The Common Denominator of Success – Prioritization

I have a personal commitment to post at least one blog per week and it’s been more than a week since I wrote my last blog. The central theme of all my blogs is application of proven and time-tested mental models in day-to-day situations. Lot happened in the past couple of weeks and the reason for delay in posting this blog is to do with the application of below explained mental models. Given my situation, these models required me to delay all activities not considered priority in the context of what I was dealing with, the details of which you will read below.

Prioritization is a very simple concept but very difficult to practice. I am privileged to work with some of the smartest, brightest and inspiring leaders who have achieved great success in life. I also closely follow the journey of few luminaries of our times such as Warren Buffet, Charlie Munger, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, etc.  One common trait that I have seen in all these successful people is that somehow they know how to stay focused on things that matter the most i.e. know what is important and stay focused on it and know what is unimportant and stay away from it.

Given the most valuable resource is focus / attention which in turn is partly a factor of time, managing time to keep the focus on important matters is what appears to distinguish successful people from the failures. The corollary is absolutely true of failures. They somehow always default to prioritizing unimportant things over important matters.

Stephen R. Covey in his famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People writes –

“One of my favorite essays is ‘The Common Denominator of Success’ written by E.M. Gray. He spent his life searching for the one denominator that all successful people share. He found it wasn’t hard work, good luck, or astute human relations, though those were all important. The one factor that seemed to transcend all the rest embodies the essence of Habit 3 – putting first things first

Here is the actual quote from the essay Stephen Covey is referring to –

” … this common denominator of success is so big, so powerful, and so vitally important to your future and mine that I’m not going to make a speech about it. I’m just going to “lay it on the line” in words of one syllable, so simple that everyone can understand them.

The common denominator of success – the secret of success of every man who has ever been successful – lies in the fact that he formed the habit of doing things that failures don’t like to do.

It’s just as true as it sounds and it’s just as simple as it seems. You can hold it up to the light, you can put it to the acid test, and you can kick it around until it’s worn out, but when you are all through with it, it will still be the common denominator of success, whether you like it or not.”

This is all fine knowledge but nothing what is said above is actionable. The quotes above do not help provide a practical lens to differentiate important from the unimportant and how to deal with it.

Warren Buffet Goals List

Here is a story I read about Warren Buffett giving his friend advice on how to figure out and achieve goals:

Warren asked his friend “make a list of the top 25 things you want to do in the next few weeks, months, years or even your lifetime (as applicable)”. He then asked his friend to circle the five most important things in the context of time considered. Warren then asked “but what about these other 20 things on your list that you didn’t circle? What is your plan for completing those?” His friend replied confidently “Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top 5. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”

To the friends surprise, Warren responded sternly, “No. You’ve got it wrong. 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.”

Also Just couple of months back, I was reading The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking and there I found this very useful and practical time management or activity prioritization model.

The Eisenhower Matrix

Past US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a master of time management and prioritization. He is said to have had the ability to do everything as and when it needed to be done. He once said

“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”

The Eisenhower Matrix / method is a very simple, yet powerful method. The system uses a matrix of four quadrants to categorize tasks.

You have to ask two questions: 1) Is the task important? and 2) Is the task urgent?

As shown in the illustration below, every task ends up in one of the four quadrants.


Priority 1 – tasks that are both urgent and important – Do it immediately.

Priority 2 – tasks that are important but not urgent – Set a due date for completion.

Priority 3 – tasks that are urgent but not important – Delegate to competent person(s).

Priority 4 – that are neither urgent nor important – Avoid at all costs when you have other things to do.

I mentioned above that a lot happened in the last couple of weeks. I changed jobs within the company and that involved – delivering against my existing commitments, transitioning my old job to my successor, ramping-up on my new job, meeting the new customers, stakeholders and team members etc. On top of this, my 17 months old son brought home viral infection from his daycare and happily gifted it to both my wife and I which we painfully endured for more than a week. With all these going on, prioritization of tasks and activities became very important and two models above helped me to move blog writing task to quadrant # 2 above.

Thus quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D) for not writing the blog 🙂


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