Warren Buffett’s 5-Step Process for Prioritizing True Success (and Why Most People Never Do It)

Written by Scott February 1, 2011

Warren

“Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work.”

~H. L. Hunt

Cool Free Tool Alert: Check out the end of this post for a free Prioritize Success like Warren Buffett Workbook.

How many projects are you working on right now?

Be honest. Jot them down if you have to.

If your answer is anything like mine once was, it’s likely too many – way too many.

The process goes a bit like this: Something motivates us to make a change. We’re excited. We set all kinds of big goals. We create a plan to make it happen. We’re still excited. Then we look at the list. It’s twenty pages long. We don’t know where to start. We get overwhelmed.

We don’t do a damn thing.

We need a system that puts our focus only on the most important. That’s how results happen. Thankfully Warren Buffett just taught me such a process.

Enter Warren…

I recently met a guy who was close with one of Warren Buffett’s pilots. Given the Buffett fanatic I am, I was all ears for any juice on the man that I had yet to uncover (which isn’t easy given that I think I’ve read everything written or said about the man, know a couple of his friends and get out to Omaha at least once a year to get a priceless education in investing and life).

Dreams become reality as a result of three components:

  1. Knowing what you want.
  2. Learning the tools to get you there.
  3. Having the insane focus to combine the two.

Having clear priorities (that you stick to) might be the best ingredient to success. This means you figured out your goal setting, know what’s most important and you have the focused tools to make it reality.

Warren’s approach to prioritizing caught me off guard. Then the brilliance and simplicity hit me. I’ll explain the process in story form just as I heard it told to me.

Warren Buffett’s 5-Step Process for Prioritizing True Success

1. Know what you want – List your top 25. One day a few years back Warren went up to his pilot (we’ll call him Steve) and jokingly said “The fact that you’re still working for me, tells me I’m not doing my job. You should be out going after more of your goals and dreams.” Warren then asked Steve to list the top 25 things he wanted to do in the next few years or even his lifetime. Just jot down anything that comes to mind as being important to you that isn’t currently a part of your life. Readers, that’s your queue to start writing.

2. Pick your Top 5. Once Steve completed his list, Warren then asked him to review each item and circle the top five that were most important to him. The ones he wanted more than anything. Steve was hesitant because to him they were all massively important. After all, that’s why he wrote them down.

But Warren insisted that he could only pick five. So Steve spent some time with his list and after some deliberation, made five circles. “Are you sure these are the absolute highest priority for you” Warren asked. Steve confidently replied the affirmative.

*Note: Picking your top 5 from your top 25 can be super difficult since they’re all so important. Never fear, for I have a simple process which is covered in the free Prioritize Success like Warren Buffett Workbook below. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Finish reading this, then use the workbook.

3. Make your Top 5 Plan. Warren now asked Steve when he planned to get to work on these top 5 and what his approach would be. They spent the next while discussing Steve’s plan (for those of you who missed it, this is where my free Goal Setting and Action Workbook comes in). Steve explained “Warren, these are the most important things in my life right now. I’m going to get to work on them right away. I’ll start tomorrow. Actually, no I’ll start tonight.”

Steve went on the explain his plan, who he would enlist to help him and by when all these items would get done. Warren was starting to get excited. With any luck he would be out of a pilot within weeks…

4. Marry your priorities. Once the Top 5 planning session was over, Warren then asked “but what about these other 20 things on your list that you didn’t circle? What is your plan for completing those?” Steve replied confidently “Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top 5. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”

To Steve’s surprise, Warren responded sternly,

“No. You’ve got it wrong Steve. 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 5.”

5. Know your ‘Avoid at all Cost List‘ and stick to it. Did #4 surprise anyone? It certainly did me. Warren makes a powerful and somewhat unconventional point here. Most people would suggest ranking their second most important items just below their first. Makes sense at first, but as it turns out, this is the type of behavior that creates some of the most detrimental distractions in making big things happen.

You cannot be a Superstar if you focus on everything.

We are in a world where there’s more competition for your focus than ever before. We have to guard it with our life – because in fact it is. Without focus, without staying true to our priorities, not only will we not get done the extra things we try to fit in, but we won’t get done what’s most important to our core. The things that create fulfillment, excitement and happiness. Without these emotions, nothing’s really worth it anyway.

It’s no surprise that Warren has done as well as he has. His dedication to his top 5 (or in his case his top 1 – Running Berkshire Hathaway) is almost inhuman. And he has more distractions than anyone.

People are constantly asking him to run companies, write books, be Secretary of the Treasury, do interviews, speak to students and even run for President. He no doubt has fun and thankfully indulges us in some of these distractions but only to the extent that it does not affect the way he runs his business, his Top Priority.

It is this focus that allows what many refer to as The Superstar Effect.

Creating Clear Priorities Only Gets More Important with Time.

The distractions never end.

In fact, they are likely to get more abundant (and more tempting) as you grow and further venture the world. I used to stick to two clear business priorities: writing on this site and running our investment fund. Recently that’s changed. In the past years I’ve been asked to consult for businesses, coach individuals, write for other sites, speak at universities and events and so on.

This is a natural result of becoming more seasoned in one’s field. If it hasn’t happened to you, I assure you it will.

I never thought these opportunities would come my way. But I have to remember – The only reason they have is because I have kept a diehard focus on my core. On my Top 5.

By no means am I suggesting you don’t go after the right opportunities as they come up. I am just reminding you of the importance of being conscious of what these new opportunities and goals mean to your current projects and focus. The internal battle never ends.

I am notorious for spreading myself too thin. I love starting new things and get mesmerized by the possibilities. I constantly have to remember my Top 5.

If Warren can stay true to his core with the laundry list of attractive distractions that come his way, we certainly can too.

Without priorities, nothing gets done.

So what’s your answer?

How many of you have 2 projects you’re working on right now? What about 5? How about 7 or 10? 20 or more?

If most of us sat down and did an inventory of where we spend our time, I bet you’d notice you have a lot more things going than you thought.

The more you have to choose, the more time you spend deliberating over what you’ll do at this moment, which is more time spent not doing one of the things most important to you.

You are confronted with the paradox of choice: The more options you have, the less likely you are to choose any of them.

With priorities, you can truly begin.

The topic of priorities is a crucial part of the goal setting process. It’s something I felt I could have better touched on in the Goal Setting and Action Workbook. Now I know why I didn’t. I was waiting for this story from Warren – I just didn’t know it.

Take it seriously. Know what you care most about and avoid everything else like the plague.

What important things are you going to decide not to do right now?

Do this and make room for the real game changers.

Know what you want. Then go get it.

-Scott

Download a free copy of the Prioritize Success like Warren Buffett Workbook.

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