“The rich invest in time; the poor invest in money.”
Over the past few years, I have benefited tremendously from the greatest investor and teacher of all time – Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio). Mr. Buffett has changed my life in so many ways. His time management lessons have especially had a big impact on me and I think his time management skills are vastly underappreciated. Here are a few time management tricks I’ve picked up from Buffett.
1. The “two-list” strategy.
James Clear wrote a great articleÂ on how to maximize your focus level and master your priorities. According to the article:
“Mike Flint was Buffett's personal airplane pilot for 10 years. He was talking about his career priorities with Buffett when his boss asked the pilot to go through a 3-step exercise. STEP1:Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals. STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B. Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that's when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn't circle?” Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
How I have benefited from this advice? I went through this three-step exercise a while ago and listed my top life goals (I don’t have 25 goals but it was substantially more than five). From this list, I narrowed it down five, become a better investor being one of them. I plan my daily activities so that at least 80% of my attention is devoted to the top five, and I avoid all other activities as much as possible. This change has made life much simpler and easier for me. I’m also much better focused as a result of this “two-list rule.”
2. Say no to meetings and meaningless invitations.
In college and graduate school, I used to fill up my calendar with meetings and social events because it made me feel productive even though I always knew most of the meetings and social events were useless in the long run. It was right after graduate school that I bumped into a video in which Bill Gates (Trades, Portfolio) talked about the best advice he’s ever gotten from Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio): “I have learned an incredible amount from Warren, some of them are things you can express, like really looking at the time on your calendar, valuing as much free time as possible. I love when Warren gets out his calendar – it’s basically blank.”
Over time I’ve gradually pursued my life and work in a way that would minimize meetings and I’ve learned it’s better to say no up front than to say “yes” and not following through on some promises.
3. Minimize time spent on commute.
From 2011-2015, I spent 20-30 minutes each way commuting to work. Then I found out that Buffett, for more than 50 years, has spent five minutes going each way. Over time the difference between 40-60 minutes per day compared to 10 minutes per day for Buffett really adds up. Fifty minutes per day for five days a week for 50 weeks adds up to 208 hours, or almost nine days per year. In 42 years, the difference will add up to almost exactly a year.
Once I realized the math, I talked to my boss and convinced him that I’m more productive if I don’t come to the office every day. Nowadays I either work from home or find a coffee shop within five minutes' drive. It’s amazing how much more you can compound knowledge by 50 minutes more every day.
4. Decision reduction.
I picked this up from Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. The gist of the idea is that decisions, large or small, all consumer energy and mental power. Small decisions such as what to eat and what to wear every day can unnecessarily drain your will power, so we should avoid them as much as possible.
Buffett eats and drinks the same things almost every day.
Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs wear the same pants and shirts every day.
By avoiding making small decisions that don’t matter whatsoever, they can spend more mental power on more important decisions. I’ve been less successful in eating consistently, but I’ve been wearing the same pair of pants and pair of shoes most of the time, and I rotate among three shirts. I can’t say this has been life changing for me, but suffice it to say that I do not miss the days when every day I have to spend time deciding which dress trousers and dress shirts I need to wear to work.
5. Avoid instant response.
I wrote about this in a previous article. This is a habit I’m still cultivating and boy, so many low hanging fruits in this category. My old habit is to check my emails randomly whenever I feel like it and most of the time I respond within a short period of time. The new system is to check my emails twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. I’m also implementing a delay system on every email (thank god I don’t use Twitter). and it couldn't go out for two hours unless urgent.
These work-in-progress transitions are much harder to execute than I had expected, as are most of habit-changing projects.
Most billionaires are masters of time management. All of the above tricks seem small and inconsequential, and they may be – if you only do them one day and not make them habits. But I’m convinced that if you are determined and make small progress every day, you’ll change your life.