What The One Thing by Gary Keller Has To Do With Your Style

I’m a fan of this book. Buy it. My work here is done.

No, not really.

I’m also a fan of applying Gary’s principles to personal styling (may I call you that? After all, you are on my desk right now).

Yup — business books all relate to what you wear. There is more to clothing than just, you know, clothing.

So, Gary tells us (spoiler alert, there will be lots of paraphrasing) willpower is eroded every time we learn a new behavior, filter distractions, resist temptations, try to impress others, suppress our feelings, modify our behavior, or are scared of doing something we don’t enjoy. In other words, there are reasons Steve Jobs only wore black turtlenecks.

All of this applies to shopping for clothes.

If you find yourself online shopping (because hey, we’re all online shopping these days) and you’re having decision fatigue, or you find that you’re impatient to press click and order that item, put down the mouse or take your finger off the screen and take a breath.

You could be affected by any of those factors listed above.


Have you removed all your distractions? Filtering erodes willpower, so close all your tabs, put the phone away, clear your desk. Stand up and stretch.

This alone can tell you if you need to shop or just needed a break from what you were doing.

Do you have a spending plan? i.e. do you know what you spend on clothing per year and will this blow your fall budget in spring?

Will it take money away from other areas that are more important? i.e. a dozen cheap tees does not a quality coat make.

Will this purchase get you closer to your overall goal or further away from it? i.e. stiletto or stock market? Both great depending on your goal.

So many questions. And if you can’t answer them clearly, don’t click.

I tell clients no to browsing, unless they are getting a feel for what they like. Then Pin the damn thing, don’t automatically add it to the pile of unworn clothing in their closet.

Yes to focusing on specific clothing solutions so they can get on with making money and changing the world.

No to “hey, it’s on sale” and yes to “white shirt with lace detailing and long sleeves in a size 18 made locally.”

Back to willpower…..as someone who’s worked in advertising and marketing, and who’s been on the receiving end of it, I know I get a chemical response to the word “sale,” and you probably do to. And yes, it’s in red for a reason.

Take a minute and work out if you’re being triggered. If you wouldn’t buy it at full price, don’t buy it at all. Remember, resisting temptations is another nail in your willpower coffin.

For some of my clients, they just want clothes shopping to be over as fast as possible, much like a root cannel. Or they are frustrated; they don’t know what the hell they are doing and it sucks. They are doing something they don’t enjoy. (Thanks Gary)

It’s OK. Get someone to do it for you or ask someone to teach you. We are not born knowing how to coordinate clothing or find a pair of jeans that make our butt look great.

Create a style mood board, read fashion magazines, take a course, order a box from a styling company, hire a stylist.

There’s a reason why there are professional stylists. If you’ve ever heard of the 10,000 hours, well, stylists have spent a heck of a long time learning how to dress themselves and other people. Don’t expect that you will get it right the first time, or that you can’t ask for advice.

Back to Gary… are you trying to impress others? If you are, then it may not be a good idea to go shopping with friends. It is very easy to get caught up in their shopping frenzy, feed off their emotions, and buy simply because they are buying.

Of course, at the moment, we’re all shopping in solitary confinement, but you may find yourself co-shopping: both of you browsing at the same time and talking about items you want to buy. Avoid this if at all possible. We all love company, and if you’re trying to decide whether to buy something or not because you would prefer to invest the money elsewhere, a well-meaning friend may coax you into it and vice versa. They are not able to be objective and neither are you.

There’s also the “dress to impress” mentality where we buy items because they have status associated with them vs. appreciating wearable art. Don’t do it. When I see a woman in designer clothing I can always tell if it’s for love or money.

Stern finger waving here: There is a reason why genuine Chanel bags are the prices they are. I am adamantly against buying copies. This is plagiarizing. It’s stealing creativity. Frankly, if you’re buying knockoffs, you’re a thief. And yes, feel free to call me via Zoom, and I will say it in semi-person.

So, think about what you are really buying. Are you trying to buy prestige? Are you trying to buy status? Are you trying to buy confidence? Clicks won’t get you there.

If you have the urge to shop, put things in carts and then walk away. They’ll be there when you get back. Or put them onto a wish list.

Modifying behavior also erodes our willpower. If you’re trying to avoid doing something, the little marbles in your brain are just not used to rolling down that track. It will take a while for them to create new grooves. Modifying shopping behavior is tiring. Be gentle with yourself, it’s progress not perfection.

Mr. Keller says we need purpose, meaning, and significance, and not necessarily balance. Have a purpose when you go shopping and assess the meaning behind each item that you buy. Are you buying it so you will have significance? Know that you have significance no matter what you are wearing.

Look for The One Thing when it comes to your style. If you’re looking to curate your own closet and create your own boutique, what is the one thing, the one item that you love more than anything else? Dive deep and discover the reasons. Hold up every other piece of clothing and compare it with that one piece — what does that tell you?

The same goes for the one thing in your wardrobe you regret buying. Get rid of it as soon as possible because nobody needs to look at things that make them feel bad. Learn from it and let it go.

When you’re getting dressed at the beginning of each day, pick one thing you love and build an outfit around it.

Gary had a thing for baskets. Not Container Store per se, but in picking one project and focusing on that. Hard for me as I’m a “squirrel!” kind of gal, and like variety, but if you want to apply it to style (hey, all roads lead there) pick one category and assess it. Gym gear? Do you have at least one outfit you can throw together in that category that makes you look and feel great?

GK says “If you want an uncommon life, you need an uncommon approach,” and you need to remember the big picture. So, when you are buying an item of clothing, think about the whole wardrobe — what will you wear it with? Do you already have something like it? As for an uncommon approach — get help. Yes, you can afford a stylist. Add up everything in your closet you regret buying/have never worn/don’t really like and do the math, then think about spending the next few years trying to solve your closet issues by yourself. Invest already!

What are your long-term goals when it comes to your wardrobe? GK suggests going forward ten years, then five, then one then this month then this week, then today. Paraphrasing, remember. Where do you want to be? And what do you want to be wearing?

Apparently, if positioned correctly, one tiny little domino can push over an office building. What’s your style domino today?

Aroha, Erin



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Erin Keam

Owner of The Happy Wardrobe, which helps women identify their unique Style Statement and impact the world via their closets, careers, businesses and life.