Two Lists

Mike Flint was an airline pilot; one of the best in the business.  He got his start flying for the US Navy, and later served as an American volunteer in the Israeli air force during the First War of Independence.  Eventually he flew for US presidents.  On this day he was flying his latest employer – Mr. Warren Buffet.

Buffet, known as “the Oracle of Omaha” is now one of the wealthiest men in the world and he wasn’t doing too bad back then either.  As the story goes, Flint was talking to Buffet about priorities in his career, when Buffets eyes lit up.

He asked Mike to work through a simple three stage process with him right there, that would help him identify his priorities.  This is what they did.

Step 1

Write down your top 25 goals.

This can be focused on just your career, or can cover all aspects of your life.  You can think of it in terms of the next year, or your entire life.  You have goals floating in your head right now, just start writing and get it all down onto the page.

Step 2

Circle your top five.

Take some time now to go through your list and highlight those goals that are most important to you.  This can be hard but it is important to isololate the goals that mean the most.  These might jump right off the page at you or it may require careful deliberation.

Transfer them to a new, clean page when you have them.

Step 3

The Two Lists

Now there are two lists.  List number one holds your top five goals.  List number two contains the remaining twenty.

When Mike Flint finished this exercise and looked at his two lists he was excited to get started working on his top five priorities.  Then Buffet asked him what he planned to do about list number two.

Flint paused a moment and replied, 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.”

Buffet smiled and 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

The lesson here is that we can’t do it all, much as we’d like to.  In order to become great at something we must prioritize ruthlessly.  The alternative is to achieve mediocrity at a larger number of things.

Greatness comes to those that pursue their goals with a single-minded focus.  No matter what tasks you choose, there will come a point where it feels tedious.  But recognizing this is the first step to pushing through the dip and achieving mastery at that skill.

You can also work towards achieving these goals by completing smaller projects that advance your aspirations.  This helps keep the journey fresh and interesting.

Bonus – Systems Thinking

Confronting a page full of goals can be daunting; even if whittled down to five.  The size and scope of the goal can feel too large, so that you won’t know where to begin.

The final step, once identifying your big goals, is to go small.

Don’t think about the magnitude of the task.  Think about the smallest action you can take to advance yourself in the right direction.  Focus on repeating the small steps until the habit forms, then continue completing these small step.  Putting a daily system into place that consists of tiny actions will take you further than any one single Herculean task.  It just takes time and consistency.

Prioritize Ruthlessly

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned as we’ve grown is that we have to prioritize,” said Sandberg. “We talk about it as ruthless prioritization. And by that what we mean is only do the very best of the ideas. Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they’re not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices.” – interview with Inc. Magazine

When the COO of Facebook talks about prioritization we would all do well to sit up and take note.

We all want to be more productive; squeezing more out of the day and crushing that to-do list.  But at what point does ”productive” degrade into “busy”?  Just because we can be working on something doesn’t mean that we should.  It may not be the best use of our time, but how to choose those activities that will have the greatest impact?

Adding to the trouble these days is that as we transition further towards a knowledge worker based economy, there just isn’t as much physical evidence of completion.  Working with your hands offers tangible evidence of how hard you work.  Pound enough nails and eventually you’ll build a house.  But what evidence is left after a day of crunching numbers on a spreadsheet and collaborating online?

This has inadvertently given rise to the “always on” phenomenon, where emails are replied to immediately and colleagues eat lunch with their cellphones on the table.  Each email sent represents a unit of work completed, so you can get feedback about how much you are doing feel good about what you’ve accomplished.  At least until the end of the day when you look back and can’t think of a single thing you did that was actually valuable.

Ruthless Prioritization

The key to success is to focus on the things that truly matter, to the exclusion of all else.  Easy to say, hard to do.

Defining what truly matters can be tricky and takes time.  The employee handbook at work is a good place to start but won’t take you all the way.  Your job description is just the baseline of what is expected of you in order to maintain the status quo.  Those that shine learn to read between the lines and focus on the unspoken tasks that really matter; the 20% of activities that make 80% of the difference.

Modeling others who you feel are high performers in your industry is another good place to look.  Watch what they do and ask questions about what they feel is important.  They may not be able to articulate what it is they are doing however, as it might just come naturally.  But the more information you can gather the better a position you’ll be in to make informed choices.

Priority = One

Prioritization is the act of ranking items in their order of importance.  Ruthless Prioritization then is to eliminate everything on the lower end of that list that doesn’t provide enough value for your time invested.

In business, we all want more sales.  So do we focus on making sales calls, or should we focus on doing an amazing job so that our sales are driven by referrals?  If we are trying to both do the work and generate the work, are we doing our best work?  Or is it better to focus on the work and let the results generate more work?  I argue the latter, and we all know of a company or individual who stays so busy from referrals that they have to turn work away.  It is no coincidence that those individuals are also typically at the top of the pay scale as well.

Focus on one thing at a time to the exclusion of all else and your results will skyrocket.  The hard part is cutting out the non-essentials, because we feel obliged to work on them too.  But think back to how much busywork you completed last month and ask what value it truly generated.

Reducing the number of things you focus on allows you more time to focus on what matters.  You’ll do a better job, achieve better results, and will actually have more time to spend doing what you want; because focused work gets finished quicker.

Choose one thing, block out a chunk of time, and get after it.

The Perfect Day Itinerary – PDI

It  can be hard to find enough time to do everything we want to do.  We all have things we want to accomplish.  Goals that we have set for ourselves.  Secret dreams we have never shared with the world.

The trouble comes in trying to find enough time to dedicate towards achieving those dreams on a regular basis.  Prior obligations (work, family) and commitments (school, the gym) leave our time stretched and have us feeling exhausted at the end of the day.  So we end up binge watching the latest show on TV, or playing on our phones, and finish the day having made no progress towards that which will make us truly happy, and ultimately fulfilled.

I wake up early each day in order to write.  It works for me.  But this may be too prescriptive for others, so rather than advise everyone to wake up early I will encourage everyone instead to set aside some time and create their own perfect day itinerary.

The Perfect Day Itinerary

Lewis Howes provided the inspiration for this in his book The School of Greatness.

The Perfect Day Itinerary (PDI) is an exercise of what your perfect day would look like.  The day where you jump out of bed in the morning and crush all of your goals before falling into bed in the evening.  It helps you become proactive about what spare time you have available, and realistic about the time needed to manage your obligations.

The PDI provides a shining benchmark to aim for.  Or it will show you, as you work towards living it, that perhaps some of your aspirations are misplaced.  Trial and error is how we evolve as people, but we’ve got to start trialing if we are going to make those errors.

Defining Your Perfect Day

It all starts with What.

  • What do you want to accomplish in life?
  • What are your previous commitments?
  • What activities are non-negotiable to you?

Take out a legal pad (you keep those on hand right?) and start by listing your dreams and goals.  Make them big.  Want to become a published author?  Finish your degree?   Complete a triathlon?  Write it all down.

Big accomplishments are reached through small tasks, performed repeatedly each day.  Identifying what those small tasks are is a simple process.  To become a published author you must write every day.  Getting your degree takes study.  Completing the triathlon means you must train.  Don’t over-complicate things.  It isn’t rocket surgery.

Next, continue by listing everything that you do on a typical day.  Not a vacation day, or a weekend, but a standard run of the mill day.  Note the hours you are at work.  Your commute time.   How much time you take for lunch.  How much time you spend at the gym.  And so on.

With these two lists in hand the final thing to do is write what time you wake up at the top of the page, and what time you go to sleep at the bottom.  Write them boldly, encapsulating the day.

Now start a new page.

Getting Realistic

On the blank page start writing the time down the left hand side.  Begin with your usual waking time, or better yet an hour earlier.  Double space the lines so that each constitutes a 30 minute block.  Continue on through bedtime.

With that in place begin to block in your workday.  If you stay at home with the kids this will be their schedule.  Include driving times, lunch time, and breaks.  Add what time you arrive at home, and the time it takes to have dinner and clean up after.

With those items in place take a look at your list to find the areas of free time.  These will typically be at the beginning, the end, and some smaller times in the middle.

Now comes the hard part.  Go back to the list you’ve created with all of the extra things you would like to get done, and start crossing items out.

Getting more done and accomplishing goals is a matter of subtraction; removing the unnecessary in order to focus on what is important.  You need to say no to more than you say yes to.  People overestimate what they can do in a month, but underestimate what they will accomplish over a year.

Choose your most important goal and slot time to work on it into your list during your highest energy time of day.  For some that is first thing, for the night owls it is much later.  Working on this task early is always a good idea as you will rarely have a day spin out of your control first thing in the morning.

If first thing in the morning are your ‘A’ items, after work and the end of the day are good times to schedule ‘B’ items.  For me this tends to be a project in the garage or around the house; something that gets me out from behind a computer.

The last areas to examine are your inbetween times; daily travel time, lunch break, etc.  It is amazing what you can accomplish in only 15 minutes each day (especially if performed consistenly!  Notice a trend here?).  For example, the first time I get into the car every day, I immediately put on a Spanish audio lesson that lasts about 15 minutes.  After seven months of this I can see a vast improvement, and in another seven I’ll be that much better.

Applying focus to a small number of tasks consistently will yield greater results than if you try to do everything all at once.  Commit to a task or activity for a full year and you will go far with it.

Fine Tuning

No two days are the same.  Things get in the way and practice sessions get missed.  The key is to get back on track quickly, and logging your progress is the best way to manage this.

Marking an ‘X’ each day on the calendar, or writing a line in a notebook; how you track progress is up to you.  But having a record of your progress is invaluable, both for motivation and in order to recognize how far you’ve come.  It allows you to see what is working and make adjustments for what is not.

I use a Bullet Journal, with a monthly agenda handwritten into a notebook.  This has dates down the left side, with daily tasks along the top.  When I complete a task that day I’ll mark an ‘X’ in the box for that date.  If I hit all tasks for the day I feel great!  If I am lax in keeping my book updated I feel bad.  It is a powerful form of self-motivation.

Normally I have four “must-do” tasks; Writing, Running, Training (weights, etc.) and Spanish.  Certain months I will add a fifth line and try to incorporate something else that I am trying to get done.  Some times this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but if I test it for a month then I can figure out if it is a good fit and I’ll have data to back it up.

The Final Point

The final point to consider on your PDI is the starting and stopping times.  Are they realistic?  Have you separated them by eight hours for a good night sleep?

I went through a phase where I was getting up at 04:45 a.m. each day, in order to be working by 0500.  Trouble with that is I would need to go to bed at 09:00 p.m. to get enough sleep, which is a non-starter.  Over time I’ve adjusted my wake up time to 05:45 a.m. which means lights out at 10:00 p.m.  This fits my lifestyle much better and because I’m well rested, many days I’ll wake up before my alarm which buys a little extra time.

You like to stay up later?  That’s fine.  If you can use those night hours to get your training in and your projects completed then good.  But if you are staying up past 11:00 p.m. watching Netflix, dragging ass the next morning, then complaining you have “no time” to dedicate towards your goals and dreams, then I encourage you to reevaluate your priorities and change up your routine.

Putting down your Perfect Day on paper is a great way to start.  Imagine getting every single thing done that you set out to do today!  It is an empowering feeling.  With the PDI as a base, track your progress and modify until you come up with something that works for you.  Then resolve to live that day just once, hitting each mark as written.  Accomplish this once and you’ll be able to do it any day you choose.

Do you tend to have a rigid daily schedule?  Do you work on certain tasks at the same time every day, or do you let things happen as they may?  Where do you find the best results?