The Warren Buffett Pilot Story: The Importance of Making a NOT To Do List

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Even before COVID, I hated that feeling at the end of the day that comes after running around but not being able to list anything accomplished. Here’s a helpful idea of what I call the story of Warren Buffett and his pilot. I’ve read a few different versions from various sources, and I honestly don’t even know any of them are true. This one is taken from the book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth:

Warren Buffett—the self-made multibillionaire whose personal wealth, acquired entirely within his own lifetime, is roughly twice the size of Harvard University’s endowment – reportedly gave his pilot a simple three-step process for prioritizing.

The story goes like this: Buffett turns to his faithful pilot and says that he must have dreams greater than flying Buffett around to where he needs to go. The pilot confesses that, yes, he does. And then Buffett takes him through three steps.

First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals.

Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five.

Third, you take a good hard look at the twenty goals you didn’t circle. These you avoid at all costs. They’re what distract you; they eat away time and energy, taking your eye from the goals that matter more.

(Note that this is from a book about not giving up!)

Creating this list provides a clear yardstick at the end of each day. Did you make any progress towards your top 5 goals? Even a little progress makes the day seem well spent. A common problem is that not even knowing what those top 5 goals are.

However, equally if not more important is the second list. Instead of the ever-expanding To Do List, we need a NOT To Do List. In order to be truly productive, we need to be willing to focus on the most important things and not just ignore the unimportant things, but also ignore the simply not-quite-as important things. You only have a limited amount of time and energy (focus). As someone with completionist and perfectionist tendencies, this is hard!

Doing this properly means giving up on a good and respectable goal (at least temporarily). For example, I chose to give up pursuing rental properties and residential real estate. I also spend minimal time on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram, even though it can be useful for research, networking, and marketing. These might be near the top of someone else’s list, but just not high enough on my personal list. I still don’t feel like I have enough time, but it is nice to let go of feeling guilty about not doing something that other successful people do.

This concept can apply to many different areas of life. Money is finite as well, so we have budgeting. You should have two lists: What can you cut? Yes. But also, what do you love so much that you want to spend more on? Ideally, you now have a positive reason that motivates you to make that change.

Marie Kondo has created an entire brand in applying this to getting rid of your stuff. I don’t claim to grasp her ethos completely, but my take is that you can spend more money (and space and time) on the list of things that “brings you joy” if you get rid of the other list of things that “you don’t really need but still can’t seem to give away”. (Still working on this one too.)

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  1. I love this post! I, too, gave up pursuing rental properties at this time because my local market when I wanted to buy is white hot. There’s no profit margin in the game right now for me, so I am forced to wait. This allows to to pursue other profitable ideas at this time.

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