Why the Right 'No' Matters: Time Management for Boutique Consultancy Founders

If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.

Warren Buffett is considered one of the most successful investors in the world. He heads Berkshire Hathaway, his holding company, and is also a speaker and philanthropist who is known for his personal frugality despite being one of the wealthiest people in the world.

Considering how much value he consistently created during his career, it's fair to conclude he knows how to manage his time and produce like few.

There's a short story from Buffett, shared by Scott Dinsmore, that illustrates his amazing capacity to prioritize. It is also a great practical exercise any consultant should do.

The 25/5 Exercise

Buffett had a plane pilot that worked for him for years. During this time, he saw the pilot's potential and sensed he could accomplish much more professionally.

During one of their flights, Buffett 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." And suggest the pilot go through a simple 3-step exercise with him.

Step 1: To start, Buffett asked the pilot to list 25 goals or general accomplishments that he wanted to complete in the next years (or even lifetime goals). The pilot took some time and made a list of them.

Step 2: Next, the pilot was asked to circle the 5 most important goals out of the previous list. It was not easy since the other items were meaningful to him, but eventually he chose the top 5.

After reviewing it, Buffet asked “Are you sure these are the absolute highest priority for you?”, to which the pilot positively confirmed.

Step 3: They then went through some planning for the top 5 goals, making them more specific, defining how and when the pilot could start to execute on them, the people or skills he would need to take them forward, and so on. The pilot committed to starting working on them right away.

Finally, Buffet asked “And what about the goals you didn't circle?”, to which the pilot confidently 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 the pilot's surprise, Buffett replied in a very serious tone: “No. You’ve got it wrong. 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.”

The Power Of Your Avoid-At-All-Cost List

If your business is struggling, it's not due to a lack of effort. Most of the time we are busy doing things that seem important to us, both in our professional and in our private life. That is why this exercise is so powerful.

Our time and attention are limited resources. Even if we recognize the multitasking myth and focus on one single task at a time, there is only so much we can do - and very often we get pulled by urgent or interesting activities.

The avoid-at-all-cost list is a frequent reminder that we all only have 24 hours. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. Don't spread yourself thin.

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