In The Snowball, Alice Schroeder describes how Warren Buffett first met Bill Gates at a dinner party. Everyone around the table was asked to write down the most important factor in their personal success. Both Buffett and Gates wrote a single word: Focus.
Whether it's in the investing sphere, your career, or your relationships, being able to prioritise your workload and goals is paramount. That's why another story recently caught my attention: a strategy that Buffett uses to prioritise goals.
Mike Flint, Buffett's personal pilot for 10 years, was discussing his career with his boss when Buffett suggested a helpful exercise.
Step 1: Buffett asked Flint to write down his top 25 goals for the next few years.
Step 2: From this list, Buffett asked Flint to circle his top five - the most important things he wanted to achieve.
Step 3: Flint now had two to-do lists: List A, his top five priorities, and List B, his next 20. Flint said he would get working on his top five goals, but then Buffett asked 'What about these other 20 things on your list that you didn't circle? What's your plan for completing those?'
Flint replied, 'They are still important so I'll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I'm getting through my top five. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.'
'No. You've got it wrong', Buffett said. 'Everything you didn't circle just became your avoid-at-all-cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you've succeeded with your top five.'
To my mind, the moral of the story is that focus is mainly an exercise in elimination. It's about recognising that you probably won't have time to accomplish all of your goals, so you need to actively avoid a few if you want to achieve any at all. The goals that are most likely to interfere with your success are the enjoyable and easy ones that aren't truly important.
Setting a top-five priority list might raise a new problem: what if your goals are ambitious and complex, like retiring with $5m or starting a business. The bigger the task, the more likely we are to feel overwhelmed and so put off doing it.
Here, I find advice from British journalist Oliver Burkeman particularly helpful: set laughably small goals. This doesn't mean throw out your plan to start a business, it means break the process down into tiny, easily digestible chunks.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by your primary goal, try to accomplish just the first step: say, filling out the company registration form. If that's still too discouraging, break it down smaller: 'Right, whether or not I actually fill out the form, I'm at least going to open ASIC's website and download it.' Make your immediate goal so small that you couldn't possibly justify not doing it.
Small achievements are reinforcing, they make you feel positive and carry momentum so you're more likely to get the bigger goal done. It plays on the Zeigarnik Effect - the urge to finish an incomplete task so we can free up mental energy. If you already have the form in hand, you're more likely to think 'well, I've come this far, I might as well start writing'.
Once you've started an activity, continuing it seems easier. Making it past the start point is the hardest part, so focus on that first step and avoid anything that isn't ultimately directing you towards your top five goals. As the saying goes, you can have anything you want, just not everything you want.