How many goals are in your company's long-term plan? If you have more than three, chances are you are getting in the way of your own success.

Research has shown that as an executive team's list of priorities grows, the company's growth in revenue actually declines.

Why would that be? Well, it turns out that when we set too many goals, our priorities fight each other for our attention. Too often--both as individuals and as companies--we choose to check the easy tasks off our lists and leave the tough ones until later.

Unfortunately, those tough ones are usually the ones that are most critical to long-term success.

I've heard a great story about Warren Buffett that underscores this point. Apparently, Buffett heard his personal airline pilot, Mike Flint, talking about his long-term goals and priorities. Deciding to weigh in, Buffett suggested to Flint that he conduct the following exercise:

  • Step 1: Write down your top 25 career goals on a single piece of paper.
  • Step 2: Circle your top five priorities.
  • Step 3: Put the top five on one list and the remaining 20 on a second list.

Flint agreed, noting he would focus on the top five goals while continuing to work on the second list intermittently. Buffett stopped him right there. "No. You've got it wrong, Mike," he said. "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 five."

In fact, the leadership team at my company, Acceleration Partners, recently met with some business coaches who reinforced this strategy during our quarterly two-day planning session.

We use these meetings to lay out our most important company objectives for the next three months. Typically, we come up with five or six priorities. This year, however, our new coaches really pushed us to select and focus on just three goals. They said that they have found, based on their extensive experience and numerous studies, that when we set too many goals we actually complete fewer of them.

This got me to thinking about how often we all start the day with a list of 25 things to do and end the day with many of the most salient items still on the list. All of us tend to pass over what is most important in favor of accomplishing things that are quicker or easier to do.  

Carrying out Buffett's process as an individual, team, or company is a valuable exercise. In addition, here are a few tips to help you and your team stay focused and accomplish your most important, long-term goals.   

  1. Recognize that time is a precious and fixed resource.
  2. Separate what's urgent from what's important. Author Steven Covey has written eloquently about this distinction, which was famously made by President Eisenhower in a 1954 speech. Urgent tasks require immediate attention, but important tasks further your long-term goals. Don't let the urgent demands derail your progress toward the priorities you consider most important.
  3. Align your top priorities with your core purpose and core values.
  4. Don't book 100 percent of your time; schedule in rest and relaxation.
  5. Pay attention to things you should stop doing. That means being strategic about your commitments and periodically reassessing whether you still want to serve on that board or committee.
  6. Be selective about which people you give your energy to. It's easy to spend all your time being "Mr. Nice Guy." To make progress on your top goals, learn to say "no."

There is a significant difference between being busy and getting a lot done versus achieving at a high level. If you want to accomplish big things in life, it may be wise to follow the wisdom of the Oracle of Omaha