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Buffett it

My top ten time management tips

I’ve been blogging about my top ten time management tips recently to celebrate the new edition of The Small Steps Guide to Goal Setting and Time Management. The posts are written in two parts. The first one will tell you about the technique, the second applies it to the writing life – or you can extrapolate and apply the ideas to creative habits generally. Go here if you want to work your way through the posts from the start.

This next idea is tip number six but it should really be number one. After you know about the other five, for context. (And yes, I did write the book partly because I wanted to learn more about prioritising!)

I talk about the Warren Buffett school of goal setting in the book, but I will give you a summary here plus some resources to follow up. This is known as the 5/25 rule. It’s best done practically, so follow along with the steps, making sure to write everything down.

Practical steps: how to Buffett it.

  1. Make a list of 25 things you want to achieve. These are big bucket-list things.
  2. Take some time over it. Get everything down. If it helps, focus on each area of your life in turn and set goals for all of them.
  3. Check that each of these is true to your values. Cross out any that aren’t.
  4. You might want to sit with this for a while and come back to it. That way, you’ll get a sense of what you really want to achieve and what you don’t. (Cross off the don’ts.)
  5. Next, circle your top five. These should be the most important things on the list.
  6. Cross out everything else. Avoid all of the other items on the list at all costs.
  7. Once you’ve done the five, you can repeat the exercise.
  8. You can also do this exercise using particular time periods (say, one year or next week).

How does ‘Buffetting it’ apply to time management? Isn’t it about goal setting? Sort of, yes, but it allows you to prioritise what’s important to you. If you can prioritise what’s important, you can arrange your time so that you spend more of it on the stuff you value. Want to apply Warren Buffett’s advice to your writing goals? Go here.

One thing

Gary Keller talks about the ‘one thing’ in his book of the same name, using a similar principle to Buffett. What one thing would make the most difference right now? Forget everything else (yes, easier said than done I know) and focus – as much as you can – on getting that one thing done. I’ve found this extremely helpful as a thinking excercise. It’s harder to do practically for the reasons I outline below.

The Big Three

I’ve personally found Michael Hyatt’s books useful and I use his special range of planners. After you know what your values are and what your goals are for the year, he recommends setting up a ‘big three’ for the week – the three things you’ll get done over the week that relate to your goals. He also suggests setting up a ‘big three’ for the day, too, that may or may not relate to your weekly 3. What I always forget to do, when I’m in the thick of it, and trying to get my week planned, is to refer back to my annual goals when I’m working out my weekly big three. The temptation is to use the three most pressing things I have to do for work or for family.

Problems with these techniques

The problems with ‘Buffetting it’ may have already occurred to you. What about all the other everyday things we need to do, to keep ourselves alive, because we’re looking after others, the life admin that comes with being an adult, and stuff we do to earn money, which may or may not be ‘important work’ but pays the rent and puts food on the table? Isn’t it a privileged position, to be able to focus on only the top five most important thing(s)?

And the tangential ‘one thing’ is open to a similar critique and so is the ‘big three’. What if I can’t focus on ‘one thing’ or three things? The admonishment that tells us not to multitask tends not to take into account the fact that many people have to multitask. Even if we’re not multitasking in a practical sense, mental load means we can be multitasking in our heads while trying to focus on one thing.

One thing = privilege?

Looked at that way, being able to focus on ‘one thing’ is again a privilege position. Often this privilege is marked by gender – women are more likely to be required to multitask than men. We also tend to carry more mental load, especially mental load related to emotional labor. This is also a critique that can be levelled at Deep Work by Cal Newport, a book I really like and often recommend, but I read it with this question in mind from start to finish. The other usual markers of privilege are likely to mean that a person is more likely to be able to focus on one thing – or to bring Buffett back in – to achieve that top five.

To me, aside from being annoying when writers of personal development books don’t acknowledge it, this simply means that focusing on the most important stuff and being single-minded is difficult. It doesn’t stop it from being a useful technique, even though it’s likely to remain aspirational for many people.

Subsidiary tasks

Another issue with these techniques is that once you start to work out how you’ll achieve the thing – get below the surface and look at the whole iceberg – an important task turns out to involve several subsidiary tasks. I mention Amantha Imber’s iceberg technique in this post. Travel round the world, for instance, could generate these tasks:

  • save up enough money,
  • design your career to make travelling work,
  • do the admin required to travel the world,
  • plan the route.
  • What about your family?
  • Get fit.

In fact, this is actually beneficial – if you start to break down what you need to do to achieve a big goal into small steps you’ll come closer to realising that goal. But it is no longer 5 / 1 / 3 things! It’s lots. Once you’ve identified the subsiduary tasks, start the process again and say which out of these various things are the most important 5 / 1 / 3 for right now.


More soon. Until then, happy writing,

Lou xx

P.S. I couldn’t write about these techniques without thinking about how these approaches affect neurodivergent thinkers like me – that’s coming up in the next post, where you’ll find more resources.

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