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Kill Your To-Do List and Focus on ONE Thing

by Arianne Foulks

July 14, 2015 / Updated: January 26, 2023
Arianne Foulks of Aeolidia

Creative business owners: join me to shape up our businesses! I have written an eight part series that will help you:

  • Increase efficiency and focus,
  • Enjoy your work more,
  • Reach your goals,
  • Learn to quit trying to do every darn thing that goes into running a business yourself!

How to Build a Successful Creative Business on Limited Time
How to Find Time by Cutting Back on Reactive Work
Shift Into CEO Mode and Get Help With the Rest

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it forever. My favorite kind of advice is the kind that seems like common sense once it’s presented to me. Like, headsmack! Of course! Of course that’s how you do it. Today is about that.

The inspiration for this post comes from a book that hit me at just the right time. I had been flitting between hundreds of to-dos on multiple to-do lists. I was always chasing down various little projects and ideas. I was starting to realize that I was getting nowhere, on a hamster wheel of my own making.

Then I found this book: The One Thing

The book starts with, “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” Yikes – how did you know what I had been doing, guys?

They go on to introduce and ask the focusing question. “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

This book started a major upheaval in my personal workday, and for Aeolidia as a whole.

I’m going to give you the gist of this concept, and some links to explore further. I seriously recommend that you get the book.

The focusing question

First, let’s unpack the question:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do…”

This means one single solitary thing. Not your 12 page to-do list.

Note that they say can do, not should do or could do. This has to be a thing that you can take action on right now.

“…such that by doing it…”

The authors say that this “bridge” between the first thought and the next one. It tells you that you’re going to dig deep to make big changes.

“…everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

That part is the beauty part. I love this sentence from their explanation: “Most people struggle to comprehend how many things don’t need to be done, if they would just start by doing the right thing.”

You’ll find that if you tackle this ONE Thing mightily, many of those other things that you’ve been sweating over will either be easier to do, or will turn out to be things that you never had to do in the first place!

I feel like I was a squirrel scrambling everywhere looking for little nuts, when suddenly someone pointed out a path to a big barrel of peanut butter. Working to roll that big supply of peanut butter to my den is going to make the strategic hunt for acorns ridiculous, right?

I worked hard on my focusing question, and applied it to the many areas I was scurrying around trying to improve. I headed down some wrong paths (I had to try not to set any “should dos” as my own goals). I talked to some people who know my business well. It turns out my ONE Thing to solve this year is time. We are going to keep doing the best work we know how to do, but we are going to tightly control the time it takes so that we can do more in less time.

This is a win-win-win for me, my team, and our clients. I have never been so excited about my business. If you know me, you know that I’m prone to excitement, so that’s saying a lot.

I encourage you to apply this question to many areas of your life, to find your most serious ONE Thing.

Work backwards from a future goal

This is something I’ve never done, and was an interesting exercise. The theory is that if you know what you want to accomplish and when, there is a certain amount of work and steps to take in that timeframe. If you keep at it persistently, you will get to your goal.

To do this, you come up with your most long-term goal for yourself and your career. Then a five year goal based on that. You break that down into a year goal. Where should you be in a year if you want to make it to that five year goal? Well, then, where will you need to be this month to be on track for the year goal? What should your goal for this week be, to have you on target for the month’s goal? What is your goal for today (today, not tomorrow), to get started on the week? And what can you do right now to prepare for success in today’s task?

They compare your ONE Thing to a small domino that’s going to start a chain reaction with larger and larger dominos – until you’ve toppled over the huge one at the end.

The importance of focus

When I first started trying to untangle my web of to-dos after reading the book, I had to have a serious talk with myself. I looked through all my to-dos in Trello. Some of these are to-dos that I’ve been collecting for years, people! Anything super important I put on my weekly calendar and get done, but anything that “would be nice” or is an interesting idea goes to Trello.

I grouped my to-dos into the full projects I was pursuing, and I found out that I had been trying to do ELEVEN projects for the last year. If I could make that more bold, I would. I had been trying to do eleven big projects almost entirely by myself, a bit at a time. While I also tried to run the business, market it, and do the other day to day stuff.

Do I need to be doing any of those things? Could the business survive, and heck, even thrive without those things? I thought I was working to make things better, but I was distracting myself from the ONE Thing that I could be doing to truly improve the business.

And I see our clients and other creative business owners doing the same thing. Frantically trying to keep up with six social media platforms. Struggling to find time to blog while also producing their product. Hiring more employees, when they could instead streamline systems so their current team could do twice the work. Coming up with new ideas and plans and product lines before making sure that their core business is the best it can be.

Ask yourself the question, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” It brings you focus that will improve your business. It will allow you to feel confident and relaxed that you’re spending your time where you should be.

Go ahead: look at your whole to-do list. What’s the ONE Thing on that list that you can do right now that will make the rest inconsequential? It’s probably hiding in there–or maybe you know what it is and you’ve been putting it off!

You will be amazed by how liberated you feel after doing this. All the rest of the to-dos will quit weighing on you when you know you’re doing your ONE Thing.

Where can you learn more?

A client mentioned “The One Thing” to me, and I listened to a Lively Show podcast about it that had me instantly purchasing the book. You can learn more on or by listening to The Lively Show. You can nab the book wherever books are sold–that thing’s a best seller! Download it to your Kindle today or get the audio book and use today’s homework time to get the grand picture of how this is going to change your life.

Your homework

This week:

  1. Read or listen to The One Thing.
  2. Look at your to-do list and ask yourself the focusing question.
  3. Begin thinking about how you can devote solid and regular blocks of time to your ONE Thing.

Ready, set go! Then, when you’ve accomplished this, let’s celebrate and support each other in the Aeolidia Facebook group for creative business owners!

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8 thoughts on “Kill Your To-Do List and Focus on ONE Thing”

  1. It’s funny, I just started Essentialism, which must be about the same topic. Doing what is necessary. I just asked myself the ONE THING question and the answer floated to to surface quickly and clearly. Unfortunately it’s not something I am jumping eagerly to tackle but it’s so evident that I don’t think it can wait any longer. I’m sure that if I focus on that, so many things will feel easier. Thank you for this book suggestion!

  2. The ONE Thing is often the thing you’ve been avoiding or putting off until tomorrow! What a relief it will be to have it out of the way, and be on to the next step. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I just finished the book. I got it right away and have to say it is really helpful. I have been drowning in to-dos and suffering from having no idea of what to do next. Just starting out but it feels a bit better already! Thanks so much for this post.

  4. I feel like I’m far less distracted and get things done faster during baby’s nap time than I did before I was pregnant because, I like, HAVE TO get them done then. I need to figure out my one thing, I need to reach those longer term goals still with baby around! I’m gonna check this book out 🙂

  5. Love the article. About the squirrels: they look for little food that they burry in all different locations (digging holes for individual nuts and covering them up), never making a stash and they never store anything in their nests (they get overrun by fleas and move often). So, I am currently a squirrel, yes, but I need to be more like its cousin, a chipmunk…


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