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.”


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.

2 thoughts on “Two Lists

  1. Practical suggestions, Sean! I’ve just added your post to my planning file. I’ll give this more thought for my next planning session. I currently have 10 top goals I work on daily, which work together towards 4 major goals.

  2. Hi Colleen,
    The issue I have run into when setting the daily bar so high is that I consistently fail to meet all objectives, resulting in feeling bad about that rather than good about what I’ve accomplished. Trying to focus on doing fewer things better is a major driver these days.

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