Use Buffett’s Technique 25/5 to Prioritize Personal Goals

In a conversation between Warren Buffett and his Pilot, Buffett recommended a strategy to help prioritization that always stuck with me. It's simple, clean and helps get to the heart of what you should be working on. I've used this technique a number of times, and for each, it has helped me focus.

. 6 min read. Goals, Personal.

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Every month I set personal goals for myself. I set yearly goals as well. Sometimes with all of this goal setting, I’ve realized I’m not working towards what’s actually most important in my life. Have you ever felt that? It’s a problem with prioritization.

You can be the most focused and productive person, but if that energy isn’t going into things that make you happy or are working towards what you truly want to accomplish in life, it’s going to feel like you’re running in place – not moving forward in the areas you really want to improve.

Is there something in your life that stands out that you truly want to accomplish? Do you feel like you’re making the kind of progress towards it that you want? 

For me personally, my monthly goals lately have been a bit more of a checklist of things in front of me. They’re more about things I need to do to clear my plate and earn more time than to make progress on my personal mission. For instance, in February, I focused on Using Everything – a combination of decluttering, organization and finding usefulness in what I surround myself with. While this goal isn’t going to tie directly into things down the line, it’s what makes way for them. It clears my mind to focus on what’s important.

Goal Audit

With that in mind, I set very loose goals for March and also wanted to read more about ways I could improve my own processes. This has meant reading, experimenting, journaling and more to help clarify what I want. If I am unfocused, journaling in some way almost always helps, but even more when trying new techniques. This journaling doesn’t mean writing long-form articles. It could mean writing lists, asking questions or even looking up exercises.

This led me to read my friend Drews guides on Setting Goals and Achieving Goals. Reading Radical Focus and Grit. And even reading a book about running – Born to Run (thanks for the recommendation Sarah!).

One common thread that has stood out through these books is the difference between having a task and a goal. Tasks are small things you check off your list. Goals are broad and long-term. If you can schedule a date to accomplish a goal, then that’s likely a task rather than a goal. Goals take effort and hard work over time to accomplish, while tasks are the smaller units within them. Make sense?

Having both goals and tasks is the key. This kind of clearing is essential for maintaining focus. If you know what you’re clearing the way for, it can even become a super-power.

Warren Buffett’s Goal Setting and Prioritization Technique

There’s a story (almost a legend at this point) about Mike Flint, Warren Buffett’s personal pilot. Flint had piloted for Buffett for 10 years and flew presidents before him. By all accounts, Flint was an extremely successful man in his field, and yet he felt he wasn’t living up to his potential. Buffett asked him why he was still flying for him after all these years – surely he must have goals and dreams beyond being his pilot?

This subject came up in a conversation between the pair and Buffett famously said:

The fact that you’re still working for me tells me I’m not doing my job. You should be out going after more of your goals and dreams.

Here’s a guy that’s been his personal pilot for 10 years, and Buffett wants nothing more than for this guy to quit and pursue his dreams. This has been an approach I’ve tried to take when managing people as well. If you can help people work towards their goals and dreams today, they’ll be happier, healthier more passionate. They’ll even bring that to everyone they encounter. Rather than worrying about someone leaving, worrying about them not following their dreams.

Even in a role that might not align with their long-term goals, are there parts of the role that may align? As a manager, these are the areas that it makes sense to focus the most on growing. For the rest of us (I’m happily not a manager anymore), do you know what areas of your job you want to focus on to achieve your long-term goals?

After talking more, Buffett gave Flint some homework. This included a 4 step approach to understanding focus.

Step 1: List Your Top 25 Goals

To start, list out your top 25 goals. For Flint and Buffett, these goals focused on his career, but the focus of your list could be on anything. Maybe this includes the top 25 things on your todo list. Or perhaps the focus is on the long-term success of your career. Whatever the scope is, keep listing out everything that comes to mind – no matter how big or how small.

Think about things you can’t accomplish today, but want to accomplish someday. Think about challenges you want to face in the future, and what success would look like for them. Think about what aspect of your life you want this list to focus on. It doesn’t have to be your career. Here are a few areas you could focus this list around:

  • Business Goals
  • Personal Goals
  • Yearly Goals
  • Bucket List
  • Todo List
  • Side project Goals
  • Health Goals
  • Decluttering Goals
  • Short-term Goals
  • Long-term Goals
  • Money Goals
  • Education Goals

The list goes on and on. Find what you’re most passionate about right now, or what’s weighing on you most heavily. Try listing out what comes to your mind.

What would feel amazing to have complete? What would stress you out if you didn’t complete it? What sounds exciting to do? What sounds interesting? What keeps you up at night? What is so inspiring you want to do right now?

Flint spent some time and came up with 25 career goals that he felt were the most important to him.

Step 2: Circle the 5 Most Important Goals

With list in hand, Buffett gave Flint his next task – circle the top 5 most important goals on your list. These are the 5 goals that are the most important. It doesn’t mean they’re the easiest, but they’re the ones that Flint identified as the most important to him.

If you’re following along with your own list, try circling your top 5 as well. What stands out as being outright the most exciting? What weighs on your the most that you’re not doing?

Step 3: Focus On the Top 5

These top 5 are now your todo list. Whenever you sit down to work on something, make it these 5. Don’t move on to a single other thing on your list until you’ve completed everything on this top 5 list.

Step 4: Avoid the Bottom 20

Buffett left Flint with one last recommendation: make the bottom 20 your avoid list.

There will be times when you’ll struggle to be productive on your top 5 list, but that doesn’t mean you should fall back on items 6-25. These are now your avoid list. When you think about working on things on this list, ask yourself why?

Is there something on your top 5 list you should be doing? Why aren’t you doing it? Can you make small progress towards it now?

Buiding on Prioritization

The very day I wrote this post I started reading Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth (Author). I was surprised to hear this exact story between Buffett and Flint!

Duckworth (who was also featured in an episode of the Freakonomics podcast) takes this concept a few steps further. These are optional steps, and when I tried them they helped with clarity a bit more.

Optional Step 5: Move these into a Spreadsheet and add Interest/Importance

Move these goals into a spreadsheet and add 3 columns: Interest, Importance, and Total. For Interest and Importance, give a score of 1-10 based on a gut thought about that goal for that category. In the total column, multiply interest by importance to generate a total. This total is a number that can help prioritize those top 5 even further. This will give a number from 1 to 100 for each one of your goals.

I tried this exercise and nothing peaked at 100. There was a high degree of separation between the highest and the lowest items though.

Optional Step 6: Ask Why for Everything

In Grit, Duckworth goes into the idea of our “goals hierarchy”. She gives this hierarchy 3 tiers – your high-level goals, the mid-level goals, and your low-level goals. This fits into the earlier description I gave for “goals” vs “tasks”. Add a new column to the left of your goal. For every one of the goals on your list, ask yourself “why?” and add the answer to that column. If the answer to “why” still feels like a task, ask why again until it feels like a goal.

Eventually, you’ll have some extremely high-level goals – ones that tackle something you want to accomplish long-term. When I did this exercise, I realized that a high number of my goals ended up going back to the same 3 or 4 high-level goals. These are what I should be thinking about, rather than getting bogged down with a todo list.

Once you have that higher-level goal, you can start again and ask “what’s the first step I could take towards this?”.

Also, don’t use the “total” column as the indication of priority. On my sheet above, I added something related to taxes on there. It’s probably not surprising that the “Interestingness” of the tax item was very low, but the “importance” of it was at the top. You’ll know better than a formula if something needs to be worked on now.

What do you think of this technique? Did you try it? Did it help prioritize or understand your goals better? How could it be improved?

3 comments

  1. Hmm, this is an interesting perspective. I’m not sure I agree about ignoring all of your other goals – but at the same time there MUST be something you could do to pursue the top 5, right??? I guess that makes sense.

    It’s odd to knowingly say ‘Nope, I want this but I’m still going to ignore it’ 🙂

    1. I felt like that was something missing in here too. I’ve been reading about another strategy that I’m going to be trying in April that has a concept of “health metrics” – things you lay out ahead of time that are more about maintenance than growth. For example, keeping a happy household could be a “health metric” while working on a business. I’m curious to try that and see how it goes!

  2. Great post, Adam. Really enjoyed it and definitely something I am trying to out myself. I have done something similar with an excel sheet listing all my to dos and giving them a time frame, e.g. this week, next week next month, etc. It can be difficult to stay focused so great to learn new techniques to let go of the not so important and pressing stuff. Thanks for sharing and introducing this idea to me.

    -Jess

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