A counterpoint to Warren Buffet's "2 List" strategy

October 4th, 2017

Warren Buffet is arguably one of the most successful businessmen in history. The story of how he helped one of his employees prioritize has spread among professional circles as the way to succeed.

Spoiler alert: it doesn't work.

Here's the story:
Mike Flint was Buffett's personal airplane pilot for 10 years. (Flint has also flown four US Presidents, so I think we can safely say he is good at his job.) According to Flint, he was talking about his career priorities with Buffett when his boss asked the pilot to go through a 3-step exercise.

Here's how it works...

Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: you could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)

Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.

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

At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.

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?”

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."

Why it doesn't work
For many years I prioritized using the 2 List strategy. I called it my "5 Things" list, because I could never have more than 5 things on it at any one time. What resulted was a constantly moving/changing list, because every day the "top 5" would be redefined. Sometimes, it'd be because I got things done. But most times, it was because something bigger came up.

For example, if today in my top 5 is: plan Q1 2018 strategy, but suddenly 3 key people quit the company, I can't defer hiring their replacements until Q1 2018 planning is done; this is a fire that needs to be put out now.

A list that is constantly moving and changing might as well not be a list at all -- but a journal of things that are happening to me.

I needed to get back in control of my work by finding a new way to organize my tasks. A couple years ago, I learned about a way to prioritize that has consistently kept me productive. It's called Covey's Quadrant.

In essence, it takes those 20 items from Buffet's story and splits them not into 2 lists, but 4:
1) Urgent / Important (Fires)
2) Not Urgent / Important (Long-Term Thinking (these are great topics to speak to a mentor/advisor about))
3) Urgent / Not Important (Ask for Help)
4) Q4 Not Urgent / Not Important (Delegate all of these -- they're a waste of your time)

Covey's Quadrant respects the reality that priorities can change day-to-day, but also keeps the long-term view consistent.

How this has manifested itself in my day-to-day work is I am able to tie strategic actions I'm taking today and applying them to the longer-term plan and vision.