The goal-setting process Warren Buffett uses to say 'no' and achieve more

Top producers focus on a small number of priorities until they are fully implemented and producing results

Feb 4, 2016 @ 10:00 am

By Brad Johnson

Top achievers' thought processes are often the same. I was recently reminded of this when a friend shared a story about how he's been able to achieve consistent double-digit growth every year for the last decade.

It all began when I asked him, “What's your secret to your consistently amazing growth every year?”

After all, he has generated annual revenue growth of 15% to 20% every single year, which is an incredible achievement.

His answer surprised me. He said, “I've said no more than any other time in my career.”

At first, I didn't quite understand what he was saying, so he continued. “In the past, I was the guy chasing shiny objects, so I'd be the guinea pig and test a handful of them each year in my practice. I would try three, four, five or more new ideas every year. Maybe one of them would pan out and lead to modest results, but the others were usually flops.”

“But now it's totally different. I've aligned myself with a network of top-performing financial advisers; I'm exposed to dozens of ideas every year. Now I have the ability to say no 20-plus times a year. That means I no longer try any ideas that are merely good. I only implement great ideas that are a good fit for my practice and get me excited. This has led to exponential growth in my business.”

As I listened to his feedback, I remembered an anecdote I'd heard years ago about Warren Buffett sharing some goal-setting advice with his private pilot.

First, Mr. Buffett told his pilot to write out a list of 25 things he wanted to accomplish over the next year.

Then he told him to circle the five most important goals on the list. The pilot spent some time deliberating and finally circled his top five.

Mr. Buffett then asked, “Are you sure these are the absolute highest priority for you?” And the pilot said yes.

So Mr. Buffett helped his pilot formulate a plan for how he was going to achieve these top five goals. They talked about when he would begin working on these goals, what resources he was going to need to make them happen, and so forth.

It's worth noting that Mr. Buffett's advice up to this point was fairly straightforward. In fact, you might get similar advice from just about any goal-setting expert. But here is where it got interesting.

Mr. Buffett asked the pilot what he was going to do with the other 20 items on his list — the 20 things he had not circled. The pilot said he would work on them a little bit here and there, trying to fit them in as he could.

“No, you can't do that," Mr. Buffett said. "Everything you didn't circle is now your avoid-at-all-costs list. You cannot give any attention to them until you've successfully completed your top five.”

Are you connecting the dots between my friend's story and the story about Warren Buffett's pilot? Top producers focus only on a small number of priorities at a time, and they focus relentlessly on those until they are fully implemented and producing results.

Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” (one of my favorite reads of 2015), sums up the challenge of having singular focus in today's world. In fact, our vocabulary literally has been altered to stack the deck against us.

“The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed singular for the next 500 years," Mr. McKeown writes. "Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities.”

Both of these stories resonate with me because there are so many things fighting for our attention in our industry. There's new technology, new marketing concepts, new appointment-setting approaches and lots more. It's easy to become overwhelmed with all the ideas being thrown at us every day.

I often see advisers juggling 10 balls at a time and trying desperately not to drop any of them. Unfortunately, these advisers usually end up with a pile of half-finished tasks and half-implemented ideas on their desk.

One of my friends, coincidentally the top goal-setting guru I know, Michael Hyatt, shared this wisdom on one of my recent podcasts:

“A big mistake is creating too many goals. There's an ancient Chinese proverb that says 'Man who chases two rabbits catches neither.' Well, you don't have to keep it to two goals, but I do think the more goals you write down, the less likely it is you'll achieve any of them. As a rule of thumb, I recommend you have five to seven goals.”

That's great advice, isn't it?

Keep in mind that less is more. If you really want to grow and have a breakthrough year, it's going to require relentless focus on a small number of priorities that can make a big difference in your business.

Brad Johnson is a vice president at Advisors Excel. Follow him on Twitter @Brad_Johnson or connect with his team at info@bradj.net.


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