Warren Buffett’s Advice on How to Focus on Priorities and Subdue Distractions

If you persistently experience an overpowering sense of being besieged with tasks and responsibilities, perhaps a personal productivity transformation technique suggested by Warren Buffett may help.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania shares a well-known anecdote about Buffett in her bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance:

The story goes like this: Buffett turns to his faithful pilot and says that he must have dreams greater than flying Buffett around to where he needs to go. The pilot confesses that, yes, he does. And then Buffett takes him through three steps.

First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals.

Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five.

Third, you take a good hard look at the twenty goals you didn’t circle. These you avoid at all costs. They’re what distract you; they eat away time and energy, taking your eye from the goals that matter more.

As I’ve written before (see the world’s shortest course in time management, and detailed three-step course on time logging, time analysis, time budgeting,) the most effective time management practice involves eliminating the non-essentials—those numerous things you can and want to do—and focusing on the very few things you must do.

Idea for Impact: Success comes at a cost: the most time-effective folks I know are significantly better at dropping their second-rate objectives.

Moral Disengagement Leads People to Act Immorally and Justify Their Unprincipled Behavior

Temptation of Christ on the First Day of Lent

Rationality Drives Human Behavior Only After Emotion and Impulse Lose Their Hegemony

People adapt moral standards that dissuade them from objectionable behavior. But these moral standards do not serve as a steadfast regulator of their moral actions. Occasionally, circumstances can make people to become selectively disengaged from those moral self-sanctions and end up pursuing unprincipled actions.

Particularly when people feel angry, pressured, or depressed, their mental footing tends to ebb away. Any state of emotional threat can let up their determination to act ethically and resist temptations. They lose discipline, get into a defensive mode, and become susceptible to thinking only about short-term benefits. They are more likely to engage in self-absorbed behaviors that they would otherwise spurn, especially if the payoff for such behavior is high and the odds of getting caught and punished are low.

Circumstances Sometimes Sway People to Engage in Behaviors That Conflict with Their Internalized Moral Standards

Moral disengagement is the psychological phenomenon that describes how people rationalize behavior that is at odds with their own moral principles. For example, suppose a teenager who has a principled framework that forbids theft. If he takes a newspaper without paying for it from a Starbucks store, he may rationalize his actions by telling himself that Starbucks warranted some harm because it overcharges its consumers and, until recently, purchased not all its coffee beans from certified fair trade sources.

'Moral Disengagement' by Albert Bandura (ISBN 1464160058) People engaging in wrongdoing often see that the rules are uncalled-for and unjustifiable. In their judgment, even though they may be breaking the rules and flouting conventions, they’re persuaded that they’re really not doing anything wrong because the rules deserve to be violated.

Moral reasoning usually deprives people when they devalue their prey and malign their victims (“her tattletaling deserved it” or “he brandish a knife, hence I pulled out my gun.”)

Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura, who introduced the concept of moral disengagement, identified eight cognitive mechanisms (book) that disengage a person’s internal moral standards from his/her actions, thereby causing unethical behavior without conspicuous remorse or self-censure.

Idea for Impact: Be Wary of Suspending Your Moral Standards to Reduce Self-Censure

When circumstances or people provoke you to potentially regretful behavior, realize that you are a self-determining agent, and that you have a moral and ethical responsibility to behave with integrity and pursue wholesome actions. Step back and ask yourself, “Normally, would I judge this contemplated action to be wrong? Are my ways of thinking flawed? Am I defending the harm I am causing by blaming others? Am I criticizing the victim to justify my destructive actions?”

When in doubt, use Warren Buffett’s rule of thumb for personal integrity: “I want [people] to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper—to be read by their spouses, children and friends—with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter.”

Rewards and Incentives Can Backfire

Rewards and Incentives Can Backfire

Rewards and Incentives are Gateways to Behavior-Change

One of the great struggles of life is to get others to do the things they should, but don’t want to—getting your daughter to cleanup her bedroom or do homework in her least favorite subject, convincing your employee to do a task in the manner that your company expects, and so forth.

One tried-and-true technique to get reluctant people to do what they should is to hold back an incentive. For example, parents who want children to eat vegetables at dinner could stipulate that they eat their vegetables (the non-preferred behavior) before they can eat their desserts (the preferred behavior.)

Preferred Behaviors Can Be Used to Reinforce Unpreferred Behaviors

This motivational rule was formally studied by the American psychologist David Premack. The Premack Principle, or the “relativity theory of reinforcement,” makes it easier to do an unpleasant activity by putting a pleasant activity right after it. In this manner, a reinforcer could observe what an individual chooses to do voluntarily and offer that favored task as an incentive to gain compliance or to increase the likelihood of another less-favored behavior occurring.

Grandma's Rule or Premack Principle: Relativity Theory of Reinforcement As expected, although an academic, Premack enjoyed a very successful vocation as a highly paid “productivity expert” dispensing age-old techniques. He traveled around the country and advised thousands of corporate executives to manipulate themselves into becoming more motivated and more productive by organizing their day such that they schedule first anything that’s unpleasant and important and then reward themselves with something they really like doing.

Grandma’s Rule: “Johny, Finish Your Homework Before You Watch TV”

That a high probability behavior could be used to reinforce participation in a low probability behavior is the unassuming “Grandma’s Rule”—arguably the most universally recognized principle in the field of behavior change. Workplaces use the grandma’s rule by offering future “plum” assignments for employees who “pay their dues” by doing “dull and dirty” work in the present.

The grandma’s rule anchors in the fact that people, including children, are willing to do something they don’t really want to do if that’s the only way they can do something that they really want to do. Absent this established reinforcement, people left to their own devices tend to do what they like doing instead of doing things they don’t like doing even though latter are more beneficial.

Preferred Behaviors Can Be Used to Reinforce Unpreferred Behaviors

The Hidden Costs of Rewards and Incentives

Rewards and incentives can guide and modify behavior. The goal of offering rewards for positive reinforcement is to have the unpleasant tasks become less and less unpleasant. Therefore, the true measure of the effectiveness of any reward is how well the preferred behaviors become internalized. For example, offering rewards to children for reading books is not merely to get them to read books inside the classroom, but to internalize the reading behavior with the goal that they read even during the summer when they don’t have to read for school.

Offering rewards for motivating people to do unlikable tasks could sometimes become counterproductive. In what psychologists call “the overjustification effect,” a reward, instead of motivating, could fortify a person’s revulsion for the task. In other words, the reward could reinforce the belief that the task can’t be worth doing for itself.

Rewards Can Backfire

Overjustification effect is controversial because it disputes the general principles of motivational psychology and behavioral reinforcement—especially in the contexts of parenting, education, and the workplace.

Idea for Impact: Locating the pleasure in the future, when the reward will be imparted, could turn the present-moment doing of an unpleasant task into tedium. For example, insisting that your child eat broccoli for being rewarded with dessert could make her hate broccoli even more.

How People Defend Themselves in a Crisis

How People Defend Themselves in a Crisis The desire to protect and enhance one’s self-image is among the strongest motives of human behavior. No wonder scientific literature is laden with discussions on the ways in which people invoke self-deception in the interest of maintaining a favorable sense of their selves.

People have a propensity to avoid conscious awareness of fear-triggering worries, conflicts, and uncertainties. They engage in thought patterns that distort the external realities as a way of coping with distress.

Psychologists use the term “ego defense mechanisms” to describe the pattern of thought and behavior that arises in response to the perception of psychical danger.

Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation

Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) wrote in The Ego and the Id (1923,) “We have come upon something in the ego itself which is also unconscious, which behaves exactly like the repressed—that is, which produces powerful effects without itself being conscious and which requires special work before it can be made conscious.” Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud (1895–1982,) and other psychologists identified twelve primary defense mechanisms:

  1. Denial: explicitly refusing to acknowledge the threatening reality even when presented with indisputable data (e.g. someone with a terminal illness rejecting the imminence of his death.) Denial may give the respondent some time to evaluate the meaning and seriousness of the threatening reality before reacting to it.
  2. Disavowal: acknowledging the threatening reality but downplaying its significance
  3. Suppression: intentionally engaging distractions to eliminate from consciousness any thoughts of the threatening reality
  4. Fixation: committing inflexibly to one specific mind-set or course of action
  5. Substitution: replacing an unattainable or unacceptable instinctual object or emotion with one that is more accessible or tolerable
  6. Displacement / Transference: redirecting emotions from their original object to a substitute object that is somehow associated with the original one.
  7. Compensation: making amends for a perceived deficiency that cannot be eliminated (e.g., a physical defect) by excelling in some other way.
  8. Grandiosity: exaggerated feeling of power or influence over the threatening reality
  9. Idealization: ascribing power or influence to an existent or imaginary “savior” (an individual or a organization)
  10. Defense Mechanisms Play an Important Role in Self-Preservation Intellectualization: thoroughly rationalizing a particular thought or action, by means of a misleading, but self-serving justification
  11. Projection: incorrectly attributing to others any objectionable thoughts or actions. According to Sigmund Freud, projection makes a person perceive his objectionable character traits in others as a means of avoiding seeing those very faults in himself. For example, a man who cannot accept his own anger may cope with his feelings by accusing others as angry.
  12. Splitting: fragmenting, isolating, and focusing on only certain elements of the threatening reality, instead of considering the complexity brought about by the crisis as a coherent whole

Idea for Impact: It pays to familiarize yourself with these twelve defense mechanisms and be able to identify them in how you (and others) react to emotionally charged situations, especially in close relationships. Defense mechanisms are natural forms of self-protection. However, used excessively, they can turn out to be pathological.

Reference: Cheryl Travers, “Handling the Stress” in Michael Bland (Ed.) Communicating out of a Crisis (1998)

Making Exceptions “Just Once” is a Slippery Slope

Making Exceptions Just Once is a Slippery Slope

Keeping Our Commitments Unwaveringly is Tough

The Harvard business strategy professor Clayton Christensen (of The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997) fame) often tells a story from his college days when he played basketball for his university team. His team worked hard all season and made it to the finals of some big tournament. The championship game was scheduled on a Sunday.

Christensen is a pious Mormon. Playing on the Sabbath (the “seventh day” is holy occasion and has a particular purpose, i.e. rest and spiritual renewal) was against his religious beliefs. The basketball team’s coach asked Christensen to break the rule for that big game, “I don’t know what you believe, but I believe that God will understand.” His teammates prodded him, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule, just this one time?”

Christensen prayed to God for guidance. After some reflection, he concluded that he would not play in the finals because he did not want to violate the Mormon way of life and break his personal rules: “Because life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over and over in the years that followed.”

Willpower is Character in Action

Christensen’s team, however, played without him and won the basketball championship.

'How Will You Measure Your Life' by Clayton M. Christensen (ISBN 0062102419) Discussing this experience in writings such as How Will You Measure Your Life? (2012,) Christensen says,

Many of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules “just this once.” In our minds, we can justify these small choices. None of those things, when they first happen, feels like a life-changing decision. The marginal costs are almost always low. But each of those decisions can roll up into a much bigger picture, turning you into the kind of person you never wanted to be.

If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal-cost analysis, you’ll regret where you end up. That’s the lesson I learned: it’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. The boundary—your personal moral line—is powerful because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again.

For Christenson, the opportunity cost of missing the championship game was large. Therefore, the marginal cost of breaking his rules “just this once” was comparatively trivial. However, the bigger damage of yielding to demands of the circumstances was larger yet, given his religious devotion.

Idea for Impact: Life becomes so much simpler if you decide what you stand for, stick with your values 100% the time, and make no exceptions.

It’s easy to lose your emotional footing and resist temptations, especially when you feel pressured or depressed, or face some other persuasive incentive.

It’s easy to unearth some justification to infringe a little upon your principles or break commitments you’ve made to yourself.

However, conceding “just once” is a slippery slope—the proverbial thin end of a wedge. If you allow yourself to compromise just the once, you can wind up doing it frequently.

In contrast, if you make up your mind to follow 100% on some standard, all of your prospective decisions are made.

Life becomes so much easier when you no longer need to expend your willpower on internal moral deliberations or justify/ regret your poor choices.

Think in Terms of Habits & Systems Rather Than Goals

Effective Goals Can Challenge, Motivate, and Energize

Most folks fail to understand how goals work: goals don’t stipulate behaviors.

Goals relate only to the outcomes and results of specific behaviors—they are not about the actions and behaviors that can bring about those results.

In other words, goals can only provide direction and can even impel you onward in the short-term, but ultimately, a well-designed system—when put into habitual practice—will always prevail.

'The Power of Habit' by Charles Duhigg (ISBN 081298160X) Developing a system is what matters to discipline and self-control. Committing to the process is what makes the difference. As New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg wrote in his bestselling The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (2012,) only a systematic approach works:

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

An example of a goal: “I want to lose 10 pounds before my sister’s wedding.” A habit/system would be, “What dieting and exercising changes can I make with the aim of looking better at my sister’s wedding?”

Another example of a goal: “How do I amass $1 million before I turn 35?” A habit/system would be, “How do I develop financial disciplines and investment methods to get richer over time and achieve a net worth of $1 million by the time I’m 35?”

Idea for Impact: Only by creating habits and systems to achieve goals can you live more of the life you aspire to. As a creature of habit, when you are doing something that is routine, you don’t need to be deliberately engaged in the task in the same way as if you were doing something that is not habitual.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

5 Minutes to Greater Productivity [Two-Minute Mentor #11]

How to Get Unstuck---5 Minutes to Greater Productivity

When you’re stuck—whether it’s at work, play, love, or some other facet of your life,—don’t wait for external change to come about and inspire you. As I’ve written before, motivation is glorified as a personal trait. While it is beneficial to be motivated, folks who actually manage to get things done are those who find a way to work at whatever they are interested in even when they do not really feel like doing it.

When you’re stuck, if you can take time out and reflect on your current difficulties, many opportunities may open up that can help you get unstuck.

  • Clearly understand your objectives and your problems. Identify what you must do to solve problems or meet goals as efficiently as feasible. Get honest with yourself and reconsider your motivations. Being realistic can allow you to think more flexibly and creatively.
  • Target the causes of your problems and the reasons behind what you are doing. Analyze your current actions to determine whether they will effectively accomplish what they should. Look for ways to simplify your goals and targets.
  • Check if your perfectionism is holding you back. Folks who tend to be perfectionist are afraid that the world is going to see them for who they really are and that they won’t measure up. Could you lower your standards?
  • Organize your options. Are there faster-but-equally-effective alternative methods to the ones you’re currently trying? Could you learn new methods or delegate parts of your responsibilities to help you save time? Could you break your work into smaller, more manageable chunks? Focus on the next small step that will move you forward and set in-between deadlines.
  • Plan your work and carry on. Initiate the most efficient action plan to get the results you want. If you find yourself uninspired, take action—even a small step. Often, beginning to do a task builds momentum and motivation kicks in within a few minutes. Doing is everything.

Idea for Impact: The most effective form of change doesn’t happen to you—it comes from within you. To free yourself when you feel limited or stuck, take a breather and organize yourself. Introspection can unlock more adaptive behavior.

Let Go of Sunk Costs

When people put their weight behind an idea or a belief, they become invested in it. They are likely to fight its corner rather than discard that idea or renounce their prior decision.

This tendency to throw good resources after bad, rather than cut losses, is the Sunk Cost Fallacy.

Quitting is Not Always Wrong

'Thinking, Fast and Slow' by Daniel Kahneman (ISBN 0374275637) People frequently become stuck with poor decisions that they keep holding on to in hopes that they will eventually prove their efforts worthwhile. Here’s Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, the bestselling exposition of human irrationality) in an interview with financial journalist Morgan Housel:

When I work I have no sunk costs. I like changing my mind. Some people really don’t like it but for me changing my mind is a thrill. It’s an indication that I’m learning something. So I have no sunk costs in the sense that I can walk away from an idea that I’ve worked on for a year if I can see a better idea. It’s a good attitude for a researcher. The main trap that young researchers fall into is sunk costs. They get to work on a project that doesn’t work and that is not promising but they keep at it. I think too much persistence can be bad for you in the intellectual world.

Don’t Become Biased Against Quitting

Sunk cost fallacy, also called the Concorde Effect Sunk cost fallacy is why people who have already wasted money on tickets to an awful movie continue to watch it to the end and waste their time instead of walking out of the cinema hall. It’s the urge to justify previous decisions using the next one—for example, when people force themselves to munch their way through an unsavory meal at a restaurant or when people waste time in dead-end romantic relationships because they’ve already devoted so much time to the relationships and irrationally hope things will improve someway.

Some leaders continue a project once an initial investment is made and found flawed because stopping the project would be tantamount to conceding that previously-allocated resources have been wasted. For this reason, the sunk cost fallacy is also called the ‘Concorde Effect’ after the Anglo-French supersonic jet. In the ’60s, even though there was never a sufficient demand from airlines for the Concorde, the British and French governments continued to subsidize the development and production of the Concorde instead of admitting that they had wasted billions on a non-viable undertaking. The airline industry had long understood that the economics of supersonic transport were dubious, which had forced Americans to abandon their preliminary studies of supersonic jets.

Idea for Impact: Let to Cut Your Losses When Something’s Not Working

Sunk cost fallacy - Know How to Cut Your Losses When Something's Not Working Sunk costs are backward-looking decisions. Don’t become excessively focused on a specific goal or outcome—you’ll become inflexible and unyielding. You’ll narrow your options and make yourself feel more limited and inhibited.

Don’t get attached to ideas and become affected by the sunk cost fallacy as your projects develop. Remain objective, identify the warning signs of losing propositions, and abandon lost causes where sensible. As the American cartoonist Charles Schulz of Peanuts fame once said, “No problem is so formidable that you cannot walk away from it.”

20 Reasons People Don’t Change

They Don't Want to Change

If you have trouble getting people to change, perhaps one—or more—of the following reasons are to blame:

  1. They don’t want to change … they find reassurance in the status quo
  2. Their environment is holding them back
  3. They’ve tried to change in the past, failed, and have given up
  4. Your coaching / feedback is garbled … the benefits of change are unclear
  5. They don’t react well to criticism
  6. They’re suspicious of your motives (i.e. fear of manipulation)
  7. They see little incentive to change
  8. They don’t know how to change
  9. They have no role models
  10. There’s no support (or resources) for change
  11. Change threatens their self-image
  12. They can’t tell what’s really important
  13. They don’t feel courageous enough … i.e. they fear failure
  14. They don’t feel enough pain yet
  15. They’re overconfident or arrogant
  16. They fear their weaknesses will be exposed
  17. They’re too lazy and undisciplined
  18. Change requires giving up something they presently value
  19. They resist change that’s imposed from outside … i.e. they’re not intrinsically motivated for change
  20. Change undermines their self-confidence

Idea for Impact: Temper your expectations of others. Old habits die hard. Even Einstein’s doctor couldn’t get the great physicist to quit smoking despite his deteriorating health.

Be realistic about changing others’ hearts and minds. If you can learn to accept them for who they are and let go of your conceptions of their perfection, your relationships become more richer.