One recurring challenge I face is trying to do too much at a time. And when I give in to this temptation, the inevitable result is I end up diluting my focus on the few things that count.

In one aspect, trying to do too many things at once is easier than picking just one to the exclusion of the others. It’s easier because it alleviates the need to choose what is most important; you no longer need to prioritize. Prioritization can be difficult. Everything on your plate seems important and it’s hard to say no to any of them. And by trying to do everything, you put off that hard decision of what won’t get your attention.

To-do or not to-do

There’s a story I’ve heard multiple times about investor Warren Buffett and his pilot.1 In the versions I’ve come across, Buffett and his pilot were discussing the goals the pilot had for his life. Buffett asked him to make a list of twenty-five things he wanted to accomplish. After he did this, Buffett told him to circle the five most important. These would now be his highest priority. Later, after coming up with a plan for working on the top five, Buffett asked the pilot what he would do with the other twenty he left uncircled. His initial response was he would focus on the top ones first and then fit the others in where he could. Buffett replied that he had it all wrong. Instead of trying to fit them in where he could, those other twenty items were now on his not to-do list. He was to intentionally avoid them at all costs until he had first achieved the ones he had circled.

In trying to do too many things, even good things, you can leave the most important ones undone. As the saying goes, the good is often the enemy of the best. “Good” things can take energy and focus away from even better things. They’re not wastes of time in themselves; they’re not unimportant. But they can be distractions. And because they have some level of merit, they can be particularly tempting distractions. Which is why Buffett’s advice was to intentionally stay away from them.

The same principle could play out at multiple levels. For the pilot, he was intentionally narrowing the focus on his longer-term goals. You could do the same with the upcoming year or week or even day. You may have ten things you want to get to today. But of those ten, which two or three are most important? Which ones should get your attention first, before giving any attention to the others. And even among these, which one is most important. Everything else could go on a temporary not to-do list. They’re still important, just not as important, and time given to them prematurely could impede your progress on more important matters.

No for now

In doing this, it’s critical to remember that just because you say no to something today doesn’t mean you must leave it undone forever. It’s just that you’re leaving it undone for now. The day may come where it becomes your priority and merits your attention. But spending time on it now will just be a distraction.

Now, I know from personal experience that this sounds good in theory, but can be difficult in practice. Saying no to things is hard. But the reality is we’re already saying no to plenty of things. There will always be too many things to do, too many options for the time we have. Due to the finite nature of time, whenever we say yes to one thing, we’re saying no to something else. Every time we turn our attention to one item, we’re turning it away from something else. We can’t stop this from happening. But we can be intentional in what we say no to, knowing that this allows us to say yes to the things we’ve decided are even more important.

Questions: What are the few things that are currently most important to you? What things should go on a not to-do list, at least for now?

  1. I’ve found no first-hand accounts of this conversation. All the ones I’ve found have always been one or two people removed from the original event. This account was the earliest I came across. ↩︎