There's an old joke where two men encounter a lion in their safari camp. One immediately starts putting on running shoes. The other comments that he can't possibly outrun a lion. "I know," says the man, "but I only need to outrun you."

This joke, it turns out, contains a secret to success known to people like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and anyone else who has learned to achieve exceptional focus in their careers and for their businesses.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he cut their product line by 70% and declared that they would focus on only four products -- a desktop and a portable both for consumers and professionals each.

It wasn't that the products he cut were bad products or had no market interest. Rather, he knew that his company needed to have laser-focus in order to delight users and return the brand to its mythic place.

Warren Buffett also advocates for cutting distractions in order to achieve extreme focus. He starts by creating a list of all the things he could be working on and then picks the top five.

The top list becomes his to-do list of course -- but it's what he does with the the other items that creates the magic.

The projects not chosen to be in the top five he puts on an "avoid at all costs" list. Why? Because, like Jobs, Buffett knows that if you keep something semi-active, it will suck energy, attention, and focus from the things you really want to get done. Your back-burner list becomes your procrastination activities list.

Many Is the Enemy of Great

Prioritization and planning exercises aren't there to help you eliminate bad ideas -- those are easy to spot and get rid of. For Jobs and Buffett (and now you), smart planning exercises are there to get rid of the good ideas that will distract from getting things done.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but focusing intently on a single idea -- even if it's mediocre -- will help you achieve greatness faster than trying to focus on several great ideas at the same time.

The magic is in the execution, not in the idea generation.

Focus, and the difficulty of achieving it, isn't exactly news to most of us, but there's a secret lurking in Jobs' and Buffett's methods that is easy to miss. In fact, most businesses and individuals I work with miss it altogether.

The difference is in viewing projects through a relative vs absolute lens.

It's All Relative

When we talk about value and cost -- the things we need to know to assess whether a project is worth doing -- we almost always default to absolute measures.

An absolute measure is something like dollars, hours, or clicks, and they are terrible things to use when you're trying to pick your top priority projects.

The reason absolute measures are so bad for planning is because we're talking about the future, and therefore everything is speculation. Absolute measures give the illusion of precision at a time when precision is impossible.

Plans are fantasies, sometimes well-grounded, reasoned, and researched of course but still flights of fancy. This is why leaders assessing human hours on technical projects frequently double their estimate just to be on the safe side.

What you need to do instead is to prioritize items relative to each other. Like Buffett you need to gather all possible projects together into a single list and compare them to each other. This is relative prioritization and while doing this may involve some absolute measures we should be careful never to mistake estimates for the reality.

Don't Try to Outrun a Lion

Considering all possible items together allows you to spend less time choosing because you are answering the question "is this more valuable than that?" This is the essence of relative estimation.

You don't need to know what the absolute value of a product, feature, or service is before you do it -- and you don't need to waste money answering that question in a lot of detail.

Here's what you need to do:

  1. Put all of your possible projects together on a single list.
  2. Place the most valuable project at the top and the least at the bottom -- do whatever research you need to do to create this list but no more (this is called stack ranking).
  3. Pick the top 3-5 projects, features, etc and do those first and, like Buffett, studiously ignore anything not on this list -- this is called enforcing a Work in Process (WIP) Limit.

The last item is the most important. Even if you get the prioritization wrong, you'll still be miles ahead if you pick a few items, focus, and actually get them done.

Success, as I said before, is more about execution than ideation.

Further Reading

For an academic -- and at times frustratingly mathematical -- look at these principles, check out Don Reinertsen's work on cost of delay in The Principles of Product Development Flow.

For more on Buffett's prioritization strategy, check out this article by the awesome James Clear: "Warren Buffett's '2 List' Strategy: How to Maximize Your Focus and Master Your Priorities."

Finally, here's more on the story of "How Steve Jobs Saved Apple."