How to Prioritise like Warren Buffett

Here’s the oft cited story*

Buffett was talking to his pilot and asked him to write down the top 25 things he wanted to accomplish either in a few years or his lifetime.

“What 5 are the most important?” he asked.

This is a terribly difficult task and he took some time trying to decide his top 5 priorities – the accomplishments he wanted the most.

“But what about the other 20? What will you do with them?”

The pilot said that the other 20 aren’t as important but they’re a close second and he’ll work on them when he has time.

Warren then said that he’s made a mistake. Everything he didn’t pick as his top five gets no attention at all until his top five priorities have been accomplished.

No prioritisation = nothing gets done

If we don’t assign any kind of importance to our tasks, everything is of equal importance and urgency. You have a lot of choice but no way to determine which one you should start on first. Therefore, you spend a lot of time trying to decide rather than working on something important.

If you do happen to choose, without clear priorities, it’s easy to abandon the project because we wish to start a different one.

This useless dabbling can’t be taken too literally because we all prioritise some way simply by virtue of doing something. If I watch videos, at that time, my behaviour is indicates that videos is what deserves my attention.

While our behaviour seems to point towards our actual priorities, our actions doesn’t always match our desires. Meaning, we don’t prioritise too well.

Although I spend my time watching videos, it doesn’t mean I want to spend my time that way.

Ruthless Prioritisation

Prioritisation should be ruthless.

It involves saying no to tasks you don’t need to complete and some things you want to complete. It asks you to close the door to things you hold dear so you can spend more time with the most important things. Saying no to yourself when the tasks seem so important almost feels like you’re not giving yourself the best chance possible.

Why not do everything instead?

It increases our chance of doing less. Doing everything means we spread our focus and energy very thin. It leads to incomplete to-do lists and accompanying feelings of guilt.

So why does this technique work?

It emphasises simplicity.

By removing the things we don’t need to do and the activities which fall under the category of ‘it would be nice to do some day’, we free up a lot of mental space and reduce our levels of stress considerably.

It’s much more satisfying than blaming the lack of time because it isn’t a great excuse.

You can’t get more time in a day by asking the clock gods to make one hour 100 minutes long rather than 60 minutes. You make more time by removing the inessential and focusing on the important stuff in life.

I mentioned the term ruthless prioritisation because it involves closing the door to some things you have a desire to do and focusing as much as you can on a smaller number of important tasks.

In theory, this is difficult. In practice, it’s even more so.

Here are a few practical tips:

  1. “If I don’t do it, so what?”

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you didn’t make this a top priority?

What happens if it’s not completed?

For the vast majority of things, nothing significant happens. Otherwise, they’d be urgent priorities we’d devote a lot of time and energy to anyway.

I’ve said, along with millions of others that I want to learn a language. It was one of those ‘terribly important things I must do’ but somehow never devoted any time to.

“I should really get round to that”

“I’ll do it someday”

Have you said any of these things before?

Useless statements. They didn’t inspire action because they created an obligation that didn’t have any criteria for completion. They did, however, make me angry at my inaction.

What was I really saying? “I should really get round to it but I won’t”.

Admit it isn’t a priority or make it one. Let the self-imposed guilt will fall away.

  1. Stars, asterisks and scribbles

On your to-do list, write out a list of tasks you want to complete and put an asterisk next to the task you deem most important.

What does important mean in this context?

If you completed this and nothing else, the day is still a success. Everything else is just a bonus.

I found it helpful to be generous when doing this. Writing a long list and making everything a priority increases the standard for success very high but is often unhelpful. It increases self-criticism rather than your ability to complete more.

  1. Priorities change

After hearing about prioritisation and saying no to things, it might be tempting to think priorities can’t change.

They can and probably will.

Focusing on a task and deciding you don’t want to continue is a much better way of making choices than dabbling in a lot of things and never giving yourself the chance say no.

Here’s an example: Reading part of one book and choosing to stop reading is much better than skimming the pages and never understanding if you like the book or not.

Finding what is most important is difficult. And that’s normal.

I frequently find myself having too many options and needing to reassess what is important to me. Sometimes the list stays the same. Sometimes, it changes. It doesn’t always mean something is going wrong.

It’s often a simple indication that I’m changing my mind – which, admittedly, can be uncomfortable.

Letting go of fake obligations and priorities made handling feelings of guilt and indecisiveness much easier. I stopped being pulled in different directions and I could focus on the things I really wanted to do.

Proper prioritisation takes time. Often you’ll need a small reminder of your priorities rather than resorting back to spreading yourself too thin.

Prioritise the important and remove the distractions.

Find peace in focus.

What will you decide not to do?


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* As with a lot of stories about famous people, they aren’t sourced very well at all. I have no reason to believe that it actually happened any more than the Einstein story. Luckily, this story is merely a way to make the value of prioritisation more personal.

The story is from Live Your Legend.

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