"What are your top five priorities for the week?" "What are the top three objectives and key results you're using to measure how you're doing for the quarter?"
These are pointed and tough questions from managers at work to help their teams prioritize and focus on achieving the most important accomplishments.
For Peter Thiel, PayPal billionaire, famed entrepreneur and investor, these don't nearly go far enough. As the founder of PayPal, Thiel developed an unorthodox, extreme philosophy on focus and prioritization. Instead of focusing on five things, or three things, for Thiel, the magic number is one.
You must only focus on one singular thing.
Peter Thiel's "One Thing" Management Philosophy
As former PayPal executive Keith Rabois recalls, Thiel "would refuse to discuss virtually anything else with you except what was currently assigned as your #1 initiative." Imagine running into Thiel in the hallway at work--for everything but your top initiative, he'd literally refuse to speak with you.
On PayPal's annual review forms, instead of being given room to write a laundry list of accomplishments, every employee was only allowed to identify their "single most valuable contribution to the company."
That might sound radical and borderline rude, but that's how Thiel gave teeth to the concept of extreme focus. Employees would be evaluated on their one thing, so they were authorized to focus on it.
With distractions cleared away, Thiel empowered every person in the company to pursue their only priority "with extreme dispatch and vigor." Giving each individual in the organization a singular focus drives people to work on only those goals that will help achieve true excellence.
Rabois, one of Thiel's lieutenants at PayPal, explains:
The most important benefit of this approach is that it impels the organization to solve the challenges with the highest impact. Without this discipline, there is a consistent tendency of employees to address the easier to conquer, albeit less valuable, imperatives. As a specific example, if you have 3 priorities and the most difficult one lacks a clear solution, most people will gravitate towards the 2d order task with a clearer path to an answer.
As a result, the organization collectively performs at a B+ or A- level, but misses many of the opportunities for a step-function in value creation.
Focus is More Important to Success than IQ or Money
To psychologist Daniel Goleman, having nothing but a single priority means the freedom from distraction that allows you to fulfill your potential.
In a study of 1,000 children born in the same year in Dunedin, New Zealand, psychologists administered a battery of tests that measured willpower, IQ, and more. They followed these children for 32 years and what they found out was surprising.
The number one predictor of financial success wasn't "IQ, social class, or family circumstance," it was the child's self-control--his or her ability to exercise cognitive control and focus.
Goleman explains, "three subvarieties of cognitive control are at play when you pit self-restraint against self-gratification: the ability to voluntarily disengage your focus from an object of desire; the ability to resist distraction so that you don't gravitate back to that object; and the ability to concentrate on the future goal and imagine how good you will feel when you achieve it."
What focus amounts to is the ability to exert cognitive control so that your attention isn't easily scattered by social media, the goings-on of scenes around you, and any new idea that pops into your head.
When you're at work and you have a million things on your plate, you have to regulate your limited amount of focus against a multitude of tasks, goals, and lofty ambitions. When you have a single priority, your focus is applied to a high-impact initiative that you can hit out of the park. That can be a critical advantage for getting things done for yourself and for your team.
To Thiel, if you allow yourself to have more than one focus, you've already blinked. You've determined that mediocrity is an acceptable outcome.
Having a singular focus means clearing the deck of all the rubbish and the distractions, so that you can do your best work and achieve excellence.