Whenever I get too little sleep, or I feel a deluge of projects coming on, I feel myself start to panic. There’s a ton to do and I’m afraid I won’t be able to get it all done. So what happens next?
Paralysis. Indecision. Procrastination.
It’s such a predictable pattern that I can now sense it whenever it shows up.
There are too many blog post ideas that I have to write, so I’ll just write zero. I’m too overwhelmed by all of the projects, so I’ll just go look at social media instead.
I’m not alone.
Workplace stress affects as many as 80% of today’s workers, and 40% of people report that their workplaces are extremely stressful and that it affects them in their everyday lives and personal time (See: footnote 1 and 2).
This is something everyone deals with. Even as an entrepreneur, where I’m my own boss (and employee), the workload I place on myself can grow immensely and the number of opportunities start to pile so high I’m afraid I can’t crawl out from behind my desk.
So how do you find focus and clarity inside of the growing list of options, projects, and demands on your time? When you have a dozen or more projects in front of you that you really want to get done, how do you figure out which to do first?
Warren Buffett—or a made-up story about him—might have the answer.
Finding focus when you’re tired, overwhelmed, or feeling paralysis
This is one of the hardest challenges I have, and it’s a challenge I have on a recurring basis. It seems like every few months, more projects creep into the horizon line, and six months into the year, I’m struggling to stay afloat amidst a dozen (or more!) projects calling for my attention. I am not alone in this. I have worked with dozens of people that also have the same challenge, and I’ve written a short e-book on my process of elimination and finding focus. It’s a ‘rinse and repeat’ strategy, because it’s not something I solved for once and for all—it’s a practice I use every six to twelve months as I find myself overwhelmed by projects and needing to whittle them back. Like weeds in a hot summer garden following weeks of abundant rainfall, you’ve got to get out the weed-whacker every few weeks and keep the project creep at bay, or risk drowning out the plants you’ve been trying to grow all along.
And herein lies the question:
How do you find a way to prioritize and focus when there are so many projects calling for your attention?
That’s what today’s article is about.
In it, I’ll tell you a story about finding focus that comes from Warren Buffett that has been extremely helpful to my own practice and to the people I work with. It has radically shifted how I show up to my own work. It’s been a hard-as-all-get-out practice to implement in real time, but it works. In fact, I can’t stop telling people about it, and every time I run into a roadblock that looks like procrastination, indecision, or paralysis, I come back to this exercise.
And it works.
Warren Buffett’s 25/5 strategy for finding focus
For the longest time, I’d heard this story—this philosophy, really—that has been attributed to Warren Buffett. Apparently his pilot, a guy named Mike Flint, was having a conversation with him. Flint asks Buffett for life advice and how to get find time to get everything done he wants to get done in his life. Buffett replied with a three-step approach to solving the problem. It made such an impression on Mike, or whoever first hear the story, that this story—as stories do—passed on from person to person, getting retold and re-shared.
The story has been retold enough that it falls into internet lore, and you’ll find it on nearly every news outlet if you search, but try to trace the story back to an actual source, you won’t find it. The story is most likely fake—or it’s been transmuted in an elaborate game of “Internet Telephone,” but the process is so useful that I’m re-sharing it here. (Apparently when asked about it, Buffett says he can’t remember the conversation in question, yet another anecdote I’m having trouble tracking down.)
Take the truthiness of the story in question, but follow the steps and see what happens.
Regardless of whether or not Buffett actually said any of these things, the process is still incredibly valuable.
STEP 1: Write out your top 25 career goals, life goals, or aspirations.
What are your biggest goals in your life? If you don’t have a bucket list, take time to write them down. Even if you only have time to scratch out your top ten or so right now, do this first step—it’s important.
For example, you might have “run a marathon” on your bucket list, or “write a book,” or “have a family.” Whatever your top 25 list is, make it and take the time to write it down.
It can take some time to write out a list. It can be between 20 and 30 things, more is fine as well. But take some time to write down what’s on your goals and aspirations for your own life.
If you’re stuck, brainstorm everything YOU think is important for your life. This isn’t a list of everything you should do or that you’re supposed to do (Your parents, for example, might have told you for years that you need a law degree, or that getting married is one of the most important choices you can make in your life.) Make sure they are all things that you want, not someone else.
Now, go to Step 2: it gets a little tougher.
STEP 2: Circle your top 5.
Go back through the list and circle the top five. What are the biggest career or life goals you have?
For me, it’s easy to pick my top two:
- Create my own family—have babies if I can.
- Write books.
I’ve got a few more in the top five, including running my own successful company and writing for major publications and outlets. Those are in my top four and they are nearly everything I’m working on building and making right now.
Down later on the list—it’s been a while since I’ve done this—but I have other goals and things I enjoy, like running a marathon, competing in triathlons, traveling and visiting lots of countries around the world, learning another language, and even completing yoga teacher training.
If you haven’t done this next step yet, pause here and make sure you do Step 1 and Step 2 before going any further.
Now that you have your top 5 list, it’s time for Step 3.
STEP 3: The Avoid-At-All-Costs List.
This is where the list becomes really interesting.
Apparently Buffett goes on to ask his employee: “What are you going to do with the other twenty things?”
He responds: “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 five. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”
“No,” says Buffett. “You’ve got it all wrong.”
“Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all costs list.’”
Everything that’s on your list becomes something that you need to avoid at all costs. It’s not things that we don’t want that will distract us. It’s secondary goals and wishes that will pull our focus, cause us to lose ground, and ultimately distract us from the very things we want.
James Clear, a popular productivity blogger and the author of Atomic Habits, wrote about why these very things are the biggest productivity killers in our lives:
“Getting rid of wasteful items and decisions is relatively easy. It’s eliminating things you care about that is difficult. It is hard to prevent using your time on things that are easy to rationalize, but that have little payoff. The tasks that have the greatest likelihood of derailing your progress are the ones you care about, but that aren’t truly important. […] Every behavior has a cost. Even neutral behaviors aren’t really neutral. They take up time, energy, and space that could be put toward better behaviors or more important tasks.”
It’s our inability to focus on the things that matter the most that cause us the most heartache.
I’ve been guilty of this time and time again.
In my adventures of book writing, I’ve often gotten lost in multiple-idea-itis, and I’ve scrawled and scratched the ideas all over my notebooks. Eagerly, I’ll start writing one of them, getting thousands of words down until I find myself somewhere in the 20,000 word mark and feeling overwhelmed and at a crossroads. Certainly, the next idea to come to my mind unrelated to the book has potential—maybe more potential than this one? I stumbled, not knowing that pushing through the blockages and challenging moments at each of those writing thresholds was the priority, and I am a bit sheepish to say that I have at least a dozen partial drafts buried in my hard drives.
What changed? I finally had the guts to ask myself if I would be cool writing 80% of five books and never having a single book make it to the light of day. That nearly broke me inside, and I’ve cried over it—I want to publish a book, however imperfectly written and however full of mistakes—and push through the process until I birth a book, and then, I want to do it again.
This requires dedication to the slog, to the less-sexy, to the boring times, to the bad writing, to the tumble of words, to the process and the pieces and the frustration of all of it. And it requires a ruthless lid on the other ideas on the shelf, canning my easily distractible mind and asking it to keep returning to the attention of this project until the project is realized.
Anti-goals and why they matter
Every project has a clear goal and a desired outcome, but what we fail to do is create anti-goals, or project distractions and killers.
Your “avoid-at-all-costs” list just became anti-goals to your top five.
“Spending time on secondary priorities is the reason you have 20 half-finished projects instead of five completed ones,” writes James Clear. “The most dangerous distractions are the ones you love, but that don’t love you back.”
The bigger you get, the more you manage, the longer you live—the harder yet more important this is. We won’t arrive at focus unless we do the work to get there. Focusing ruthlessly on just two things requires deep focus and a commitment.
In work: pick your top two
In most companies, we suffer from the dangerous assumption that we can have three, five, even ten project priorities running at any one time. It’s worth it to stop and ask whether or not the multiple competing objectives are actually in competition with each other. What if the reason you’re not having success at your initiative is simply because you’re running too many burners at once?
Take the time to cut half the work off of your plate, and double down on the initiatives that really matter. The painful part is having to decide what’s first, and which of your darlings you need to let go of.
60% complete on five projects that never see the light of day is a lot of energy to spend on getting no results. Kill two of the projects and turn the dial up to 80% on three—or even two—of the projects, and see if you skyrocket towards success earlier, or faster.
1: Stress at work, according to the CDC.
2: Workplaces attitudes about stress and overwork.
3: The quotes from this story come from Scott Dinsmore’s original telling of the 25/5 rule and James Clear’s essay on prioritization.