The 20/80 Rule Of Effective Thinking

thinking vs doing

How much time should I spend thinking instead of doing? It’s one of the biggest questions I struggle with. One side of me says, “Without doing you will never achieve anything.”

Another side says, “Without thinking things through, you might end up doing the wrong things.”

Thinking by itself is worthless because if you never do anything, what’s the use? And if you only act without thinking, you’ll probably end up in jail or in a ditch. That’s why this topic is so important. But most of us never even consider living by a thinking/doing ratio.

I live by a 20/80 ratio. 

Before I explain why that is, and how you can create your own ratio, let’s look at some of the most respected individuals of our time: Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, two investors who are celebrated for their good decisions and thinking processes.

They are not only thinkers, but they are also successful practitioners.

“What Are You Doing?”

It’s well-known that Warren Buffett spends most of his time reading and thinking. It’s the first thing he does when he comes to his office in Omaha. According to his biographer, Alice Schroeder, Buffett reads at least 5 hours a day. He reads newspapers, magazines, annual reports, and books.

To many people, reading looks like inactivity. There’s nothing active about reading. And from the outside, it looks like you’re not doing anything.

I think that’s the first problem with the challenge we’re addressing in this article. Our western society is biased towards doing. Just think about how often people ask you this question: “What are you doing?”

You probably heard it at school. And you probably hear it at work or at home all the time. People want to DO something at all times. Activity is the key.

My guess is that the thinking/doing ratio at most organizations is something like 10/90. We spend far more time doing than thinking. If we take a lesson out of Buffett and Munger’s book, we can say that’s not an effective ratio.

According to Peter Bevelin, author of Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Buffet and Munger have a “habit of committing far more time to learn and thinking than to doing.”

That means the ratio these guys have is more like 80/20—thinking/doing. To be clear, I’m only guessing here but by the looks of it, that’s the ratio Buffet and Munger have.

What’s Your Nature?

So should we all spend 80% of our time thinking? It depends on two factors:

  1. Your nature
  2. Your work

Some people are natural thinkers. They love to spend time in their heads. They love to read. And they love to talk about ideas.

There are also people who hate that. The lesson here is that everyone is different. You’re probably someone who likes to think, otherwise, you would not read this article. A person who only acts and never thinks will not take five minutes to read this.

But the amount of thinking we need also depends on our work. Warren Buffett is a value investor. He makes very few decisions. But when he does, he makes huge decisions and large bets. Outside of investing, there are few professions like that. Most of us need more execution. We need to make calls, write emails, have meetings, and create things.

So even though I’ve found an ideal ratio that works for most people (which I’ll talk about later), remember to always look at your nature and your work. Your ideal ratio depends on those two things. But what about people who don’t like to think and want to do more?

Writing 500 Books In 42 Years

Isaac Asimov is considered one of the most prolific writers of the 21st century. His first book, Pebble in the Sky, was published in 1950.

By the time he passed away in 1992, he had written about 500 books. Sure, some of his books were very short, but still, it’s an impressive bibliography.

That comes down to about one book per month. That’s a lot of doing. It seems like there was very little inactivity in his life during those years. He cranked out one book after the other.

It almost looks like his ratio was 100% doing. He could probably think and do AT THE SAME TIME. Most of us are not like that. We do either one or the other.

Be Decisive

We’ve looked at two extreme cases. Buffett and Munger spend most of their time thinking. Asimov spent most of his time doing. Unfortunately, outliers do not represent reality. However, we can learn from them. What I’ve learned is that we need to be decisive.

Warren Buffett would not be this famous if he didn’t make big bets. And Asimov wouldn’t write 500 books without committing to writing every day. The lives of both men were different, but both were decisive in their actions. And that’s the key to figuring out your ideal thinking/doing ratio.

It’s not the amount of thinking we do, it’s the quality that matters. If you spend 40% of your time thinking while being indecisive and all over the place, you’re wasting your time.

On the contrary, if you spend only 1% of your time thinking and if you are very decisive, you’re being effective.

The 20/80 Rule Of Effective Thinking

I live by what I call “The 20/80 rule of effective thinking.” I think for most professionals in today’s age, that ratio of thinking vs doing is sufficient. Even though I’m a natural thinker, I need to remind myself to execute more than I think.

Again, it’s not the ratio that counts, it’s the quality of your thinking. And ultimately, the quality of your thinking impacts the outcomes you achieve.

Remember that poor outcomes in life are excusable but poor thinking and decision-making are not.

The reason is that you do not have any control over the former—but you do have all the control over the latter. That’s why the 20/80 ratios will probably save you a lot of time, money, and worry.

When you take time to think things through, you’re less likely to make emotional decisions.

When you’re decisive, you make a decision and stick to it—which is ultimately how we achieve our goals.

Want to learn more about The 20/80 rule of effective thinking? Watch this video:

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