to form the foundation for achievement—regularly working at something until it regularly works for you. When you discipline yourself, you’re essentially training yourself to act in a specific way. Stay with this long enough and it becomes routine—in other words, a habit. So when you see people who look like “disciplined” people, what you’re really seeing is people who’ve trained a handful of habits into their lives. This makes them seem “disciplined” when actually they’re not. No one is.

And who would want to be, anyway? The very thought of having your every behavior molded and maintained by training seems frighteningly impossible on one hand and utterly boring on the other. Most people ultimately reach this conclusion but, seeing no alternative, redouble their efforts at the impossible or quietly quit. Frustration shows up and resignation eventually sets in.

You don’t need to be a disciplined person to be successful. In fact, you can become successful with less discipline than you think, for one simple reason: success is about doing the right thing, not about doing everything right.

The trick to success is to choose the right habit and bring just enough discipline to establish it. That’s it. That’s all the discipline you need. As this habit becomes part of your life, you’ll start looking like a disciplined person, but you won’t be one. What you will be is someone who has something regularly working for you because you regularly worked on it. You’ll be a person who used selected discipline to build a powerful habit.


Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps is a case study of selected discipline. When he was diagnosed with ADHD as a child, his kindergarten teacher told his mother, “Michael can’t sit still. Michael can’t be quiet... . He’s not gifted. Your son will never be able to focus on anything.” Bob Bowman, his coach since age 11, reports that Michael spent a lot of time on the side of the pool by the lifeguard stand for disruptive behavior. That same misbehavior has cropped up from time to time in his adult life as well.

Yet, he’s set dozens of world records. In 2004 he won six gold and two bronze medals in Athens and then, in 2008, a record eight in Beijing, surpassing the legendary Mark Spitz. His 18 gold medals set a record for Olympians in any sport. Before he hung up his goggles in retirement, his wins at the 2012 London Olympic Games brought his total medal count to 22 and earned him the status of most-decorated Olympian in any sport in history. Talking about Phelps, one reporter said, “If he were a country he’d be ranked 12th over the last three Olympics.” Today, his mom reports, “Michael’s ability to focus amazes me.” Bowman calls it “his strongest attribute.” How did this happen? How did the boy who would “never be able to focus on anything” achieve so much?

Phelps became a person of selected discipline.

From age 14 through the Beijing Olympics, Phelps trained seven days a week, 365 days a year. He figured that by training on Sundays he got a 52-training-day advantage on the competition. He spent up to six hours in the water each day. “Channeling his energy is one of his great strengths,” said Bowman. Not to oversimplify, but it’s not a stretch to say that Phelps channeled all of his energy into one discipline that developed into one habit—swimming daily.

The payoff from developing the right habit is pretty obvious. It gets you the success you’re searching for. What sometimes gets overlooked, however, is an amazing windfall: it also simplifies your life. Your life gets clearer and less complicated because you know what you have to do well and you know what you don’t. The fact of the matter is that aiming discipline at the right habit gives you license to be less disciplined in other areas. When you do the right thing, it can liberate you from having to monitor everything.

Michael Phelps found his sweet spot in the swimming pool. Over time, finding the discipline to do this formed the habit that changed his life.


Discipline and habit. Honestly, most people never really want to talk about these. And who can blame them? I don’t either. The images these words conjure in our heads are of something hard and unpleasant. Just reading the words is exhausting. But there’s good news. The right discipline goes a long way, and habits are hard only in the beginning. Over time, the habit you’re after becomes easier and easier to sustain. It’s true. Habits require much less energy and effort to maintain than to begin (see figure 7). Put up with the discipline long enough to turn it into a habit, and the journey feels different. Lock in one habit so it becomes part of your life, and you can effectively ride the routine with less wear and tear on yourself. The hard stuff becomes habit, and habit makes the hard stuff easy.

FIG. 7 Once a new behavior becomes a habit, it takes less discipline to maintain.

So, how long do you have to maintain discipline? Researchers at the University College of London have the answer. In 2009, they asked the question: How long does it take to establish a new habit? They were looking for the moment when a new behavior becomes automatic or ingrained. The point of “automaticity” came when participants were 95 percent through the power curve and the effort needed to sustain it was about as low as it would get. They asked students to take on exercise and diet goals for a period of time and monitor their progress. The results suggest that it takes an average of 66 days to acquire a new habit. The full range was 18 to 254 days, but the 66 days represented a sweet spot—with easier behaviors taking fewer days on average and tough ones taking longer. Self-help circles tend to preach that it takes 21 days to make a change, but modem science doesn’t back that up. It takes time to develop the right habit, so don’t give up too soon. Decide what the right one is, then give yourself all the time you need and apply all the discipline you can summon to develop it.

Australian researchers Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng have even found some evidence of a halo effect around habit creation. In their studies, students who successfully acquired one positive habit reported less stress; less impulsive spending; better dietary habits; decreased alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine consumption; fewer hours watching TV; and even fewer dirty dishes. Sustain the discipline long enough on one habit, and not only does it become easier, but so do other things as well. It’s why those with the right habits seem to do better than others. They’re doing the most important thing regularly and, as a result, everything else is easier.


	Don’t be a disciplined person. Be a person of powerful habits and use selected discipline to develop them.

	Build one habit at a time. Success is sequential, not simultaneous. No one actually has the discipline to acquire more than one powerful new habit at a time. Super-successful people aren’t superhuman at all; they’ve just used selected discipline to develop a few significant habits. One at a time. Over time.

	Give each habit enough time. Stick with the discipline long enough for it to become routine. Habits, on average, take 66 days to form. Once a habit is solidly established, you can either build on that habit or, if appropriate, build another one.

If you are what you repeatedly do, then achievement isn’t an action you take but a habit you forge into your life. You don’t have to seek out success. Harness the power of selected discipline to build the right habit, and extraordinary results will find you.


	“Odysseus understood how weak willpower actually is when he asked his crew to bind him to the mast while sailing by the seductive Sirens.”

	—Patricia Cohen

Why would you ever do something the hard way? Why would you ever knowingly get behind the eight ball, deliberately crawl between a rock and a hard place, or intentionally work with one hand tied behind your back? You wouldn’t. But most people unwittingly do every day. When we tie our success to our willpower without understanding what that really means, we set ourselves up for failure. And we don’t have to.

Often quoted as a statement about sheer determination, the old English proverb “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” has probably misled as many as it’s helped. It just rolls off the tongue and passes so quickly through our head that few stop to hear its full meaning. Widely regarded as the singular source of personal strength, it gets misinterpreted as a cleverly phrased, one-dimensional prescription for success. But for will to have its most powerful way, there’s more to it than that. Construe willpower as just a call for character and you miss its other equally essential element: timing. It’s a critical piece.

For most of my life I never gave willpower much thought. Once I did, it captivated me. The ability to control oneself to determine one’s actions is a pretty powerful idea. Base it on training and it’s called discipline. But do it because you simply can, that’s raw power. The power of will.

It seemed so straightforward: invoke my will and success was mine. I was on my way. Sadly, I didn’t need to pack much, for it was a short trip. As I set out to impose my will against defenseless goals, I quickly discovered something discouraging: I didn’t always have willpower. One moment I had it, the next—poof! I didn’t. One day it was AWOL, the next— bang! It was at my beck and call. My willpower seemed to come and go as if it had a life of its own. Building success around full strength, on-demand willpower proved unsuccessful. My initial thought was, What’s wrong with me? Was I a loser? Apparently so. It seemed I had no grit. No strength of character. No inner fortitude. Consequently, I gutted it up, bore down with determination, doubled my effort, and reached a humbling conclusion: willpower isn’t on will-call. As powerful as my motivation was, my willpower wasn’t just sitting around waiting for my call, ready at any moment to enforce my will on anything I wanted. I was taken aback. I had always assumed that it would always be there. That I could simply access it whenever I wanted, to get whatever I wanted. I was wrong.

Willpower is always on will-call is a lie.

Most people assume willpower matters, but many might not fully appreciate how critical it is to our success. One highly unusual research project revealed just how important it really is.


In the late ’60s and early ’70s, researcher Walter Mischel began methodically tormenting four-year-olds at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School. More than 500 children were volunteered for the diabolical program by their own parents, many of whom would later, like millions of others, laugh mercilessly at videos of the squirming, miserable kids. The devilish experiment was called “The Marshmallow Test.” It was an interesting way to look at willpower.

Kids were offered one of three treats—a pretzel, a cookie, or the now infamous marshmallow. The child was told that the researcher had to step away, and if he could wait 15 minutes until the researcher returned, he’d be awarded a second treat. One treat now or two later. (Mischel knew they’d designed the test well when a few of the kids wanted to quit as soon as they explained the ground rules.)

Left alone with a marshmallow they couldn’t eat, kids engaged in all kinds of delay strategies, from closing their eyes, pulling their own hair, and turning away, to hovering over, smelling, and even caressing their treats. On average, kids held out less than three minutes. And only three out of ten managed to delay their gratification until the researcher returned. It was pretty apparent most kids struggled with delayed gratification. Willpower was in short supply.

Initially no one assumed anything about what success or failure in the marshmallow test might say about a child’s future. That insight came about organically. Mischel’s three daughters attended Bing Nursery School, and over the next few years, he slowly began to see a pattern when he’d ask them about classmates who had participated in the experiment. Children who had successfully waited for the second treat seemed to be doing better. A lot better.

Starting in 1981, Mischel began systematically tracking down the original subjects. He requested transcripts, compiled records, and mailed questionnaires in an attempt to measure their relative academic and social progress. His hunch was correct—willpower or the ability to delay gratification was a huge indicator of future success. Over the next 30-plus years, Mischel and his colleagues published numerous papers on how “high delayers” fared better. Success in the experiment predicted higher general academic achievement, SAT test scores that were on average 210 points higher, higher feelings of self-worth, and better stress management. On the other hand, “low delayers” were 30 percent more likely to be overweight and later suffered higher rates of drug addiction. When your mother told you “all good things come to those who wait,” she wasn’t kidding.

Willpower is so important that using it effectively should be a high priority. Unfortunately, since it’s not on will-call, putting it to its best use requires you to manage it. Just as with “the early bird gets the worm” and “make hay while the sun shines,” willpower is a timing issue. When you have your will, you get your way. Although character is an essential element of willpower, the key to harnessing it is when you use it.


Think of willpower like the power bar on your cell phone. Every morning you start out with a full charge. As the day goes on, every time you draw on it you’re using it up. So as your green bar shrinks, so does your resolve, and when it eventually goes red, you’re done. Willpower has a limited battery life but can be recharged with some downtime. It’s a limited but renewable resource. Because you have a limited supply, each act of will creates a win-lose scenario where winning in an immediate situation through willpower makes you more likely to lose later because you have less of it. Make it through a tough day in the trenches, and the lure of late-night snacking can become your diet’s downfall.

Everyone accepts that limited resources must be managed, yet we fail to recognize that willpower is one of them. We act as though our supply of willpower were endless. As a result, we don’t consider it a personal resource to be managed, like food or sleep. This repeatedly puts us in a tight spot, for when we need our willpower the most, it may not be there.

Stanford University professor Baba Shiv’s research shows just how fleeting our willpower can be. He divided 165 undergraduate students into two groups and asked them to memorize either a two-digit or a seven-digit number. Both tasks were well within the average person’s cognitive abilities, and they could take as much time as they needed. When they were ready, students would then go to another room where they would recall the number. Along the way, they were offered a snack for participating in the study. The two choices were chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad—guilty pleasure or healthy treat. Here’s the kicker: students asked to memorize the seven-digit number were nearly twice as likely to choose cake. This tiny extra cognitive load was just enough to prevent a prudent choice.

The implications are staggering. The more we use our mind, the less minding power we have. Willpower is like a fast-twitch muscle that gets tired and needs rest. It’s incredibly powerful, but it has no endurance. As Kathleen Vohs put it in Prevention magazine in 2009, “Willpower is like gas in your car... . When you resist something tempting, you use some up. The more you resist, the emptier your tank gets, until you run out of gas.” In fact, a measly five extra digits is all it takes to drain our willpower dry.

While decisions tap our willpower, the food we eat is also a key player in our level of willpower.


The brain makes up l/50th of our body mass but consumes a staggering 1/5th of the calories we bum for energy. If your brain were a car, in terms of gas mileage, it’d be a Hummer. Most of our conscious activity is happening in our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for focus, handling short-term memory, solving problems, and moderating impulse control. It’s at the heart of what makes us human and the center for our executive control and willpower.

Here’s an interesting fact. The “last in, first out” theory is very much at work inside our head. The most recent parts of our brain to develop are the first to suffer if there is a shortage of resources. Older, more developed areas of the brain, such as those that regulate breathing and our nervous responses, get first helpings from our blood stream and are virtually unaffected if we decide to skip a meal. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, feels the impact. Unfortunately, being relatively young in terms of human development, it’s the runt of the litter come feeding time.

Advanced research shows us why this matters. A 2007 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology detailed nine separate studies on the impact of nutrition and willpower. In one set, researchers assigned tasks that did or did not involve willpower and measured blood-sugar levels before and after each task. Participants who exercised willpower showed a marked drop in the levels of glucose in the bloodstream. Subsequent studies showed the impact on performance when two groups completed one willpower-related task and then did another. Between tasks, one group was given a glass of Kool-Aid lemonade sweetened with real sugar (buzz) and the other was given a placebo, lemonade with Splenda (buzzkill). The placebo group had roughly twice as many errors on the subsequent test as the sugar group.

The studies concluded that willpower is a mental muscle that doesn’t bounce back quickly. If you employ it for one task, there will be less power available for the next unless you refuel. To do our best, we literally have to feed our minds, which gives new credence to the old saw, “food for thought.” Foods that elevate blood sugar evenly over long periods, like complex carbohydrates and proteins, become the fuel of choice for high-achievers—literal proof that “you are what you eat.”


One of the real challenges we have is that when our willpower is low we tend to fall back on our default settings. Researchers Jonathan Levav of the Stanford School of Business in California, along with Liora Avnaim-Pesso and Shai Danziger of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, found a creative way to investigate this. They took a hard look at the impact of willpower on the Israeli parole system.

The researchers analyzed 1,112 parole board hearings assigned to eight judges over a ten-month period (which incidentally amounted to 40 percent of Israel’s total parole requests over that period). The pace is grueling. The judges hear arguments and take about six minutes to render a decision on 14 to 35 parole requests a day, and they get only two breaks—a morning snack and late lunch—to rest and refuel. The impact of their schedule is as spectacular as it is surprising: In the mornings and after each break, parolees’ chances for being released peak at 65 percent, and then plunge to near zero by the end of each period (see figure 8).

The results are most likely tied to the mental toll of repetitive decision making. These are big decisions for the parolees and the public at large. High stakes and the assembly-line rhythm demand intense focus throughout the day As their energy is spent, judges mentally collapse into their “default choice,” which doesn’t turn out so well for hopeful prisoners. The default decision for a parole judge is no. When in doubt and willpower is low, the prisoner stays behind bars.

And if you’re not careful, your default settings may convict you too.

When our willpower runs out, we all revert to our default settings. This begs the question: What are your default settings? If your willpower is dragging, will you grab the bag of carrots or the bag of chips? Will you be up for focusing on the work at hand or down for any distraction that drops in? When your most important work is done while your willpower wanes, default will define your level of achievement. Average is often the result.

FIG. 8 Good decisions depend on more than just wisdom and common sense.


We lose our willpower not because we think about it but because we don’t. Without appreciating that it can come and go, we let it do exactly that. Without intentionally protecting it every day, we allow ourselves to go from a will and a way to no will and no way. If success is what were after, this won’t work.

Think about it. There are degrees of willpower strength. Like the battery indicator going from green to red, there is willpower and there is “won’t” power. Most people bring won’t power to their most important challenges without ever realizing that’s what makes them so hard. When we don’t think of resolve as a resource that gets used up, when we fail to reserve it for the things that matter most, when we don’t replenish it when it’s low, we are probably setting ourselves up for the toughest possible path to success.

So how do you put your willpower to work? You think about it. Pay attention to it. Respect it. You make doing what matters most a priority when your willpower is its highest. In other words, you give it the time of day it deserves.


	 		Implementing new behaviors

		Filtering distractions

		Resisting temptation

		Suppressing emotion

		Restraining aggression

		Suppressing impulses

		Taking tests

		Trying to impress others

		Coping with fear

		Doing something you don’t enjoy

		Selecting long-term over short-term rewards

Every day, without realizing it, we engage in all manner of activities that diminish our willpower. Willpower is depleted when we make decisions to focus our attention, suppress our feelings and impulses, or modify our behavior in pursuit of goals. It’s like taking an ice pick and gouging a hole in our gas line. Before long we have willpower leaking everywhere and none left to do our most important work. So like any other limited but vital resource, willpower must be managed.

When it comes to willpower, timing is everything. You will need your willpower at full strength to ensure that when you’re doing the right thing, you don’t let anything distract you or steer you away from it. Then you need enough willpower the rest of the day to either support or avoid sabotaging what you’ve done. That’s all the willpower you need to be successful. So, if you want to get the most out of your day, do your most important work—your ONE Thing—early, before your willpower is drawn down. Since your self-control will be sapped throughout the day, use it when it’s at full strength on what matters most.


	Don’t spread your willpower too thin. On any given day, you have a limited supply of willpower, so decide what matters and reserve your willpower for it.

	Monitor your fuel gauge. Full-strength willpower requires a full tank. Never let what matters most be compromised simply because your brain was under-fueled. Eat right and regularly.

	Time your task. Do what matters most first each day when your willpower is strongest. Maximum strength willpower means maximum success.

Don’t fight your willpower. Build your days around how it works and let it do its part to build your life. Willpower may not be on willcall, but when you use it first on what matters most, you can always count on it.


	“The truth is, balance is bunk. It is an unattainable pipe dream... . The quest for balance between work and life, as we’ve come to think of it, isn’t just a losing proposition; it’s a hurtful, destructive one.”

	—Keith H. Hammonds

Nothing ever achieves absolute balance. Nothing. No matter how imperceptible it might be, what appears to be a state of balance is something entirely different— an act of balancing. Viewed wistfully as a noun, balance is lived practically as a verb. Seen as something we ultimately attain, balance is actually something we constantly do. A “balanced life” is a myth—a misleading concept most accept as a worthy and attainable goal without ever stopping to truly consider it. I want you to consider it. I want you to challenge it. I want you to reject it.

A balanced life is a lie.

The idea of balance is exactly that—an idea. In philosophy “the golden mean” is the moderate middle between polar extremes, a concept used to describe a place between two positions that is more desirable than one state or the other. This is a grand idea, but not a very practical one. Idealistic, but not realistic. Balance doesn’t exist.

This is tough to conceive, much less believe, mainly because one of the most frequent laments is “I need more balance,” a common mantra for what’s missing in most lives. We hear about balance so much we automatically assume it’s exactly what we should be seeking. It’s not. Purpose, meaning, significance—these are what make a successful life. Seek them and you will most certainly live your life out of balance, criss-crossing an invisible middle line as you pursue your priorities. The act of living a full life by giving time to what matters is a balancing act. Extraordinary results require focused attention and time. Time on one thing means time away from another. This makes balance impossible.


Historically, balancing our lives is a novel privilege to even consider. For thousands of years, work was life. If you didn’t work—hunt game, harvest crops, or raise livestock—you didn’t live long. But things changed. Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Pates of Human Societies illustrates how farm-based societies that generated a surplus of food ultimately gave rise to professional specialization. “Twelve thousand years ago, everybody on earth was a hunter-gatherer; now almost all of us are farmers or else are fed by farmers.” This freedom from having to forage or farm allowed people to become scholars and craftsmen. Some worked to put food on our tables while others built the tables.

At first, most people worked according to their needs and ambitions. The blacksmith didn’t have to stay at the forge until 5 p.m.; he could go home when the horse’s feet were shod. Then 19th-century industrialization saw for the first time large numbers working for someone else. The story became one of hard-driving bosses, year-round work schedules, and lighted factories that ignored dawn and dusk. Consequently, the 20th century witnessed the start of significant grassroots movements to protect workers and limit work hours.

Still, the term “work-life balance” wasn’t coined until the mid-1980s when more than half of all married women joined the workforce. To paraphrase Ralph E. Gomory’s preface in the 2005 book Being Together, Working Apart: Dual-Career Families and the Work-Life Balance, we went from a family unit with a breadwinner and a homemaker to one with two breadwinners and no homemaker. Anyone with a pulse knows who got stuck with the extra work in the beginning. However, by the ’90s “work-life balance” had quickly become a common watchword for men too. A LexisNexis survey of the top 100 newspapers and magazines around the world shows a dramatic rise in the number of articles on the topic, from 32 in the decade from 1986 to 1996 to a high of 1,674 articles in 2007 alone (see figure 9).

It’s probably not a coincidence that the ramp-up of technology parallels the rise in the belief that something is missing in our lives. Infiltrated space and fewer boundaries will do that. Rooted in real-life challenges, the idea of “work-life balance” has clearly captured our minds and imagination.

FIG. 9 The number of times “work-life balance” is mentioned in newspaper and magazine articles has exploded in recent years.


The desire for balance makes sense. Enough time for everything and everything done in time. It sounds so appealing that just thinking about it makes us feel serene and peaceful. This calm is so real that we just know it’s the way life was meant to be. But it’s not.

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.

FIG. 10 Pursuing a balanced life means never pursuing anything at the extremes.

The reason we shouldn’t pursue balance is that the magic never happens in the middle; magic happens at the extremes. The dilemma is that chasing the extremes presents real challenges. We naturally understand that success lies at the outer edges, but we don’t know how to manage our lives while we’re out there.

When we work too long, eventually our personal life suffers. Falling prey to the belief that long hours are virtuous, we unfairly blame work when we say, “I have no life.” Often, it’s just the opposite. Even if our work life doesn’t interfere, our personal life itself can be so full of “have-tos” that we again reach the same defeated conclusion: “I have no life.” And sometimes we get hit from both sides. Some of us face so many personal and professional demands that everything suffers. Breakdown imminent, we once again declare, “I have no life!”

FIG. 11 Pursuing the extremes presents its own set of problems.

Just like playing to the middle, playing to the extremes is the kind of middle mismanagement that plays out all the time.


My wife once told me the story of a friend of hers. The friend’s mother was a schoolteacher and her father was a farmer. They had scrimped, saved, and done with less their entire lives in anticipation of retirement and travel. The woman fondly remembered the regular shopping trips she and her mother would take to the local fabric store where they would pick out some fabric and patterns. The mother explained that when she retired these would be her travel clothes.

She never got to her retirement years. In her final year of teaching, she developed cancer and later died. The father never felt good about spending the money they’d saved, believing that it was “their” money and now she wasn’t there to share it with him. When he passed away and my wife’s friend went to clean out her parents’ home, she discovered a closet full of fabric and dress patterns. The father had never cleaned it out. He couldn’t. It represented too much. It was as if its contents were so full of unfulfilled promises that they were too heavy to lift.

Time waits for no one. Push something to an extreme and postponement can become permanent.

I once knew a highly successful businessman who had worked long days and weekends for most of his life, sincere in his belief that he was doing it all for his family. Someday when he was done, they would all enjoy the fruits of his labor, spend time together, travel, and do all the things they’d never done. After giving many years to building his company he had recently sold it and was open to discussing what he might do next. I asked him how he was doing and he proudly proclaimed that he was fine. “When I was building the business, I was never home and rarely saw my family. So now I’m with them on vacation making up for lost time. You know how it is, right? Now that I have the money and the time, I’m getting those years back.”

Do you really think you can ever get back a child’s bedtime story or birthday? Is a party for a five-year-old with imaginary pals the same as dinner with a teenager with high-school friends? Is an adult attending a young child’s soccer game on par with attending a soccer game with an adult child? Do you think you can cut a deal with God that time stands still for you, holding off on anything important until you’re ready to participate again?

When you gamble with your time, you may be placing a bet you can’t cover. Even if you’re sure you can win, be careful that you can live with what you lose.

Toying with time will lead you down a rabbit hole with no way out. Believing this lie does its harm by convincing you to do things you shouldn’t and stop doing things you should. Middle mismanagement can be one of the most destructive things you ever do. You can’t ignore the inevitability of time.

So if achieving balance is a lie, then what do you do? Counterbalance.

Replace the word “balance” with “counterbalance” and what you experience makes sense. The things we presume to have balance are really just counterbalancing. The ballerina is a classic example. When the ballerina poses en pointe, she can appear weightless, floating on air, the very idea of balance and grace. A closer look would reveal her toe shoes vibrating rapidly, making minute adjustments for balance. Counterbalancing done well gives the illusion of balance.


When we say we’re out of balance, we’re usually referring to a sense that some priorities—things that matter to us—are being underserved or unmet. The problem is that when you focus on what is truly important, something will always be underserved. No matter how hard you try, there will always be things left undone at the end of your day, week, month, year, and life. Trying to get them all done is folly. When the things that matter most get done, you’ll still be left with a sense of things being undone—a sense of imbalance. Leaving some things undone is a necessary tradeoff for extraordinary results. But you can’t leave everything undone, and that’s where counterbalancing comes in. The idea of counterbalancing is that you never go so far that you can’t find your way back or stay so long that there is nothing waiting for you when you return.

This is so important that your very life may hang in the balance. An 11-year study of nearly 7,100 British civil servants concluded that habitual long hours can be deadly. Researchers showed that individuals who worked more than 11 hours a day (a 55-plus hour workweek) were 67 percent more likely to suffer from heart disease. Counterbalancing is not only about your sense of well-being, it’s essential to your being well.

FIG. 12 Extraordinary results at work require longer periods between counterbalancing.

There are two types of counterbalancing: the balancing between work and personal life and the balancing within each. In the world of professional success, it’s not about how much overtime you put in; the key ingredient is focused time over time. 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. In your personal world, awareness is the essential ingredient. Awareness of your spirit and body, awareness of your family and friends, awareness of your personal needs—none of these can be sacrificed if you intend to “have a life,” so you can never forsake them for work or one for the other. You can move back and forth quickly between these and often even combine the activities around them, but you can’t neglect any of them for long. Your personal life requires tight counterbalancing.

Whether or not to go out of balance isn’t really the question. The question is: “Do you go short or long?” In your personal life, go short and avoid long periods where you’re out of balance. Going short lets you stay connected to all the things that matter most and move them along together. In your professional life, go long and make peace with the idea that the pursuit of extraordinary results may require you to be out of balance for long periods. Going long allows you to focus on what matters most, even at the expense of other, lesser priorities. In your personal life, nothing gets left behind. At work it’s required.

In his novel Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas, James Patterson artfully highlights where our priorities lie in our personal and professional balancing act: “Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But 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 question of balance is really a question of priority. When you change your language from balancing to prioritizing, you see your choices more clearly and open the door to changing your destiny. Extraordinary results demand that you set a priority and act on it. When you act on your priority, you’ll automatically go out of balance, giving more time to one thing over another. The challenge then doesn’t become one of not going out of balance, for in fact you must. The challenge becomes how long you stay on your priority. To be able to address your priorities outside of work, be clear about your most important work priority so you can get it done. Then go home and be clear about your priorities there so you can get back to work.

When you’re supposed to be working, work, and when you’re supposed to be playing, play. It’s a weird tightrope you’re walking, but it’s only when you get your priorities mixed up that things fall apart.


	Think about two balancing buckets. Separate your work life and personal life into two distinct buckets—not to compartmentalize them, just for counterbalancing. Each has its own counterbalancing goals and approaches.

	Counterbalance your work bucket. View work as involving a skill or knowledge that must be mastered. This will cause you to give disproportionate time to your ONE Thing and will throw the rest of your work day, week, month, and year continually out of balance. Your work life is divided into two distinct areas—what matters most and everything else. You will have to take what matters to the extremes and be okay with what happens to the rest. Professional success requires it.

	Counterbalance your personal life bucket. Acknowledge that your life actually has multiple areas and that each requires a minimum of attention for you to feel that you “have a life.” Drop any one and you will feel the effects. This requires constant awareness. You must never go too long or too far without counterbalancing them so that they are all active areas of your life. Your personal life requires it.

Start leading a counterbalanced life. Let the right things take precedence when they should and get to the rest when you can.

An extraordinary life is a counterbalancing act.


	“We are kept from our goal, not by obstacles but by a clear path to a lesser goal.”

	—Robert Brault

The Big Bad Wolf. Big Bad John. From folktales to folk songs, the suggestion that big and bad go together has been a common theme across history—so much so that many think they’re synonymous. They’re not. Big can be bad and bad can be big, but they’re not one and the same. They aren’t inherently related.

A big opportunity is better than a small one, but a small problem is better than a big one. Sometimes you want the biggest present under the tree and sometimes you want the smallest. Often a big laugh or a big cry is just what you need, and every so often a small chuckle and a few tears will do the trick. Big and bad are no more tied together than small and good.

Big is bad is a lie.

It’s quite possibly the worst lie of all, for if you fear big success, you’ll either avoid it or sabotage your efforts to achieve it.


Place big and results in the same room and a lot of people balk or walk. Mention big with achievement and their first thoughts are hard, complicated, and time-consuming. Difficult to get there and complex once you do pretty much sums up their views. Overwhelming and intimidating is what they feel. For some reason there is the fear that big success brings crushing pressure and stress, that the pursuit of it robs them of not only time with family and friends but eventually their health. Uncertain of the right to achieve big, or fearful of what might happen if they try and fall short, their head spins just thinking about it and they immediately doubt they have a head for heights.

All of this reinforces a “dis-ease” with the very idea of big. To invent a word, call it megaphobia—the irrational fear of big.

When we connect big with bad, we trigger shrinking thinking. Lowering our trajectory feels safe. Staying where we are feels prudent. But the opposite is true: When big is believed to be bad, small thinking rules the day and big never sees the light of it.


How many ships didn’t sail because of the belief that the earth was flat? How much progress was impeded because man wasn’t supposed to breathe underwater, fly through the air, or venture into outer space? Historically, we’ve done a remarkably poor job of estimating our limits. The good news is that science isn’t about guessing, but rather the art of progressing.

And so is your life.

None of us knows our limits. Borders and boundaries may be clear on a map, but when we apply them to our lives, the lines aren’t so apparent. I was once asked if I thought thinking big was realistic. I paused to reflect on this and then said, “Let me ask you a question first: Do you know what your limits are?” “No,” was the reply. So I said that it seemed the question was irrelevant. No one knows their ultimate ceiling for achievement, so worrying about it is a waste of time. What if someone told you that you could never achieve above a certain level? That you were required to pick an upper limit which you could never exceed? What would you pick? A low one or a high one? I think we know the answer. Put in this situation, we would all do the same thing—go big. Why? Because you wouldn’t want to limit yourself.

When you allow yourself to accept that big is about who you can become, y