The productive benefits of doing less to achieve more

Do like Warren Buffett: stop trying to do everything all at once and focus on few key elements at a time

Simon Lund Larsen
Oct 24, 2017 · 8 min read

We look with envy at successful people. Somehow, they have unlocked a pool of unlimited time. That serial entrepreneur with all the successful start-ups in Silicon Valley. The visionary movie director from Hollywood churning out one masterpiece after another. Or the prolific and highly respected writer. How do they do it? What is their secret trick that made them so super productive?

Alas, time is the great leveler. You can’t claim anyone has more time than you do. We all have the same 24 hours. No matter how talented you are or how successful you have become, 24 hours is all there is.

Decision fatigue

Think about the last time you sat down to watch a movie on Netflix without a specific movie in mind. Did you end up spending a lot of time scrolling up and down before deciding? Or even closed down Netflix entirely without having watched a single minute of entertainment?

Why does this happen to us all? Because there is simply too much choice. Making a decision is taxing and leaves us worried that we might be missing out if we make a decision. It’s FOMO.

We end up in this state of non-decision hoping that some outside force will help us or even take the decision for us.

Too many choices bring about what psychologists refer to as “decision fatigue”. It drains your mental capacity to have too many choices in a given situation.

The classic example would be you in the jelly or condiments aisle in a supermarket. There are too many options. In most cases, you end up taking whatever was playing in the commercial on TV right before you left home or leave the aisle empty-handed.

The brain is a muscle. And like all the other muscles in your body, it drains energy to use it. This is the reason people who make hundreds, if not thousands of decisions every day try to reduce the trivial decisions they have to make.

Ever noticed Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Barack Obama always wear the same type of clothes? Everyone is bombarding them with decisions they have to make. Big and small. And what to wear to the office, should not be one of them. They save their mental energy for other, more important decisions.

I noticed decision fatigue creeping into all aspects of my life. More often than not I would crash on the couch and turn on the TV to watch whatever was on at that moment. Or surf the web for hours on end with no aim in mind. Because then I didn’t have to make any — at least conscious — decisions. Someone else would do it for me.

But I also knew that I had to do something if I didn’t want to waste my life away doing mindless things.

The following method is what I more or less stumbled upon while procrastinating (I know!). It is something I have used for about 18 months now and it has worked very well for me.

Warren Buffett’s two lists

Enter Warren Buffett. He once had a pilot working for him. On one of their many flights together, Buffett asked the pilot how come he was still working for him. The pilot was very good at his job so why was he still flying for Buffett and not on some other route with higher pay or working for himself starting a company of his own?

The pilot answered that he had so many things on his plate that he found it hard to work on them all at the same time.

Buffett then asked him to make a list of the 25 things he wanted to achieve in life and his career. The pilot came back with a long list of things he dreamed about.

“Okay,” said Buffett, “now order them by importance, starting with the most important at #1”, the pilot did as Buffett asked. “Now draw a line after item #5 on your list”.

Warren Buffett then asked the pilot what he thought this line meant and the pilot’s answer echoes what most of us would have answered: “that I should work on the top five things the most and if I have the time work on the rest”.

“No! You’re wrong” was Buffett’s answer. “Everything below #5 you should avoid at all costs. You should work towards not working on any of them”. The top 25 list became effectively two lists. Your work list and your avoid list. The only time you reopen your lists is if you have achieved 100% of your work list.

This was a complete eye-opener for me. It seems counterintuitive. But the more I thought about it, it started to make perfect sense. It is a way to get super focused on your goals and become conscious on how you spend your time.

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Making lists like Buffett asked of his pilot is a superb way to externalize the decision-making process. It is a powerful tool that will make you super productive and energized, and keep you focused on the things that matter.

But instead of using it only on the large and important things in life, use it on everything. This first part is easy. Write down the things you should be doing, already are doing, or dream about doing. Big and small.

Next, order them in terms of priority and, yes you guessed it, everything below #5 on the list is out. For now, no more energy should go towards them.

To make this idea more tangible I will use my own list as an example. As a family man with two wonderful kids and a loving wife, I have many “roles” to fulfill. I have a thriving and demanding career in a large international company. On a more introspective level, I love running, swimming, mountain biking, playing all kinds of video games, and reading books.

I also love writing. Both creative writing, such as short stories and screenplays, and articles like the one you are reading right now. And last but not least I want to be social with friends and family.

If I were to list all of this would look something like this:

- Playing poker online
- Playing games on my phone
- Playing games on my Playstation
- Playing chess
- Studying chess
- Roleplaying with my friends
- Watching TV shows
- Watching movies at home
- Watching movies at the cinema
- Reading books
- Creative writing (short stories and screenplays)
- Writing articles
- Reading to my kids
- Goofing around with my kids
- Going on long walks with my wife
- Date night with my wife
- Running
- Swimming
- Mountain biking
- Getting between 7–8 hours of sleep each night
- Cooking dinner
- Working after hours
- Putting in “that extra time” at work
- Being reachable 24/7 by text or e-mail
- Being present with when I am in the room with my family (aka putting away my phone)
- Socializing with my friends
- Visiting family
- Watching the news
- Reading the news online
- Being on Facebook
- Being active on social media in general
- ...
- ...

It doesn’t have to be exactly 25 goals or items you put on the list, but try to get as close to that number as possible. Aim for the sweet spot of not being too broad or vague in naming the items on your list and not too specific either. “Lead a good life” is hard to argue against, but it is also too broad to make operational.

Next step is to put them in priority. This is the hard part. Because as you have already learned everything from below #5 is no longer something you will be doing — it is something you should avoid.

I will use my own list as an example:

1) Being present with my family
2) Staying healthy (Running, eating healthy and getting a good night’s sleep)
3) Reading and writing (articles and creative writing)
4) Being social (with friends and family)
5) Watching movies

That’s it. That is my list.

Everything else on my list goes to the “avoid at all cost” list. And yes, it is somewhat impossible to stay true to the list 100% of the time, but when I cheat — and this is the important part — it is a conscious choice. I am fully aware that I am replacing something on my Top #5 list with something else, even if it is only temporary.

This process of creating the two lists externalizes the decision process and saves your mental energy for more important things.

Should I check Facebook? No, it is not on the list. Avoid.
Should I put in some extra hours at work this week? No, it is not on the list. Avoid.

One thing that surprised me was that everything related to my work and career fell outside of the Top 5 list, and at first, I thought this experiment would fail because of this. But in the last 18 months as I have been living by these rules is also the time when I have had the most success at work.

This seems counterintuitive, but not when you look at why this might be. Instead of being that guy who always puts extra hours in and is reachable by text or email at any hour, I opted to save my energy — both physically and mentally — for when I choose to work. This enhances the quality of my work.

Slipping up

So, how should you go about punishing yourself when you, inevitably, slip up?

Short answer: you shouldn’t.

Sit down and review your lists again to see if there is a deeper reason why you slipped up. Why did you spend two hours on Facebook instead of writing that great American novel? Maybe you enjoy being on Facebook? If not, then delete that Facebook app from your phone and make it harder for yourself to access Facebook.

The important part is to review your lists from time to time. Things change. Life happens. But keep the list to five things.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say NO to almost everything.” — Warren Buffett

Good luck creating your lists and becoming super productive and thanks for reading!

Simon Lund Larsen works at a large toy factory in Denmark by day. He spends his free time trying to figure out why some movies work so much better than others.

Byline at The Outtake, Movie Time Guru and CineNation. You can find him here on Medium as Simon Lund Larsen or on Twitter with the same handle @SimonLundLarsen.

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Simon Lund Larsen

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Has a day job at a toy factory. Trying hard to figure out why some movies work really well. Byline at @OuttakeThe, @MovieTimeGuru and @CineNationShow

The Mission

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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