The Minimalist Oracle of Omaha

Scott Dinsmore died young.

But his story is not one of tragedy. About 6 weeks ago, on the face of Mount Kilimanjaro, Scott Dinsmore died while living his life in the exact sort of way that he inspired thousands of others to live and love their own. He died doing something he loved in pursuit of a lifelong dream. He dared to set huge goals and, in doing so, risked failing quite publicly. But this is just one of the ways in which Scott Dinsmore “walked his talk.”

Among the many powerful legacies he left is a story he shared of an encounter with a friend of Warren Buffett’s personal jet pilot. It has changed the way I think about and pursue my goals, and it is simpler than you might think.

The Two Lists

One day, Buffett approached his long-time pilot, Steve.

“The fact that you’re still working for me, tells me I’m not doing my job,” remarked Buffett, only half joking. “You should be going after more of your goals and dreams.”

Steve asked his boss for more specific advice and was told to start by listing his top 25 goals. Steve thought long and hard and eventually returned to Buffett with the prescribed list.

“Now circle the five that are most important,” Buffett directed. “The ones you want more than anything.”

This, too, was difficult. Most of Steve’s goals were important to him, but he thought he knew where the old Oracle of Omaha was going with this, so he circled his top five.

“Are you sure these are the absolute highest priority for you?” Buffett asked.

Steve was sure, so Buffett asked him to detail when and how he would go about accomplishing these five goals.

“These are the most important things in my life right now,” Steve said. “I’m going to get to work on them right away. I’ll start tomorrow. Actually, no, I’ll start tonight.”

Excited, Buffett asked, “What about these other twenty things?”

“Well the top five are my primary focus,” Steve explained, “but the other twenty 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 dedicated effort.”

Buffett’s face grew stern.

“No,” he said firmly. “You’ve got it wrong, Steve. Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all costs list.’ No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”

The Power of No

Buffett was teaching his pilot (and, thanks to Scott Dinsmore, each of us) that the only way to gain true clarity and focus is to eliminate everything that distracts from our primary goals. This involves more than simply cutting out activities that are an obvious waste of time.

It means eliminating work that feels pretty damn important. It means letting go of certain items that we have viewed, until now, as obligations. It means rejecting invitations we would like to accept, saying “no” when we really want to say, “yes.”

“No” creates the space in which ambitious goals are achieved. But let’s face it. These are hard choices to make. Like anything else worth doing, it takes practice.

Make the Mountain a Molehill

Personally, I find that lifelong or career goals are a rough place to start. Extended timelines tend to weaken my resolve, so I find more motivational value in short-term goals. This perspective may be why I am such fanboy of Tim Ferriss, de-constructer of high performance and author of The 4-Hour Workweek, a bestseller that some consider the modern entrepreneur’s bible.

Tim’s advice on how to start your work day, as featured in Business Insider, has given me a framework from which I can build up to the big picture goals. Here is the version I adapted for myself by incorporating Buffett’s “two list” method:

  1. Before I start my day, on a clean piece of paper, I write down three to five tasks that are important or causing me stress. They may include things that have been put off from a prior day’s list or something that, in that moment, seems urgent.
  2. For each task, I ask myself two questions: “If this is the only thing I accomplish today, will I be satisfied with my day?” and “Will making progress on this task “sharpen my saw” (i.e., will it make the other to-do’s less important or easier to accomplish later)?”
  3. I then remove the items for which I answered “No” to both questions.
  4. From whatever is left, I pick one (and only one), and set aside my next two to three unscheduled hours to focus entirely on this task.

“If I have 10 important things to do in a day, it’s 100% certain nothing important will get done that day,” Ferriss says. “On the other hand, I can usually handle one must-do item and block out my lesser behaviors for two to three hours a day.”

What seemingly urgent but relatively unimportant (in the big picture) activities are regularly cluttering your work schedule? If you could devote 100 percent of your energy and focus to only one thing today, what would it be? How might you engage your employer or your team in order to create the space necessary for accomplishing these sorts of high value goals?

Special thanks to James Clear, who’s pithy, practical writing on forming good habits served as my introduction to Dinsmore’s Warren Buffett story.

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