Wednesday 20 November 2019

Move the goalposts

We're more likely to achieve our goals when we focus on them one at a time

Known as the 'Oracle of Omaha,' Warren Buffett is one of the most successful investors of all time. Photo: Bloomberg
Known as the 'Oracle of Omaha,' Warren Buffett is one of the most successful investors of all time. Photo: Bloomberg
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Time management experts like to tell the story of Mike Flint, who was the personal airplane pilot to investor Warren Buffett for 10 years.

The story goes that Buffett turned to Flint one day and 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."

Buffett then advised Flint to make a list of his 25 life goals, after which he told him to circle the top five.

These five goals, he explained to Flint, were his main priorities, and the only way he would succeed was by narrowing his focus and honing in on these priorities alone.

The other 20 goals were merely distractions or, as Buffett put it, the "Avoid-At-All-Cost-List".

Buffett's advice is especially relevant today, particularly for those with multi-hyphenate job titles (blogger-baker-influencer-candlestick-maker), and multipotentialite children, who often have a different extra-curricular activity for every day of the week.

Received wisdom tells us that we should have diverse interests, side projects and secondary incomes. Yet perhaps we should take Buffet's advice and start tightening our bows, rather than adding further strings to them.

Sure, some people thrive on being Bulletproof coffee-drinking 'productivity ninjas' but it's important to know the difference between making progress and making lists, and even more important to remember that the jack of all trades is often the master of none.

While some try to motivate themselves with the fridge magnet saying about having the same number of hours in the day as Beyoncé (and about 100 less staff members), the truth is that we tend to overestimate our capacity to work on multiple projects at once, and underestimate the time it takes to complete a task.

We also have a tendency to get overwhelmed by the fundamentally inconsequential. The late Stephen Covey said: "The key is not to prioritise what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities." In other words, we should be focussing on the tasks that are most important in the grand scheme of things rather than allowing the daily grind to dictate the way we manage our time.

Truly successful people are more realistic in this regard. They are always striving towards a goal in the distance rather than the last item on their lengthy to-do list. To quote Rory Vaden, author of Procrastinate on Purpose, they are constantly asking themselves the critical question: "Is what I'm doing right now the next most significant use of my time?"

Gary Keller, author of The One Thing, recommends that we take our focus off the to-do list and think towards a 'success list' instead. "To-do lists tend to be long; success lists are short. One pulls you in all directions; the other aims you in a specific direction," he explains. "One is a disorganised directory and the other is an organised directive. If a list isn't built around success, then that's not where it takes you. If your to-do list contains everything, then it's probably taking you everywhere but where you really want to go."

The items on your success list could be gleaned from your five main goals. Or you could use Stephen Covey's urgent/important time management matrix, which was inspired by former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who famously said: "What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important".

Time-wasters should also be identified. What daily activities are you doing out of obligation, imposition or habit? Do you feel compelled to say yes to every lunch invite because it would be rude to say no? Do you finish courses that don't interest you simply because you paid for them? Did you take up golf because everyone else did?

It's also helpful to look at areas where you are toiling under the tyranny of perfection. Do you really need to iron socks and cut the crusts off sandwiches? As the late Peter Drucker said: "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all."

Something else emerges when we identify our main priorities using the Buffet 25/5 plan, or Covey's urgent/important matrix. We can see, very quickly and very clearly, if we are overlooking the truly important things in life.

As Greg McKeown puts it in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less: "What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?"

If you're struggling with surrendering the 20 goals on your 25/5 list, it helps to remember that you are creating space for the things that really matter. It also helps to remember a profound piece of wisdom that Gary Keller shares in The One Thing: "Work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls - family, health, friends, integrity - are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered."

Of course, people drop the four balls that Keller speaks of in pursuit of success all the time, but because they haven't narrowed their focus, success continues to elude them.

If you're the type of person who wants to start a business, learn a language, fundraise for a charity, run a marathon and grow a vegetable garden, all at once, perhaps it's time to accept that a single-minded, single-tasking yields better results.

When we try to hit several targets at once, we tend to miss them all.

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