How to Reach Your Goals by Doing One Thing at a Time

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The One Thing" by Gary Keller. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you know how to reach your goals strategically and effectively? What steps should you take?

You won’t reach your goals unless you line up the dominoes to connect the present to the future. Strategic thinking, or breaking down the process for achieving a big goal into steps, is critical for getting where you want to go. Just as dominoes fall one at a time, your focus should be on doing one thing at a time.

Keep reading to learn how to reach your goals with this winning strategy.

How to Reach Your Goals

Your purpose specifies where you want to go. Your priority is what you do now to get there.

Because of the way humans are wired, it can be hard to connect the present—what we’re doing now—with the future. According to psychologists, the further away a reward is, the lower our motivation to achieve it. In addition, we have a “present bias,” meaning we prefer present gains over future ones. For instance, if offered a choice of $100 now or $200 in the future, most people would take the $100 rather than waiting.

With this mindset, you can lose sight of achieving potentially extraordinary results and fail to reach your goals. The way to connect your present action or priority to your big goal or purpose is to think in steps, each building on the previous step to reach your goals in the distant future. It’s a matter of doing one thing at a time. It’s like lining up your dominoes, so a small action sets off a chain of related actions leading to the result you want.

To see how things connect, ask yourself this series of questions: 

  • Based on my ultimate goal, what’s the One Thing I can do in the next five years to reach it?
  • Based on my five-year goal, what’s the One Thing I can do this year to be on track to reach my five-year goal, to be on track to reach my ultimate goal?
  • Based on this year’s goal, what’s the One Thing I can do this month to be on track to reach my goals this year, in five years, and ultimately?
  • Based on this month’s goal, what’s the One Thing I can do this week to be on track to reach my goals this month, this year, in five years, and ultimately?
  • Based on this week’s goal, what’s the One Thing I can do today to be on track to reach my goals this week, this month, this year, in five years, and ultimately?
  • Based on today’s goal, what’s the One Thing I can do now to be on track to reach my goals today, this week, this month, this year, in five years, and ultimately?

You won’t reach your goals unless you have lined up the dominoes to connect the present to the future. Strategic thinking, or breaking down the process for achieving a big goal into steps, avoids what researchers call the “planning fallacy,” which is overestimating what you can accomplish because you haven’t thought through the process. Doing one thing at a time—the right thing—must start with this strategic thinking.

Train your mind to drill down from your big goal, like opening a set of Russian nesting dolls one at a time until you know the most important thing to do in the present to reach your goals in the future.

How to Reach Your Goals by Doing One Thing at a Time

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Gary Keller's "The One Thing" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The One Thing summary:

  • Why focusing daily on one thing, rather than many, is the key to success
  • How success is like dominos
  • The six common myths about success

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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