What's the One Thing that Can Help You Win Your Next Grant?

A book that is getting a lot of attention recently, particularly in the world of entrepreneurship, is The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. The book, which came out in 2013, is about increasing your productivity at work and at home.

The book's key refrain, repeated throughout the book, sometimes with slight variations, is:  'What's the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?" The premise of the book is that achieving extraordinary success takes extreme focus.

Most of us multitask throughout the day. We read our email while talking on the phone or attending meetings, and "task shift" throughout the day. One of the book's messages is that multitasking dilutes your efforts and is not the path for achievement. Real impact, the book argues, requires creating a "domino effect" in your life. Identify your priorities and the first thing you need to do (the lead domino) and dedicate your energies to toppling that domino. After that domino falls, focus on the next one. "Success," the authors write, "is built sequentially."

At the end of each chapter, the book provides a list of takeaways. One of the tips offered (Chapter 4) is to "say no" to everything but your most important activity. Once the activity is done, you have the option of going back to the things you've said "no" to and deciding if you still want to do them. However, until your One Thing has been accomplished, everything else must be delayed or declined.

How Do Concepts from The One Thing 

Apply to Grant Writing?

The book's premise that to achieve success you need to prioritize and focus is not groundbreaking. What is different from other productivity models is the emphasis on distilling one's priority list to the One Thing that, if you do it, will make everything else either easier or unnecessary. This isn't a book about ways to manage your time to accomplish more. It's about teaching you to narrow your list to those very few things that you must focus on to achieve your goal.  With this book, it is out with lengthy to-do lists and ideas of how to get "everything" done, and in with lists consisting only of essential tasks.

For grant writers, the concept of extreme focus may at first seem difficult to apply. After all, a grant application has multiple pieces that need to be developed simultaneously. What should be the "One Thing" worthy of your focus when everything must get done?

Here are some suggestions on how to apply the book's principles to grant writing:

  1. Accept that everything is not equal. One of the book's central messages is that everything is not of equal value. In the context of grant writing, all of the proposal's pieces need to get done, but some of those pieces are going to be of greater value than others. If the funder has published the evaluation criteria that they'll use to rank proposals, your list of priorities should mirror this list. Put more attention on those proposal pieces that will be weighted more heavily. This sounds like common sense, and it is, but when you are in the midst of a proposal process it can be difficult to remember. Unless you keep the evaluation criteria in mind as you develop your proposal plan, you may find yourself spending equal amounts of your time on each section even though some sections may represent 10% of your score and others 30%.
  2. Guard your time. The book advises a three-part approach to scheduling your time. First, schedule time off for vacations and personal commitments. Next, block off time to focus on your One Thing. The book recommends scheduling four hours in the morning to work exclusively on your priority task. Finally, block an hour each Sunday for planning time. You'll use this time to identify the One Thing you'll need to focus on during the coming week to stay on track toward your goals. Once you have your One Thing identified, you block off the necessary time to accomplish the work. For grant writers, the three-part scheduling process might translate into blocking off a set number of hours at the same time each day to focus on the proposal. You might also want to block time to work on a specific piece of the proposal that deserves more attention  (see #1 above). Time blocking should also include scheduling personal time during the proposal development period to regroup and think through your strategies for the week ahead.
  3. Learn new skills. The One Thing is about achieving extraordinary results. Extraordinary results require perseverance. The authors also believe it is necessary to act with purpose when setting out to complete a task. To illustrate, they give an example of someone faced with the task of cutting down a tree. The impulse for many is to grab an ax, the first tool they see. In contrast, someone acting with purpose will stop and think through what the best tool is for the job and proceed to look for a chainsaw. To achieve more, you need to bring the best tools to the job, not default to the most familiar ones. One of the challenges of grant writing is that things are often so frenzied, there isn't time to find the best tools or approaches to get the work done. If this is your experience, maybe your One Thing will be to challenge yourself to learn a new skill--or increase your mastery of a current one--so you'll be ready for the next proposal.

The One Thing persuasively argues that focusing on your "one thing" is the path to personal and professional success. To support their ideas, the authors provide many real-world examples of how people have applied the principles to great effect. However, it is easier to say "focus on your one thing" than to find the one thing that will lead to high achievement.

Identifying the One Thing you should focus your energies and attention on will take work and the buy-in of others. If you are part of a team, there will need to be agreement on the One Thing.  Additionally, regardless of whether you work alone or in a group, if you follow the book's time management ideas of time blocking, you'll need your colleagues and supervisor to support your new schedule. If you have influence with the leadership of your organization, you might propose changes to the organizational culture to support focused work time. As an example, the book tells the story of a company that adopted the policy of scheduling meetings only in the afternoons so that everyone in the organization had their mornings free to do focused work.

What's Your One Thing?

The idea of extreme focusing on "one thing" can apply to grant writing in various ways. For example, if your organization has submitted proposal after proposal and not been successful, asking a question like, "What is the one thing we could do to improve our approach to grant writing such that by doing it, everything else would be easier or unnecessary?" might help you and your colleagues identify a single, actionable step that can help you improve the odds of being funded. Your "one thing" might be to hire an experienced consultant, subscribe a premium donor database, or perhaps to rethink how you articulate your organization's work and mission.

The "one thing" concept also can be applied to focus an organization's overall fundraising strategy. Grants are usually one of several funding streams for an organization. Writing more grants may not be your best solution for a funding crises. Asking the question "What is the one thing we can do to increase our organization's operating budget" might help cut through the many directions you could go to the one path you need to follow.

The One Thing is a recommended read. If nothing else, the book is inspirational, giving a glimpse of what can be done when you give yourself the time to clarify your goals and the space to achieve them.