The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 44

Jay Papasan

The One Thing

How do we allocate time to achieve our highest aspirations? What should our top priority be? Real estate entrepreneur, publisher, and writer Jay Papasan is the co-author of The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. He says that the most successful strategy for people and companies is to identify the one thing they do best and concentrate on it as much as possible. Discover the “four thieves” stealing away your productivity, how to set aside time for your passion project, and how to identify the priority that will give you the most results.



Book: The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
Bio: Jay Papasan is the vice president of publishing and executive editor at Keller Williams Realty, Inc. In 2003, with the release of The Millionaire Real Estate Agent, co-authored by Gary Keller and Dave Jenks, Papasan became a best-selling author when the book spent time on BusinessWeek’s best-seller list. In 2005, they co-authored their second bestseller, The Millionaire Real Estate Investor. After working on Rick Villani and Clay Davis’s best-selling FLIP: How to Buy, Fix and Sell Houses for Profit in 2007, he co-authored Your First Home with Gary Keller and Dave Jenks in 2009.


Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners. We help companies achieve ambitious goals by strengthening leadership throughout the organization. I created this podcast to share ideas that you can use to become a more powerful and courageous leader.

With me today is Jay Papasan. He wrote with Gary Keller, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Those of you who know my writing and who listen to this podcast know how critical I think it is to focus. And focusing on one thing is what this book is all about. Jay was a former editor at Harper Collins Publishers and he’s Vice President of Publishing at Keller Williams which is a very large real estate company.

Jay, welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Jay: Thanks for having me, Peter.

Peter: Let’s start with this book. I’m huge fan of focus. I’m a huge fan of one thing. It’s the most important thing and the focus of our work with companies – we call it the big arrow- The most important thing for the organization to accomplish over the next 12 months. It was a delight for me to read this book, The ONE Thing. Share with our listeners, if you would, the underlying basic idea behind the book. What drove you guys to write it?

Jay: The big idea is evident in the title. Right? It’s funny, all of our 5 star reviews on Amazon are about the simplicity of the book. A handful of reviews that are negative are saying it’s too simple. We believe that you can’t implement anything that’s inherently complicated for any amount of time. We spent a tremendous amount of effort over 5 years trying to keep the book practical and simple in application. In fact, we cut almost 40% of the book before we went to publication just to make sure that it was simple and applicable. The big idea here is Pareto’s principle, it’s the 80-20, but we wanted to put it on steroids.

Gary Keller founded, what’s now, the largest real estate franchise company in the world. He did it in a sleepy town called, Austin, Texas before it was the big place to be. When we first got this idea, it was from an essay in a course we were writing for our company. He wrote an essay called, The Power of One, and it was really about focus. My aha, I’ve been a veteran at Harper Collins Editors was, “Wow! This is [inaudible 00:02:43].” Like, of all the things that are unique quality that Gary brought to table as an entrepreneur. He’s really smart but he put smarter people around him. He works hard but he doesn’t necessarily work long hours. I was trying to look at that and it became very obvious that Gary seeks out the number one priority and he is relentless in his ability to focus on it and get people around him focused on it. It felt like it was a title that would be in high integrity for us. Like we have very strong alignment in what we do and we have a lot to offer.

Think of this, the 80-20 principle in practical application. How do you apply it for yourself on a daily basis? How do you apply it in your company so that you can take the 20% of the 20% until you’re left with one?

Peter: I love the idea. I want to explore some of the risks involved with it. The thing that comes up to me is, what if you’re wrong? Meaning, if you’re focused on 20 things and 3 of them pan out, you’ve succeeded or you have the potential to succeed. If you put all of your focus on one thing and that one thing is a strategic mistake or that one thing is ultimately the wrong tree to have barked up, then you’ve bet the farm. How do you address that?

Jay: Well, we have a section in the book called, goal setting to the now, where you work backwards from a future vision. In all of my interviews with industry leaders and executives, whether they are aware of it or not, most of them see the world this way. They have a vision and they work backwards from it. Almost like they’re looking back in history. Based on where we want to be in 5 years, what do we have to accomplish this year? What’s the one thing we have to do? Based on that, what do we have to accomplish this month? Based on our monthly goal, what do we have to get done this week? They just work all the way backwards to today and right now. For Gary, it was an automatic process that we had to unwind.

The beauty of that is, if you’re checking in, in individual basis, I check in every week. My team, we check in every week. As a company, we have a monthly rhythm where we see our numbers and we have the opportunity to course correct. In today’s internet world where we have so much data, we can get on how we’re doing. I think that it would be foolish to think that there’s no course correction. It’s not like you’re laying down a map and saying, we’re going this way. It’s not like Napoleon trying to invade Russia. Right? When we cross that first stream and lose half the soldiers, we’re turning back because we realize that’s the wrong route or it’s the wrong time. I think, today, most industry leaders have enough data and feedback that they’re checking in. You can make course corrections without losing the objective.

Peter: How do you avoid the opposite then? The opposite would be – and we’ve both seen organizations, I’m sure, that do this – that have a new one thing every month and that one thing is a rallying call for everybody until it changes and it changes so frequently that they’re unable to get traction on anything that’s really important?

Jay: I’ll be blunt. I think, that’s a lack of leadership. Some people may not want to hear that but the need for novelty is something that entrepreneurs, they suffer from it. Right? They all have the squirrel disease. Squirrel, they see an opportunity. The low-hanging fruit and their entrepreneurial instinct say, “Let’s go grab that. Let’s go take some more territory. Let’s go capture that island.” The ones who really do extraordinary things which is the subtitle of our book, it’s not just about being successful, it’s about the highest possible level, are the ones that are able to say no to that.

In the book, we have a section, and we talked about this before we started recording, called, the 4 thieves of productivity. The very first one is the inability to say, “No”. I think that it’s number one for a reason because it’s the one that undoes more people than anything else. You have to look at, when you say “Yes” to something, you’re effectively saying “No” to everything else. I usually compare it to my marriage. When I said, “Yes” to my wife, I implicitly knew I was saying “No” to every other woman in the world. I don’t think that, as leaders, we say “Yes” that way often enough but when we do, we know. Like, when you quit smoking. There’s commitments we make that we know we really make.

I think, as business leaders, we have to consciously make that kind of yes because it does make the nos a lot easier. That’s where we hire consultants sometimes. That’s where we get coaches to let us know, “Hey, I think you’re a little distracted right now. What’s the big objective again and how does this connect?” We need that feedback. That’s what good leadership around us, boards and coaches can do for us.

Peter: I wonder where time frame fits in that as well. We have to continue to learn as entrepreneurs so we’re looking out into the marketplace and we’re seeing how things are changing. We hear some advice from someone or we see something that someone else is doing and we think, that can inform the decisions that we’re making now. I agree with you 100% in this risk. It’s a risk. The challenge is in knowing when this is learning that I need to incorporate into the work that I’m doing versus when is it a bright, shiny object that’s going to distract me. I wonder where time frame, where committing to something for some period of time, where that fits in, in terms of helping us to distinguish between a bright, shiny object and actually a learning event?

Jay: Well, one of the things that we could look at would be, we have a section called, time blocking. When you’ve identified your one thing, which for an individual is often something we do habitually. I’m a writer so every day, I have to block off amount of time to read research and write. That’s how we’ve been able to generate 12 books over 13 years. If I didn’t do that on a regular basis, the outcomes wouldn’t happen but it’s really impossible. I don’t think it’s sustainable to focus 8 hours a day on your one big thing. There’s just too many other things to attend to. When we looked at it, we set a very high goal and it’s very hard to reach. We fail as often as we succeed but just spend, approximately, 50% of your time on your number one objective so half of every day. We want that to happen before noon. Right?

Great, successful people have an awesome day. Frankly, a lot of times before the rest of the people are at work and they’re getting it done before 8:00 AM but certainly before noon. Then, they use the rest of the day to tackle other things. Now, think about this in an agile environment with technology. You’ve got you’re number one objective. You have the ability to assign to individuals on your team. If you don’t have a team, to a contractor. You can do low budget, small swat team kind of testing to try out different theories. I think, there’s a lot of evidence today where, increasingly, the basis, the platform for so many of our business is moving to technology. Well, that’s the best practice but it doesn’t diminish our efforts on the one thing. That’s what we do in the afternoon. That’s what we assign to an individual, not the whole team so you can segment it out. That’s often where the innovation does come from.

I’m fully acknowledging what you’re saying but it can happen on the side. It can be given great importance. It could be that individual’s one thing. That’s what they wake up every day thinking about but it doesn’t detract from the efforts of the whole team. Does that makes sense?

Peter: You make a good point too. There’s this idea of being A+ about certain things and being B- about others. Ultimately the plight of the perfectionist is that we have to be A+ about everything. The truth is, there are things in our lives we should be mediocre in. There are things in our lives that we should be excellent in. Distinguishing between those 2 will determine in effect whether we can be successful in the things that are more important to us.

Jay: I can’t even add to that. You said it perfectly. I think, it’s easy to say and it’s hard to do. Which is why, I think, it helps to think through. Like, “What is my big objective? What is the one thing that I need to truly be great at to know that I’ll be successful there? And then, put all of my efforts into that basket.” It could be a pretty big one. If we don’t win the battle on technology or user interface or customer service. Zappos made a stand around customer service and they built a massive reputation for that. I mean, you got to say that their supply chain is exceptional. There’s so many other things that are exceptional about that company but they made a stand around one thing and they became known for it. It drove so much of their growth.

Sometimes, we get lucky. I think, a lot of times though, there is this sense of thinking it through. Adjusting as you go because a lot of great companies have pivoted. I think that Instagram was called Whiskey before it was called Instagram. The only thing that they thought they were doing is allowing the people to share photos from the space. Like, we’re all at the same concert, I want to see the photos, but it was the filters that people loved. They pivoted when they realized that very early on and then they’ve really made that stand and they got their billion dollar valuation off of that. That’s maybe a black swan, maybe a poor example, but it was what came to my mind. Yes, you’ve got to figure out what your one thing is and then put your efforts there. I think, you can think that through and also look at how your customers are responding to get that data.

Peter: I think that we also have the opposite examples which, in some sense, prove the same thing. Which is, you can look at Apple where Steve Jobs leaves and then comes back. You can look at Starbucks where Howard Schultz leaves and then comes back. Arguably when each of those men came back to their organizations, they brought the organizations back to the one thing. Howard Schultz came back and the valuation sky-rocketed because he brought it back to the casual comfort of being in a Starbucks. The focus on the barista. The one thing that was lost. As the company began to grow, the founder comes back and reinvests the company in that one thing and the company begins to succeed again.

Jay: It could be the founder. It could be CEO. There’s usually an individual, in any company, that owns the mission and vision. Right? The mission is, where are we going? The vision is, what is it going to look like when we get there and along the way? Being able to pull people back to your mission and vision on a regular basis is one of the great leadership test. I think, the best corporations, like you just named 2 great, great leaders who’ve done an amazing job in huge companies at being able to pull all of that innovation into one direction. It’s not easy but it’s also, I don’t think, complicated.

I just think it takes sustained effort and a lot of faith. You got to think that people are throwing darts at you daily. You’ve got to have this impostor syndrome, at least, once a week. Like, “Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m leading us all over a cliff.” The best leaders adjust subtly but stick to the big vision and manage to bring enough people on board that they can keep the momentum of the organization going there. When you see that, you usually see this sort of exponential growth that we all want.

Peter: I’m talking with Jay Papasan. The book that we’re discussing is, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Jay, I have what seems like maybe an obvious question. You’re the head of publishing having put out 12 books in the context of a real estate company.

Jay: Yeah.

Peter: That sounds like, at least, 2 things to me. Where’s the focus on one thing?

Jay: We tell a part of the story in the book. I love the question and obviously my instincts were like, “Wow! Gary’s living this. This company is living this. We can write this book. We’ll be authentic.” It makes sense to tell that story. When Gary got into real estate back in 1979, he immediately was like, rookie of the year. He had found his calling. That was clear. The thing he noticed is that, whenever there was a chance to teach in the office, he volunteered. Whenever there was a chance to teach at the Board of Realtors, he volunteered. When he became a sales leader, that was what got him out of production. He’s enjoyed that so much.

When you look at what the company was founded on, he’s not an extrovert. He’s actually an introvert but what he found, instead of meeting with people individually to recruit them, if he had a classroom of a hundred and he taught an exceptional class, 11 on average would come up and inquire with him and he could set appointments with them. His whole growth, back to 1982, was when he founded the company was around this idea of leading with education. We often say that we’re an education and coaching company kind of disguised as a real estate franchise company because that’s been our one thing. You go back to 2002, the company has had about 3 years, a 40% year over year growth and that was the beginning of this giant ramp up but we weren’t fashionable among the top agents of the industry.

Gary met with his executive team and they brain stormed a hundred ideas. They had to select one to do that here. The one idea they selected is they would write career guide for real estate agents. A book which is, to me, education. Right? It’s another extension of how can I stop having a limit of a hundred or a thousand people in a classroom? A book allows you to have a classroom that is infinitely scalable. That’s how I hooked up with Gary. I was already working here. I found out he wanted to write a book. I reached out to him. We partnered. In 3 months, in the summer of 2002, we wrote a book called, The Millionaire Real Estate Agent. That was research-based. I thought it had an [inaudible 00:17:28] and a possibility of selling 50,000 copies. It has now sold 970,000 copies and it’s the leading book in our industry. People just call it, the red book.

That publishing was able for us to take what we were teaching in our classrooms reach a much larger audience. Show what our value proposition was and we regularly hear from our associates that people just show up and say, “I read this book. I want to hear more about your company.” It’s an alignment in that sense. It’s part of our education focus.

Peter: Your company is built on associates. Your company is not built on fundamentally all full-time employees. You have many more associates than you have full-time employees.

Jay: That’s right. We have about 220 full-time employees here in Austin. At the franchise headquarters, we have a little over 700, and 2,750 worldwide franchisees. We have close to 140,000 independent contractors. That’s what most real estate agents are, is they’re an independent contractor that has a contractual agreement to work with a broker in a local level. They have to choose to work with us. We can’t tell them to do so Gary thought, “If I want them to make better decisions and they’re going to make them independently with me, the number one thing I can do is educate them to make the best possible decisions.”

Peter: What is Keller’s one thing?

Jay: Today, if you look up, he is fundamentally a teacher and coach. He meets with his top executives. He doesn’t run anything anymore. He hasn’t run anything since about, I want to say, 1996, when he fired himself as CEO and hired Mo Anderson. He still runs as Chairman of the Board but he sees himself as a coach and he coaches our top executives. He leads our core group, our top 150-200 agents. He meets with them 4 times a year and his focus remains on that side, as a teacher. We continue to write books there. We continue to try to be the tip of the spear of our industry in terms of what’s happening and what’s new. The last 3 years, we’ve been ranked in the top 3 organizations worldwide by Training Magazine and we were once number one.

Peter: In effect, your one thing could be a role. Not necessarily an outcome you’re trying to achieve. Your one thing could be, “I’m going to be a parent. I’m going to be a coach or consultant.” That, in and of itself, governs the focus of your time and your energy.

Jay: Yes. I mean, it doesn’t have to be a product or a service. It can be an activity or a role. Your ability to master that and direct it where it needs to go will determine your success.

Peter: You talk about 4 thieves. One of them is, fear of chaos. I found that to be a very useful idea – for me, that fear of chaos often takes me off my game. Can you share a little bit about that and how to overcome it?

Jay: Sure. The first 2 thieves are the inability to say no and the fear of chaos. The simplest way I can put it, I think the world is divided on a really simplistic level for the most part and the people who are people-oriented or task-oriented. If you’re people-oriented, your number one challenge is saying no. You don’t want to disappoint people. If you’re task-oriented, when you put all your focus on your one thing, that means a lot of stuff is being unattended and there’s a lot of chaos that shows up. That becomes incredibly challenging for people who are in that category. I’m very much there. I’m able to go out and do keynotes and speeches but it’s not because I’m people-oriented. I get nothing from that. I’m definitely the guy that walks in the room and starts straightening things up at home. For me, to focus 4 hours a day on writing and not attending to all the little brush fires in a real estate company, in an investing company, or a private equity company, that creates real stress for me.

For us, it’s more about awareness. Understanding that that’s the game you’re playing and that it leads to success. People need to experience it. See the success that shows up so they can have a little bit of faith that it’s okay to have a messy desk. It’s okay to not check off everything on your checklist. If you did the most important thing, everything is going to take care of itself. That’s another way of saying, don’t sweat the small stuff, but it’s hard to acknowledge that small stuff when it’s actually on fire in your office and you’re just leaving it unattended for a while.

Peter: One thing that seems to have worked for me is to bucket my chaos. In effect, chaos comes in lots of different categories.

Jay: Yes.

Peter: If I know that Friday from 2:00 to 4:00, I’m going to deal with such and such types of issues. I’m going to deal with all the financial issues that are coming up. Next Thursday, I’m going to deal with a bunch of management issues that are coming up. Then, I have some place to put that chaos that gives me the illusion of non-chaos and then I can spend a bracketed couple of hours focused on that thing. It seems to reduce the tension for me.

Jay: We teach that as well. I mean, I call it batching. The number one thing that overwhelms a lot of people is their email. We’ve been taking a group of people through an online course called, time blocking mastery. We realized that was one of the things that was undoing people, is that they’re trying to focus on their one thing but they develop this habit of dropping in and out of their email. Most people do it as many as 4 to 8 times an hour. When you do that, you’re allowing other people to set your priorities. You see, you’re aware of the brush fire. I go in in the morning. I try to set the agenda in the morning. I try to only respond to critical emails, like, from Gary or from our CEO. For the most part, I’m sending out my agenda.

I don’t check back to my email after about 8:30 until about noon. Then, I’ll do it while I’m having lunch so I get myself another 20 or 30 minutes. Now, I’m responding to the world because my morning time is for my agenda. Right? That’s for whatever my one thing is. Then, I check in again before I go home. As much as I can, I try not to get into it after I’m at home. Because the reality is, most things can wait until 7:30 or 8:00 the next morning because you’re not going to take action on them until then anyway. Knowing I have those buckets of time, I can then let those things lie. I know that the emails are piling up. They always do, but I know now when I’m going to address it. Just knowing when tends to relieve a lot of that stress.

I’m agreeing with you. I’m giving it a different name, batching. There’s a lot written about it if people want to go look it up but it’s a very effective way, to batch. I mean, our accounting department does it. If you want to get a check in a major company, you don’t just walk in and say, “Cut me a check.” They’ll say, “We do that on the first and 15th.” That’s just batching or bucketing that’s done institutionally.

Peter: I’ve got a writing life. I have a business building life. I have a consulting life. There’s one thing that I focus on in the organization but there are a number of different foci that I have that the organization requires.

Jay: Nice use of the word, foci. I like that.

Peter: Here’s my question, for example, even in my writing life, I have my one sensible thing. Right? I need to get a new book out this year and it’s very clear what it is. Then, I have, what I’m going to call, my one dreamy thing. I’ve been wanting to write fiction.

Jay: Oh, wow!

Peter: Unless I prioritize that, it’s never going to happen. You could call it a distraction and you can say that potentially it’s just a bright, shiny object that’s going to get in the way of the other writing I have. Which I arguably don’t even have enough time to do the way I need to. Where is there space in the one thing methodology for a sense of, “Here’s something I want to do, I’m not great at. It’s not going to give me payback in the immediate term but I’m drawn to it and there’s something I think is important about it?”

Jay: I love the question. My favorite page to teach in the book and what I almost always insert in the keynote is page 114. We look at the 7 areas of your life that you would apply the one thing principle. One of them is your personal life which is, for most people, a hobby of some kind. When I hear you say that, if you looked at your professional roles, you have a podcast, you have a book to write, you have a role in the organization, which of those comes first for you? What’s the number one priority? If you only did one thing to move everything forward, what would it be?

Peter: Well, my one thing is ultimately to run the organization and to build our consulting practice but one of the ways in which I do that is by doing a tremendous amount of writing. Ultimately my role in running this organization is as a thought leader. On the one hand, I have to run the business and I have to do client work. On the other hand, I have to continue to engage with ideas that I think will fuel both of those other things.

Jay: Well, I would imagine. We call it, one of the central metaphors in the book is, lining up your dominoes. Right? We acknowledge that everybody has more than one thing to not go for usually on a daily basis but if you line them up, you can usually do one thing and get a multiple back. One of the things that we do a lot of is we do interviews. We’ve started broadcasting in a private podcast but we try to line up those activities so that they all were aligned. So that even though I’m spending time, now, instead of just doing an interview for a book, I’m doing an interview that also serves as a podcast that serves to promote the future book and the company. I’m aligning those activities so that they all line up.

Now, I can curate who I’m interviewing based on the book I’m going to write and it also leads to me thought leadership. I have some of the similar challenges you do and that’s how I play that game. I make sure that they’re all aligned. Anything that’s not aligned, either gets delegated, or just could say no to. You can even delegate the writing of a book these days. There’s lot of great people that will work with you to accelerate that. I’ve worked with writers on some of our titles that don’t bear my name but there are titles that bear our company’s name and that we got credit for. There’s a lot of different strategies but I would ask, first on your work goals, make sure that they’re all in alignment and that they’re accelerating each other. Because those goals of thought leadership and growing your company are very aligned to me. The thought leader almost always gets the most business. Doing that together is great. The outreach on the podcast. That all seems great.

I would put your novel in the personal category. You may have to look up and if you like to play golf every weekend, that 4 hours on the course may now be writing your novel if you really want that to happen. You may have to give up something else. Instead of watching Netflix with the wife after the kids are in bed, that may become an hour dedicated to making a small advance every day on that project. Most people, and I’ve just interviewed so many writers over my career, end up doing that in the morning. They get up, they just set their alarm an hour earlier. They start a new ritual in the morning, which is maybe to read a little bit and to advance that novel, whatever it is, and that’s their personal life. They understand that it’s a hobby just like golf or rocket ball or working out.

You have a tremendous amount of time out of work. You just have to allocate, I would say, a minimum of an hour a day to moving that forward. You can find that time and it’s just a matter of making that commitment. Most people don’t want to give up the other stuff so it’s not as important as sleeping in or hanging out with the wife and kids at night or whatever that is. Playing golf with your buddies. You just have to acknowledge that it’s not a priority right now.

Peter: That’s great advice. Jay Papasan. The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. I’ve loved this conversation. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your time. Thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Jay: Thanks for having me, Peter.

Peter: If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.


  1. Pam Moore says:

    I have been listening to your podcasts for a while now. Just when I think “he can’t possibly find another great author to interview” you surprise me. I love the way the interviews go. I always get a lot out of them. I’m not surprised that you have 250,000 hits.
    Kind Regards
    Pam Moore

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