It’s easy to categorize people in one of two ways: those who never accomplish anything vs. those who are successful. The first group you might call lazy or unmotivated, while the second group is driven and tenacious.

But what about the people in between?

Those who are aren’t lazy — in fact, they have plenty of goals — but they just can’t seem to make headway on the things that matter. Why don’t these people become successful?

Well, it would seem that they are missing a piece of the puzzle. They have the motivation. They have the drive. But they likely haven’t figured out how to narrow down their priorities. It’s not that they don’t have goals. It’s that they have too many.  

Enter Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffet 2 Lists Strategy
Warren Buffet 2 "Lists" Strategy

Which of these two basic categorizations do you think Buffett falls into? Kind of a no-brainer, right? If you’ve been living under a rock, Buffett is an American investor, business genius, and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (which owns more than 60 companies). He is worth over 50 billion dollars and one of the wealthiest people in the world. The son of a stockbroker, he started on his business-savvy path at a young age, supposedly making his first investment at age 11 and filing his first tax return at age 13.

It seems that Buffett didn’t waste any time making progress towards his goals. And it would appear he knows a thing or two about how to get stuff done.

What’s the 2 List Strategy?

Years ago (the story goes), Buffett was traveling somewhere on his personal jet with a pilot by the name of Mike Flint. He had been employed by Buffett for years, so they appeared to be on friendly terms based on the story. They ended up in conversation about Flint’s career priorities, with Buffett giving Flint some helpful advice on how to achieve his goals.

This great advice has become what we call the “2 List” strategy.

Essentially, it’s a simple process you can take to narrow down your priorities so that you can make real progress towards them. There are three steps, and you can do it all in one sitting if you like. The best part is that you don’t need any special tools to put this into action. Just a pen and paper (or blank computer document).

The 3 Steps to Making Your 2 Lists

Step 1:
Write down your top 25 goals. (If you are focused on your career, make these your top 25 career goals. But this could also be personal goals or even simply your goals for the week.) Take some time and think about all the things you’d like to accomplish.

Step 2:
Now look over the list you made and choose the top 5 goals. You may feel like everything on the list is important. But really focus on what the very top priorities are at this moment in time. You don’t have to rush this step if you don’t want to. In fact, take your time and really make thoughtful choices. Write these top 5 goals on a separate piece of paper.

Step 3:
Now you should have 2 lists: your top 25 goals and the narrowed down top 5. The top 5 we’ll call List A. The other we’ll call List B. And here’s where you might be surprised. List A is now your priority list. List B is your “avoid at all cost” list. You don’t put focus on any of List B until you complete everything on List A.

Supposedly, Flint was in shock when Buffett gave him this advice. His original inclination was to surely put the focus on List A, but he also thought he would continue to work on List B as well, just not as urgently. Buffett told him that’s why he hadn’t made the progress he wanted to make so far. He was absolutely wrong in his thinking.

The Common Roadblock

Flint wasn’t (and isn’t) the only person to make this mistake. This is where most of us tend to go wrong. We try to do everything. When we’re asked about our priorities, we are able to make that list of 25 because we have so many things that we want to accomplish and we don’t know how to let any of them go. We would rather do too many things poorly than just a handful of things really well. Why is that?

Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence in our own skills and abilities. Sometimes it’s simply about uncertainty of which goals will lead to the best results. And quite frankly, sometimes we just enjoy doing a lot of different things. But enjoyment of all of them won’t necessarily make us a master in all of them.

There’s a popular quote out there: “You can have it all, just not all at once.” In many ways, people have trouble living in the present moment. But in this particular way, it’s like we see nothing but. We live entirely in the present moment where we must be doing all of the things. Right now. We don’t want to do them later. This is one reason why we don’t have the success of Warren Buffett!

Hanging on tightly to that list of 25 goals might just drive you back to that first category of human beings — you know, the lazy unmotivated category. A widely split focus will have you spinning your wheels on so many things that you’ll never accomplish any of them. Instead of narrowing it down, you might be inclined to add more to the list, thinking maybe you’ll see success if you spread your net even wider. When it doesn’t work, it leads to frustration and disappointment. And sometimes it leads to giving up altogether. This is why Buffett’s advice is so brilliant. Don’t do more. Do less.

Choosing the Essentials  

When we get stuck narrowing down our lists, feeling resistant to let things go, it’s important that we take a step back to figure out what we truly want out of life. Perhaps not what do we want to be doing, but how do we want to be feeling.

Shift the focus to your state of mind. Do you want an adventurous life? A joyful, happy one? Would you like to feel powerful? Validated? Creative? (And don’t say you want all of these things.) It’s time to examine under a microscope what really makes you tick. Because if everything you are doing (perhaps with your list of 25 priorities) is leading you to constant stress, you have to ask yourself, “Is STRESS the feeling I want in my life all the time?” Probably not.

When you can sift through the clutter of life to remove all the things that don’t truly matter to you, it makes room for the things that do matter. You have space to breathe. Space to enjoy what is there already. And permission to choose a handful of priorities that you can make real progress towards.

Hot Tips for 2-List Success

It’s not necessarily our gut instinct to follow the advice of “Avoid List B at all costs.” So post your two lists where you can see them often as you make daily decisions on where to put your energy and focus. When you plan out your to-do list for the day, look to see that you have tasks related to List A and not List B.

Check in with yourself every week. And perhaps check in with someone else too. Is there a friend or peer that you could hold yourself accountable to for sticking to your List A? Remind yourself daily that you are specifically not “trying to do it all.”

Give yourself a time limit to experiment with this strategy to see if it works for you. Truly avoid List B for four weeks. And then analyze how much progress you make on List A. You might not be able to gauge if it’s working if you only try it for one day. Even one week might not be enough time. So give it a fighting chance by sticking to it for at least a month.

Lastly, the 2-list strategy should be revisited throughout the year — perhaps monthly or quarterly. Decide what works for you and your particular goals and lifestyle. Regardless of who you are and what you do, you don’t set priorities just once. Our goals change throughout our lifetimes, throughout the years (and sometimes throughout the week or month!) and that’s okay. Not to mention, once you’ve tried the strategy, you’ll likely be accomplishing your A-list goals and will need to make new ones on the regular!

Not all productivity strategies work for everyone. That’s why it’s good to try different things out and give them a chance if you’re looking to make personal improvements. But the ability to identify your true top priorities is a skill we can all can benefit from.

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