Part of working at any high growth technology company is juggling a lot of competing priorities.  To be clear, having a lot of opportunities is a good thing – it means the business is growing and the company is thriving.  However, if you’re not careful, trying to do too many things at once can leave you spread too thin and not really doing anything well.

Add a 1-month old child to the mix – and you can probably guess why I’m thinking about prioritization this week.

I wrote about Essentialism a few months back, but I still felt like I was missing a practical tool for forcing prioritization.

I was chatting with my friend and colleague Justin Pines about this very topic last week and he recommended I read James Clear’s post about Warren Buffett’s “2 list” strategy for prioritization.

The post is fairly short and simple.  It describes an encounter between Warren Buffet and one of his employees, Mike Flint.  Buffet asks Flint to write down his top 25 priorities on a piece of paper.  Simple enough to start.  Given a few minutes, I’m sure we could all write down a list of 25 priorities.

Then Buffet asks Flint to review the list of 25 and circle only his top 5 most critical priorities.

This leaves flint with two lists of priorities: his “top 5 list” and then a list that contains priorities numbered 6-25.

Initially Flint declares that he will get right to work on his top 5 priorities, while at the same time trying to accomplish some of the things from his other list as well.  From here I’ll quote directly from James Clear’s original post (it’s Flint talking to start):

“Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”

To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. 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.”

“Avoid-At-All-Cost list”

When those words hit me, a little something in me changed.

No doubt, at some point, we’ve all been in the position that the parable describes.  We have a long “to do” list and we try to multi-task the entire list at once – or we are launching a new initiative at work and there are lots of requests for what we should be working on.  In this situation there is a human tendency to keep a long list of everything we need to get done and then start by working on a task that’s somewhat easy – consciously or unconsciously anticipating the gratification that comes with checking an item off the list.

We rationalize: “Hey – at least I’m getting something done”.

After working on two or three of the easiest items from our list – all of the sudden we realize the day is over and we’re no closer to addressing our top 5 priorities than we were when we started the day.

Here’s the real secret Buffet is getting at here: prioritization is easy when you know you have no choice.

When I was an athlete in college, people used to ask me how it was possible to do all of my schoolwork and commit four to five hours per day to athletics.  It actually wasn’t that hard.  I went to class, I went to sports practice, I did my homework and then I went to bed.  During the week, there was no time for anything else, so prioritization was easy.  It was forced.

Here Buffett is tapping into the same principle.  If you sit down and create two lists and consciously decide to “avoid at all costs” anything outside your top five list – it’s easy to know what you should do next.  You’ve just forced it.

If you know you have no choice, prioritization is easy.

Warren Buffet’s Prioritization Strategy
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