How to Focus and Prioritize Like a PRO By Using Warren Buffett’s 25/5 Rule

Recently I argued that you should ignore 99% of productivity and time management advice you read online — and why it’s not just a waste of time, but it’s actually hurting you. (Read part one here)

To counterbalance my hypothesis, I made a strong case for the disciplined pursuit of less and why top performers produce more by removing more instead of doing more. They stop comparing their productivity to an ideal. Instead, they make impact their number one priority and they make it work — even if things aren’t perfect. (Read part two here)

Today I'd like to introduce you to one of the most profound principles in the psychology of high performance productivity:

Our job in life is to do fewer things, but more important things, do more of them, do them longer, and get better at them.

Read that again and let that sink in.  

That’s by far one of the most profound principles in the psychology of high performance productivity.

In fact, this is not just a powerful productivity principle. It’s actually an incredible life philosophy. I know that it may sound too simple, but please don’t underestimate its simplicity because sometimes the simplest things are the most profound.

So take a moment to think about it.

Really take some time to think about it because I believe that so many times we get into the habit of consuming information just for the sake of it, but we rarely take the time to go deep and make it part of our life, isn’t that true?

You see, most of us get distracted by the newest tactic or technique, instead of realizing that mastering the fundamentals is everything.

Now let's be honest, how many people do you know who are really committed to mastery today?

Most people dabble in a million things, they master nothing, and they wonder why they’re stuck in life. It's because they’re running for the sugar, the next thing that feels good, instead of getting past what doesn’t feel good and getting to where they'd actually OWN something.

And I say this respectfully because for many years of my life, I too was a dabbler. But it wasn't until I decided to commit 100% to the Mastery Mentality that I was able to change my life.

So please don’t be the kind of person who says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this before!” brush it away and move on looking for the most advanced thing, the thing that you’ve never heard before.

The problem is that deep down in your heart and in the treasures of your mind you already have the answers you need, but you never implemented them. Common sense, especially in personal growth, is not always common practice. And you already know that. I bet there are hundreds of areas of common sense that you and I don’t employ every single day, and we struggle because of it.

But here’s the thing: Personal transformation resides in the masterful execution of the fundamentals. So please my friend, if it sounds common sense to you, then please make it common practice.

Alright, now let’s go back to the principle:

Our job is to do fewer things, but more important things, do more of them, do them longer, and get better at them.

Now how do we actually apply this in the real world? 

Introducing Warren Buffett’s 25/5 Rule

Let me share with you a simple three-step practice that will help you make it part of your life. It’s called Warren Buffett’s 25/5 Rule, or more commonly known as the “2-list strategy” that will help you simplify your life, eliminate unnecessary distractions and maximize your focus towards the things that actually matter.

Warren Buffett of course needs no introduction.

He is one of the wealthiest people in the world and he’s hands down one of the greatest investors of all time. Given that, I guess we can assume with quite a bit of confidence that this man knows what he’s talking about, right?

The story of the 25/5 rule actually comes from a man named Mike Flint, who was Buffett's personal airplane pilot for 10 years. According to Flint, he was talking about his career and life priorities with Buffett when his boss asked him to go through a three-step exercise.

Here's how it works:

Step 1: Write down a list of 25 career goals.

Write down the things that you want to do in the next few years or even in your lifetime.

Just jot down anything that comes to mind as being important to you that isn’t currently a part of your life. (You could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline, that’s absolutely up to you).

Step 2: Circle your top 5 most important goals.

Once you’ve completed the list, you’ll want to review the list, do some soul-searching and circle your top 5 most important goals. Just five. These are your highest priority goals – the ones you want more than anything.

At this point, you might be hesitant because to you, all 25 of them are really important. After all, that’s why you wrote them down, right?

But Warren Buffett would insist that you could only pick five. Just trust the process. Spend some time with your list and circle your top five most important goals.

When you can confidently say that these are the absolute highest priority for you, move on to step number three.

Note: If you're following along at home, pause right now and do these first two steps before moving on to step 3.

Step 3: Eliminate the rest.

So far, pretty simple right? At this point, you should have two lists. Your top 5 items are your List A and the 20 items you haven’t circled are your List B.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.

At this point in the process, Warren Buffett asked his pilot when he planned to get to work on his top 5 goals and what his approach would be.

Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that's when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn't circle? What’s your plan for completing those?”

Flint 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.”

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.

More Is Less And Less Is More: The Power Of Simplification And Elimination

Now you might say, “But I’m not Warren Buffett! What does this have to do with me?”

I hear you, but that’s totally not the case.

You see, whether you’re a business owner, a student, a work at home mom or dad, a freelancer, or an ambitious individual who has a regular 9 to 5 job, this lesson applies to you as well.

I’ve used this story simply to prove my point: Less is more.

As I already said, our job is not to set priorities. That’s easy. Everybody can do that. What’s difficult is deciding what tasks not to tackle in the first place and having the discipline required to stick to that decision over the long-term.

That’s what separates the highest performers from the average person:

They do fewer things; more important things; they do more of them, they do them longer and they get better at them. Everything else is delayed, delegated, outsourced, or eliminated, and they focus on what actually matters.

The late Steve Jobs is another prime example of this philosophy. In his later years at Apple, he would take his “Top 100” people on an annual retreat. They’d brainstorm hundreds of potential ideas to start on a large whiteboard. Then, leading the group, Jobs would ask:

“What are the ten things we should be doing next?” After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of ten. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”

Now imagine that. Here’s Apple, one of the largest organizations in the world with thousands of talented employees, and yet, here was Jobs insisting that they could focus only on three things.

Hundreds of good ideas, dozens of great ones, and ten fantastic, but only three worthy of their focus. Only three worthy of digging into every detail, worthy of deeply caring about, worthy of pushing forward every single day, until they were good enough to ship.

Isn’t that inspiring? But what most of us are doing?

We are diverting our focus in so many directions and still we don’t manage to accomplish anything significant. As the proverb goes, “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.”

Contrary to popular belief, the more things we focus on, the less we accomplish. The reverse is true as well: the less things we focus on, the more we actually accomplish.

The truth of the matter is that we could get more accomplished by taking the goals and projects at hand one at a time. By focusing all of our attention on ONE thing, we can give it the attention it needs. By becoming good at one thing at a time, you will become master of many things.

What's Your STOP-Doing List?

I'd like for you to consider doing the opposite of a to-do list. I would ask you to create a NOT-to-DO list. A to-STOP-doing list.

What do you need to STOP doing?

What do you need to GIVE UP in order to achieve what really matters most to you?

As Stephen Covey said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically – to say no to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘YES’ burning inside.”

When you’re clear about what matters, you become clear about what doesn’t.

So use Warren Buffett’s 3-step process to decide what’s really important to you and eliminate the rest. Force yourself to focus and finish what you start because it’s so much better to nail it down to only a few important projects and finish them, then it is to start a bunch of projects at the same time and finish none of them. Makes sense?

You see, without priorities you are confronted with what psychologists call the Paradox of Choice: The more options you have, the less likely you are to choose any of them.

Simplifying your options dramatically increases your focus because it's so much easier to do the right thing when you're not distracted by all the extra things, you follow?

What's Your Internal Compass?

Okay, let’s say that it all makes perfect sense to you. But what if you followed Buffett’s three-step method and you still find it extremely conflicting to choose your top five most important goals, and move the rest to the “Avoid-at-all-cost” category?

If that's you, then know that you're not alone. I found myself in the same situation when I did this exercise, and from my experience, that’s actually very common, especially for highly ambitious people like you and me.

So here’s the thing:

What you might find after careful consideration is that most of your goals are, in fact, related to one another, setting you up to make progress toward one ultimate goal.

In my case, that ultimate goal is to become my best self and inspire others to do the same. The other goals for which this filter wasn’t true I decided to move to the avoid-at-all cost list.

The takeaway here is that sometimes conventional prioritization isn’t enough. You need one internal compass, one unifying life theme that will guide all the rest of your activities.

That’s why to Buffett’s three-step method, Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, adds an additional step.

Ask yourself: To what extent do these goals serve a common purpose? The more they serve a common ultimate concern – the more driven and focused you’ll be.

Professor Duckworth concludes by posing an interesting challenge. She asks: “If you follow this method of prioritization will you become a Hall of Fame pitcher or earn more money than anyone else in history? Probably not. But you’ll stand a better chance of getting somewhere you care about – a better chance of moving closer to where you want to be.”

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Daniel Cerescu

I'm Daniel Cerescu, and I'm the guy behind this blog. Even though most of the material on this website is free, I aim to make this free content better than anyone else’s paid stuff. My mission is to inspire and empower those who refuse to settle for anything less than an extraordinary life to live with passion, lead with purpose, and make their mark on the world.