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Using Focus to Achieve Success: Applying “The One Thing” in Real Life

Summary: Gary Keller’s book, The One Thing, is often referenced by successful real estate investors and business people as a transformative book that has the potential to improve readers’ lives and business performance. Kenji and I have spent the last month digesting the book and attempting to apply it to our lives and real estate investing with some remarkable affects. Could you gain some benefit from trying to implement components of The One Thing in your life too?


There are certain books that change the course of your life.

Like many real estate investors, reading Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad revolutionized our thinking. Four years ago when we read it, we did a 180 degree turn. We stopped searching for a primary residence in Seattle, and we decided to invest our savings into rental properties instead. As a result, we’ve built a multi-million dollar real estate business.

Reading that book changed the course of our lives.

Gary Keller’s The One Thing is another book that has, more recently, dramatically shifted our thinking. Since we read it together several weeks ago, we’ve completely altered our daily workflow. We approach important decisions differently. We’ve changed our goals for our real estate business and for our life together. 

For us, reading the book has been transformative. And we think it could have the same effect on you too.

In this post, I present a quick overview of some of the most important ideas we’ve taken out of reading The One Thing and share with you how we’ve applied these ideas to our decisions over the last several weeks. I hope that by showing the things we’ve changed as a result of reading the book, we can help you find the motivation to make changes yourselves and achieve your goals in real estate investing and in life.


Finding our purpose

The One Thing is about the power of focus.

Gary Keller’s argument is this: if you focus on doing the right thing, the “one thing” that matters most, and ignore everything else, you will be able to achieve extraordinary results.

A person’s “one thing” actually can be broken into two parts. There is an overarching “one thing ” which is a unifying large goal, a life purpose of sorts. And then there are the daily actions that you take (each day’s small “one thing”) that help you work towards your bigger purpose.

Throughout the book, Keller uses the concept of dominoes to explain the importance of aligning what you do each day with your overarching purpose. Since a single domino can knock over a domino 50% larger than itself, he explains that the reader needs to be clear about his/her overall big “one thing” and then use each day to knock down the domino that leads to the next bigger domino in line to the “one thing.”

I know this sounds a bit abstract, so let’s look at how we’ve decided to implement this idea in our lives.

The impetus for us becoming real estate investors many years ago was to reach our goal of having the freedom to spend as much time with our family and friends as we wished. This was our purpose for investing in real estate. This was what we came back to every time things got tough and as motivation for pushing forward. This was our “one thing,” though we didn’t really call it or recognize it as such.

Interestingly, reading The One Thing led us to change our main goal.

Through our discussions about the book, Kenji and I came to realize that we had already achieved our “one thing.” We have achieved financial freedom, and this has made it possible for us to spend as much time as we wished with our family and friends.

We realized that we had to come up with a new purpose, a new “one thing.”

After several lengthy discussions with each other and with good friends, we realized that our new “one thing” is about helping others achieve financial freedom. We saw that one way we could do this was by pushing ourselves out of our real estate investing comfort zone into new types and methods of investing so we can blaze the trail for others to follow.

Because of this shift, we’ve since started the process of changing our plans for both our real estate business as well as our blog.


Aligning our daily actions with our new purpose

In The One Thing, Keller encourages the reader to repeatedly ask himself/herself the “focusing question”:

What is the One Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

The idea is that you ask yourself this focusing question on a daily basis, so you focus your efforts on the most important tasks that will ultimately lead you to your goal. You also ask yourself the same question each time you reach an important decision point, so it helps clarify which way you should go.

Andy by making a habit of asking yourself this question, you structure your work day, your upcoming month, the upcoming year and each year thereafter, always working towards your one thing.

Since we read the book, Kenji and I have been asking each other the focusing question, often multiple times a day. It almost makes us sound like we’re speaking our own secret language!

As funny as it sounds, though, the question has been immensely helpful in helping us delineate what is important and what is not. Let me give you an example.

We both had been spending a significant amount of time on social media, building up our following on our Twitter and Instagram. We were doing this because we thought it would be helpful for our blog. But, because we have limited time, this meant that we were sacrificing elsewhere. This mostly came down to sacrificing time together and time doing activities as a family.

So when we sat down with the focusing question and asked ourselves what the “one thing” was for the blog, we arrived at “building relationships.” Then we asked ourselves what was the most important thing we could do to build relationships. In the end, we landed on going to conferences like FinCon. We realized that Instagram and Twitter are low yield, time-consuming ways to build relationships (and not the one thing). In short, they aren’t the 20% of actions that will lead to the 80% result. Plus they are sucking away our time with our family, leading to imbalance (or poor counterbalancing, as Keller would say). So we acted, and significantly reduced our time and effort on social media.

It’s not that we ignore social media completely, we simply fit it into the corners of our lives rather than having it be the primary focus. It’s about working smarter, not harder.


Challenging the lies we’ve been telling ourselves 

In his book Gary Keller goes into depth addressing some of the “lies” we tell ourselves and exploring how these lies block our path to achieving our one thing. We found this to be one of the most useful sections of the book.

Some of the lies had a greater impact on us than others, so we only list the ones that resonated most for us.


Everything matters equally

This is the lie of treating each item on your checklist equally in terms of importance. How many times have you “knocked out” the easy items on your list before trying to tackle the harder ones? Keller makes the argument that you need to boil your checklist down to the “one thing” that matters most and prioritize that task over all others. This is what gets you closer to your goal, not the items further down your list.

This was an important “lie” for us to internalize. We’ve always had never ending “to do” lists, and most days we felt like we hardly made a dent. Not only that, many of the tasks we did complete weren’t getting us any closer to our goal. As a result of this chapter, we decided to only get to our “to do” lists after accomplishing our “one thing” for the day. We also are much less concerned with the lower value “to dos” which now get done only if there is time. We know that if we keep doing this day in and day out, we’ll achieve our goal must faster than we would if we didn’t focus.



Keller presents a considerable amount of scientific data in this chapter to refute the widely-held conviction that humans are able to multitask well. He uses multiple examples to show how inefficient and ineffective we are when we try to multitask.

This was perhaps the most mind-blowing chapter. I used to take pride in my ability to multitask, especially in the hospital. I now realize that it’s actually counter-productive to do this when trying to complete an important task. It’s also frankly dangerous to multitask while taking care of the kids, taking care of patients or while driving.

It’s not an exaggeration to say this chapter affected every part of our day. When we focus on work, we work. When we are with our kids, we try our best to really be present, not doing something else at the same time (e.g., social media). We turn off our cell phones when we’re working, and we don’t check email. I could go on and on with examples, but suffice to say, this is an important chapter.


Willpower is always on will-call

Have you ever felt yourself losing steam when completing a task or feeling completely unmotivated to even get started? This is when most people believe that they can call on their willpower at any time to get things done. 

According to Keller, this is a lie. Keller presents scientific studies that show that willpower is like a battery that loses charge over time. He further shows that when trying to complete complex tasks when your willpower is low, you’ll make mistakes and the quality of your work will be considerably lower. This means that you must complete your most important work (your one thing) when your willpower is at its maximum. 

This chapter helped us completely restructure how we work. We both realized that our willpower is highest in the morning and it generally only lasts a few hours. Therefore, we now work for a few hours in the morning focusing on our “one thing” and only work while we still have willpower. If our willpower runs out, we don’t come back to the task until our willpower is restored.


Big is bad

By Keller’s estimation, you should have a big, specific goal you want to achieve. Moreover, achieving your goal does not mean you have to give up the other parts of your life. If you work smarter and have the right priority, you can have big success without sacrificing everything else (e.g., family and friends, travel, etc.).

This topic was probably the most contentious for us. Achieving our goal of financial freedom meant that we needed to set a new goal. Or did we? Maybe we could just sit back and concentrate on paying off our properties, hiking and spending all day with our kids.

After much discussion, we both realized that we both thrived when we had goals. Furthermore, having a mutual goal we’re working towards together, brings us closer. The question then was how big of a goal should we set for ourselves? Should we continue to grow our real estate business at a slow steady pace as we have been or should we grow faster to pursue what Kenji likes to call generational wealth? In the end, we both decided that we wanted to pursue the latter. With our big goal now in place, we need to pursue bigger deals, large 100+ apartment complexes and even the type of development deals that you read about in the papers and never imagine yourself doing.



I hope you’ve found Kenji and my examples useful for thinking about changes you might want to make in your own lives. Reaching our one thing is certainly a work in progress, but I know that we can achieve anything we tackle one step at a time, day after day.

Now it’s your turn.

To think about your bigger purpose.

To ask yourself: what am I working towards? What is my priority? How can I align the dominoes to get there?

What is the one thing I can do today to help me get closer to my life purpose?

“To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping” – Chinese Proverb

Action Plan

  1. Read The One Thing by Gary Keller. If you have a spouse or significant other, it’s best to listen or read it together so that you can discuss important concepts as you work through the book
  2. Identify your why and explore what exactly it is in detail (big specific goal, purpose in life)
  3. Write down the steps that you will need to take to achieve your one thing
  4. Begin each day by identifying your one thing that needs to get done that day to get you closer to your bigger purpose. Give yourself protected time to get it done. Everything else is not a priority and can wait until later.
  5. Share your story with us!


Have you read the One Thing by Gary Keller?

How did it change what you did?

What is your one thing?

Join the conversation in our Semi-Retired MD Facebook community.


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Hi, we’re Kenji and Leti

we provide coaching and mentorship for doctors and high-income earners

Several years ago, we were newlyweds working as full-time hospitalists. On paper, it looked like we had everything: the prestigious careers, the happy marriage, the luxurious rental home, the cars, etc.

But in reality? Despite having worked for several years, we had very little savings. Despite our high income, we had very little freedom in terms of time or money.

One thing was clear: we had to do something.

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