In his new book Leading Continuous Change: Navigating Churn in the Real World, my colleague Bill Pasmore shares a very instructive story about Warren Buffett.
An ambitious up-and-comer approaches Buffett for advice on what he needs to do to be successful.
Buffett says, “Tell me what your priorities are.”
The young man lists about 25 of them.
Buffet says, “Ok, give me your top five.”
He thinks about it for a bit and names the five most important things.
“That’s great,” Buffett says. “Now what are you going to do with the other 20 things on your list?”
The young man replies that he’ll try to work on those when he can find time.
“Absolutely not!” Buffet commands. “That is your avoid-at-all-costs list.”
I was thinking just the other day about this story – shared online by blogger Scott Dinsmore – as I flew from New York City back to North Carolina, contemplating my own to-do list. We’re all busy people, and we’re prone to measure our success by the sheer number of hours we spend working.
The only problem is that the least effective among us are often the ones who work the longest hours. That’s because time isn’t the right measure of success. We all need to stop glorifying busyness! It’s really performance and results that count – and we don’t generate them without clearly defined priorities.
Bill Pasmore’s work explores how easily organizations are overwhelmed by complex tasks and the challenge of navigating change. The same is true in our own lives, which is why I’ve been a relentless list maker for at least the past 25 years.
I usually start the day by reviewing my master to-do list and calendar for that day. Then I put down a customized checklist of 10 things I’d like to get done, with a special focus on the three things that absolutely must happen. That’s a good start, but time and experience have also shown that there’s something our to-do lists don’t do: help us make sense of the bigger picture. So go ahead and make your lists, but be sure to do these three things as well:
1. Banish default thinking, which is what happens when our thoughts run on autopilot. Unfortunately, we’re wired to get stuck in mental ruts and insist on the same default thought patterns, such as “anything less than perfect is a failure” or mindlessly repeating the same workout routine. Maybe those approaches were effective at one time, but we live in a world of constant change. So, like laptops that continually require software updates, our personal perspectives need constant updating, too.
We can cultivate fresh thinking by regularly making time for reflection. Set aside 30 minutes on your calendar every week to step back from your to-do lists and review what’s missing from it and what can be dropped. Every quarter, take a larger chunk of time – perhaps when you’re on a plane or on a long walk – to assess things more critically. Pasmore says that 10 percent of executives’ time should be spent thinking broadly about the future and the changes that will be required to thrive in it. We need to do something similar for ourselves as leaders, professionals and family members. Changing our thinking can change our lives.
2. Get out of your head. We need to tap into the insights and perspectives of a broad range of co-workers, as well as women and men outside our organization whose opinions we value. We can share with them our current challenges and opportunities, talk them through and benefit from their feedback. Then we should be sure to return the favor for them. We all improve as leaders and professionals by better understanding ourselves – and research shows that leaders who are self-aware are four times more effective at navigating change. That self-awareness starts and evolves with the information we gain from others about our behaviors and performance.
3. Maintain a growth mindset. Many of the jobs in today’s marketplace did not exist 20 years ago. The future will only magnify this trend, so we all need to be agile enough to change and acquire whole new sets of skills and knowledge quickly. Stanford professor Carol Dweck, author of the superb book Mindset, has convincingly demonstrated the crucial importance of having a growth mindset – or a belief that we can continually enhance our skills and performance if we’re willing to put in the work. We need to grow every day through our pursuit of new knowledge and experiences. If we are also managing default thinking and getting feedback from trusted sources, we have a much better chance of aligning those experiences and new knowledge with our priorities.
If you’re like me, you know how satisfying it is to check things off your to-do list. It’s an even better feeling when you’re focused on what matters most.
This column is one of several that CCL President and CEO John Ryan has written on leadership as a LinkedIn Influencer.