THE ONE THING – The approach that brings order to chaos

Erdélyi Boróka | efficiency expert – HTC’s external partner

I feel very lucky because my work is my passion. With the exception of time spent with my family, practically every waking minute I spend thinking about some kind of time management or efficiency issue, looking for solutions, devising methods, or expanding my knowledge through books, research, training. My mind is constantly churning with relevant questions and answers, ideas and information. Every now and then, usually when I least expect it, two seemingly distant ideas come together in this maelstrom and I realise how well they fit together. It’s no coincidence, of course, that these combinations always provide a solution to the problem I’m dealing with at the moment – personally or through my clients…

I like these hybrid solutions because they are simple and creative; I’ve written about how I use the Pareto Principle – or the 80/20 rule, how I solve my problems with a few well-directed questions, and how I’ve restored balance to my life with some simple mathematical relations. This time, several of my more or less unrelated ruminations came together with an old reading experience…

I read Gary Keller’s The One Thing in 2013, the year it was published. Keller flashes a rather (goal) conscious approach: he believes that we need to formulate the one (hence the title of the book) goal we are working towards, and that we need to find the one action in each moment that is the best choice at that moment in the struggle to achieve it. Keller says that if we apply this method consistently, we will achieve the goal we want – at least the only one, because we have said no to the others.

I would not go into the genre of book criticism, but the book disappointed me for a number of reasons, primarily because of its much more radical approach than mine. Although it is a very motivating idea, I don’t find it realistic; I cannot (and do not want to) imagine a life where I (or encourage someone else to) go on a high-wire, left and right, breaking through everything to reach my goal. That’s not me, and it’s not the majority of people. So the book, though it has some good ideas, has faded into oblivion.

Quick change: today. Today, I’m struggling with a million dilemmas (who isn’t…), I’m scattered with obligations (who isn’t…), I feel a bit like the waves are crashing over my head (who isn’t…). And then, in this chaos, the word suddenly jumps out at me: THE ONE THING. And I feel that this will be the answer. I take out Keller’s book again, flip through it, and even though I still feel that this is not my path, the tool, the idea of ONE, I now feel it is mine. I start to think through my current difficulties, and lo and behold, the THE ONE THING One helps me through them all.



While I don’t believe that any one goal, or the struggle to achieve it, is in any way satisfying, we have to admit that there are times when it is impossible to make progress in all the important areas of life. In a busy situation, it is worth sitting down and reflecting on what is most important at the moment, what is THE ONE THING goal you are working towards, what is THE ONE THING goal you are striving for, seeing that you cannot give it all your attention at the moment. Of course, such a decision also means that you are currently saying no to everything else, i.e. the balance is tipping, your backlog may be accumulating, etc. That is why I stress: the ‘ONE’ method is not, in my opinion, a life-organising tool, but a crisis management tool, which is only worth using for a short period of time.


A lot of classic time management tricks rhyme with the THE ONE THING approach. We know that it makes sense to formulate the three most important tasks of the day, and we also know that it makes sense to prioritise (or at least mark) them. It’s only a step from there to saying, in a tenser period, that this is the only task that is really important to me today and that I will do my best to do, the rest can go to the soup. Is it a brutal no? Yes. Could there be consequences? Yes. But as I said: with “THE ONE THING” method we are working in a crisis. When the tide is crashing over your head, it is a great weapon to be able to get to the bottom of one single task, and if you choose it wisely, the consequences or even the inevitable remorse will be less severe.


I don’t know about you, but for me one of the biggest face-punching realisations of adult life has been the sheer number of decision situations I have to deal with. Of course, most of them are small, day-to-day decisions, but I can tell you (and you probably can too) that since I’ve been on my feet, there hasn’t been a time in my life when I haven’t had to make several medium to big decisions at once. And making decisions is incredibly energy consuming and exhausting, which is particularly painful in an already stressful time. But the power of THE ONE THING method can help here too.

I happened to find myself in the midst of relative chaos, having to choose between/over several requests and invitations. This is a lot for me at the moment, considerably more overwhelming than I can currently afford. So I have chosen the one dilemma that I think I should and should not deal with now, and postponed or said no to the others. The solution to the dilemma itself rhymes with the THE ONE THING thinking: since I did not have the time and energy to go through a lengthy decision process, I chose the THE ONE THING aspect that was most important to me and made my decision along that line. It might turn out to be the wrong decision, but that’s all I could fit in. But why would it be wrong? I made the most important decision! I am not saying that I will use this decision algorithm from now on, but it has come in handy in a crisis.


Nothing to get too excited about. Busier, more difficult or emotionally overheated times often damage our human relationships. There is no time, mood or patience for children, relationships, friends or extended family. This is perfectly understandable and we should not beat ourselves up about it. But in the meantime, we long for them, we want to give of ourselves and we want to receive the embrace and energy of our loved ones.

For me, three questions help me at these times: what is the one thing I absolutely want to do with my children today? What is the one thing I definitely want to do with my husband today? (This has a variant b: What is the one thing I definitely want to talk about with my husband today? Communication!) Who is the one friend I would still like to keep in touch with regularly, despite the tough times? This last question is easy for me because I’m an introvert, so I’m not shocked if my friendships are periodically limited, but I feel it makes a big difference to have someone to cry to, someone to complain to…


In a crisis, it is most often the things that need to change that fail. In fact, they often come from the pipe. But even in the absence of an acute situation, it’s true that we can always list a few things we want to change. But a lot of changes at once doesn’t tend to work – the “magpie wants a lot” effect. Again, the question is: what is the THE ONE THING change that would have the biggest impact in the current situation?

An example (not specific to a crisis situation): I regularly monitor my various lifestyle habits, i.e. how much water I drink, how much fruit and vegetables I eat, how much exercise I get and how much sleep I get. Since I fail at all of these, it’s important for me to see how much is enough. Each month I look at the app and see which area I was weakest in, and focus on that one habit the following month. I know myself now, I know I can’t focus on all four, so I manage to bring some balance to the system…

Problems and concerns

It’s not enough that you’re in the thick of it, dealing with an unfortunate life or work situation, you’ve got half a dozen other worries and concerns. I’m not saying don’t worry, don’t brood – I know from experience that’s not how it works. But it’s also my own experience that you can learn to worry about one thing and the others automatically take a back seat. That is, find the THE ONE THING worry or concern that is really relevant (or most relevant) and focus on that.

It may seem counter-productive to focus on one specific worry, but I have found (strictly as a private person, as I am not a psychologist) that by putting the other concerns on the back burner, I get somewhat empowered and find it easier to deal with the one remaining worry or concern. Of course, I will have to deal with the others later, but in this particular dog-eat-dog situation, it is a great relief to deal with just one worry.

+1 Am I good enough?

Poo-poo because it’s not crisis related, but I feel it belongs here. We live in an age where everything is questioned; there are a thousand ways to measure or proclaim success, which for that very reason is impossible to achieve. We strive for perfection, but it is impossible, and yet we grind on. Am I a good enough mother? Am I a good enough wife? Am I a good enough professional? Am I good enough? Am I enough?

These self-defeating questions don’t escape me either, so it was a great relief when – years ago – I first came across the answer that would put all my good enough questions to rest. My recurring dilemma at the time (and to this day, of course) is whether I am a good mother. I mean… and here come my minor, sometimes major motherly “sins”, misadventures, excesses. On one particularly chewy night, the question came to me: what is the THE ONE THING definition of “being a good mother”? I think unconditional love. And although I’m not perfect to this day, my unconditional love for my children is undeniable, so I now accept that I’m a pretty good mum to them. The train of thought is free to go on for any doubts…

THE ONE THING is not a panacea. It will not always, in every situation, provide a solution. But it can be a tool up your sleeve that can help bring order to your current chaos. While in the long term it can have serious side effects (upsetting balances, neglecting obligations, narrow-mindedness), in more difficult, noisy, doubtful times it can help you to take the easier route, to breathe, to calm down and to see more clearly the next steps.