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.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize [Two-Minute Mentor #9]

Focus on What You Want to Achieve Many of humankind’s greatest feats are accomplished by people who have a singular desire that becomes the foundational element for everything they do.

The 13th-century Turkish poet-philosopher Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, undoubtedly the most celebrated mystical poet in the Islamic world, purportedly advocated being absorbed in the task: “There is one thing that we all must do. If we do everything else but that one thing, we will be lost. And if we do nothing else but that one thing, we will have lived a glorious life.”

Don’t Have Too Many Irons in the Fire

  • Ask yourself this question: “What is my one thing—the singular objective that could make the most positive impact and meaningful shift—either on the present moment, or on my life as a whole?”
  • Just as the comical and wise Jiminy Cricket accompanies Pinocchio on his adventures serving as his official conscience, have a persistent voice persistently prompting you, “Are you doing your thing?”

Focus on What You Want to Achieve

The ability to prioritize, focus, and achieve is one of the most useful skills you can master. Learn to focus fully on the task at hand, and shut out everything else. As I mentioned in my world’s shortest course in time management, focus on things that you must do and avoid everything else.

It is truly amazing how much possibility, joy, and fulfillment you can add to your life when you shift your mindset to realizing and focusing on your one thing—in whatever timeframe you’re taking into consideration.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

To Become Time-Conscious, Always Ask, “Is It a Priority?”

To Become Time-Conscious, Always Ask, 'Is It a Priority?'

As I wrote in my three-part series on time logging, time analyzing, and time budgeting, life is all about values and the relative priorities you attach to these values.

Priorities imply choice; you get to make a choice in almost everything you do. Every choice involves tradeoffs: when you choose to do something, it implies that you choose not do something else.

Before being sucked into doing anything, ask, “Is this the best use of my time?”

Another way to think about this is in terms of “opportunity cost.” Everything in life has an opportunity cost. Whenever you take up one opportunity, you forfeit another. When you choose to go to a movie with a friend, it means you aren’t going to the library to work on a research paper that’s due next week. When you choose to spend this month’s savings on new furniture, it means you can’t add to your retirement account. So, when making decisions about anything, keep opportunity costs in mind. Be aware of what you’re giving up.

One of the most important choices you make—often subconsciously—is how you use your time, which is your most important resource. Before doing anything, be aware of what you are giving up; decide whether the benefits are worth the time you’re investing in the task.

The Nagging “5-5-5” Questions

Is It a Priority Poor time management often has less to do with your packed schedule than with your indecisive, unorganized, or undisciplined mind. To improve your life, stop wasting time on things that don’t matter. Have a little voice in your head that constantly nags you by asking the following “5-5-5” questions:

  • Is this a priority?
  • Will this matter in 5 days?
  • Will this matter in 5 months?
  • Will this matter in 5 years?

The “5-5-5” questions will prevent you from being caught up in little tasks and trivialities that aren’t truly important.

Idea for Impact: Be time conscious; constantly ask yourself, “Is this time-effective?”

According to my world’s shortest course on time management, “There are countless things you can do. There are numerous things you want to do. There are several things others expect you to do. There are many things you think you are supposed to do. However, there are only a few things that you must do. Focus on those and avoid the rest.”

As I mentioned in my article “don’t say ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’,” don’t be vulnerable enough to be pulled along by forces that are beyond your control. Be accommodating when you can and assertive when you must. Be intentional about how you choose to use our time. Your life depends on it.

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

“He who every morning plans the transactions of the day and follows out that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life. The orderly arrangement of his time is a like a ray of life which darts itself through all his occupations. But where no plan is laid, where the disposal of time is surrendered merely to the chance of incident, chaos will soon reign.”
Victor Hugo

“A Guaranteed Formula for Success”

Ivy Lee's A popular legend recalls a time management trick that efficiency expert Ivy Lee showed to Charles Michael Schwab (1862—1939,) the American steel magnate and President of Bethlehem Steel, then the second largest steel manufacturer in the United States.

Lee famously advised Charles Schwab and his managers to list and rank their top priorities every day, and work on tasks in the order of their importance as time allows, not proceeding until a task was completed. After implementing the suggestion, Charles Schwab famously said that Lee’s method for managing priorities had been the most profitable advice he had ever received and paid him $25,000.

When Charles Schwab was president of Bethlehem Steel, he confronted Ivy Lee, a management consultant, with an unusual challenge. “Show me a way to get more things done,” he demanded. “If it works, I will pay you anything within reason.”

Lee handed Schwab a piece of paper. “Write down the things you have to do tomorrow.”

When Schwab had completed the list, Lee said, “Now number these items in the order of their real importance.”

Schwab did, and Lee said, “The first thing tomorrow morning, start working on number one and stay with it until it’s completed. Then take number two, and don’t go any further until it’s finished or until you’ve done as much with it as you can. Then proceed to number three and so on. If you can’t complete everything on schedule, don’t worry. At least you will have taken care of the most important things before getting distracted by items of less importance.

“The secret is to do this daily. Evaluate the relative importance of the things you have to get done, establish priorities, record your plan of action, and stick to it. Do this every working day. After you have convinced yourself that this system has value, have your people try it. Test it as long as you like, and then send me a check for whatever you think the idea is worth.”

Mary Kay Ash Helped Her Beauty Consultants Juggle Spouse, Children, and Career

'You Can Have It All' by Mary Kay Ash (ISBN 0761501622) Mary Kay Ash, American beauty products entrepreneur and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, had a variation to this technique. In You Can Have It All, she writes:

Each night, I put together my list for the following day. If I don’t get something on my list accomplished, it goes on the next day’s list. I put the hardest or most unappealing task at the top of the list. This way, I tackle the most difficult item first, and once it’s out of the way, I feel my day is off to a good start.

Mary Kay Ash taught her cosmetics sales consultants this technique of prioritizing their work and thus avoid being stretched too thin. Most of Mary Kay’s cosmetics sales consultants were women filling multiple roles as mother, wife, and businesswoman.

We try very hard to get our consultants to organize themselves. The best way I have found is a little pad of paper we issue called “The Six Most Important Things.” I teach consultants to write down the six most important things they have to do the next day every night before they go to bed. I suggest that people organize things by priority. First, put the thing they most don’t want to do at the top. Then write down the six most important things—not sixteen, because this is frustrating, but six.

Idea for Impact: Squeeze the Most out of Your Day

The best way to start your day is by accomplishing something instead of fiddling around with email or contemplating the day’s priorities. So, every evening, before you leave the office, write down the most important tasks you’ve got to get done the next day. Leave it on your desk along with any support material you need to work on it. This will help you get rolling first thing in the morning.

Overwhelmed with Things To Do? Accelerate, Maintain, or Terminate.

Overwhelmed with Things To Do

If you are overwhelmed by extensive demands on your time or by the number of projects that seem permanently stuck on your to-do list, here’s a technique to organize your projects more effectively.

Make a table with three columns: “Accelerate Mode,” “Maintain Mode,” and “Terminate Mode” and classify your projects.

  • “Accelerate mode” projects have the potential for significant benefits and therefore will need additional investment in time, effort, and resources.
  • Projects that you can sustain at the present pace and projects where additional investments may not necessarily translate to larger payoffs go in the “maintain mode.”
  • Choose the “terminate mode” whenever in doubt, especially for projects that have been lingering in the “someday I will get to” and “maybe” categories. Also, terminate those projects that are on your list because you feel that you should do but need not.

One of the key characteristics of successful people is to recognize and invest their resources in projects that really matter and to do everything else adequately enough.