The Rule of 3: Take Control of Your Day, Take Charge of Your Life

Have you ever lost an entire day to busywork?

I don’t mean losing a day to being busy. As a high achiever and reader of Agile Lifestyle, I assume you are a busy person.

I mean have you ever lost an entire day to mundane, low-value, unfulfilling work that doesn’t move the ball forward in any meaningful way?

The Rule of Three

If this happens to you more than you’d like to admit, I have a technique for you to implement immediately. It’s called the Rule of 3, and it can revolutionize the way you work.

Warning: This article assumes that you already keep, track, and capture your tasks with a daily to-do list. If you don’t keep a physical to-do list, start. Tracking all of your to-do’s in your head is a poor use of limited mental resources and willpower.

What is the Rule of 3?

The Rule of 3 is a productivity technique that focuses on achieving three meaningful outcomes every day, week, month, and year.

The Rule of 3 comes from J.D. Meier’s fantastic book on agile time management, Getting Results the Agile Way. You can read a high-level summary of this technique here.

Before I implemented the Rule of 3 in my life, I was running around from task to task without a clear vision for my desired outcomes. My goal planning was a mess. Like many of you, I became a “firefighter,” someone who reacts all the time, instead of being a proactive doer.

The beauty of the Rule of 3 is in its simplicity.

It works like this:

  • Identify three outcomes you want for the day.
  • Identify three outcomes you want for the week.
  • Identify three outcomes you want for the month.
  • Identify three outcomes you want for the year.

Sounds easy, right? Let’s drill down further.

  1. Start your day/week/month/year with the Rule of 3: If you start each day with a massive to-do list, bubble up the three most important results you can achieve today and commit to doing those above all else.
  2. Choose outcomes, not tasks: “Call Stacy” tells me little. “Get signoff from Stacy to proceed on project” focuses you on the desired outcome, and leaves it open how you do it. Does it matter if Stacy gives you the OK via email, text, IM, or Skype?
  3. Each outcome matches its timeframe: Think ambitious, but achievable goals. Writing a book in a month is probably not feasible for a monthly outcome (unless you’re Dean Wesley Smith), but how great would you feel if you finished a novel a year from now?
  4. Course-correct, if necessary: Over the course of a day/week/month/year, new priorities might come to the fore. The Rule of 3 isn’t meant to be rigid. It’s an agile technique after all. If the new thing is more important than one of the three outcomes you’ve identified, feel free to replace it. But be sure that the new thing actually is more important–we often get into the trap of reacting to the (seemingly) urgent without regard to accomplishing the important.
  5. Reflect: Take time for reflection. What worked well? What didn’t? Feel good about what you accomplished. High achievers have the disease of What’s Next? Take time to appreciate what you’ve done before searching out the next challenge to conquer.

From a high level, this is all you need to start practicing the Rule of 3 immediately.

But let’s keep digging. What makes the Rule of 3 so effective?

The Rule of Three is Everywhere

Why three outcomes, and not two or four?

One answer is, threes are everywhere.

There’s the Rule of 3 in writing. From Aristotle’s three act structure (setup, conflict, resolution) to famous trios in fairy tales (Three Billy Goats Gruff/Little Pigs/Goldilocks’s Bears), three is a recurring theme.

Or how about the Rule of Thirds in art, which claims that compositions are more beautiful when a painting or photograph is split into thirds, horizontally and vertically.

The Rule of Three even extends to the divine. Of course, there’s the Christian Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But history is also littered with triple goddesses, tri-headed gods, and three-aspected divinities.

It’s not a stretch to say triads, trinities, and threes are embedded into the firmware of our minds.

(Notice that list I presented to you was also in threes. Doesn’t that feel more satisfying and persuasive?)

How Do You Decide Which 3 Things to Do?

Here’s where 37signals’ advice about a good day’s work comes in handy:

One pattern to help yourself fight the mad dash for the mirage of being done is to think of a good day’s work. Look at the progress of the day towards the end and ask yourself: “Have I done a good day’s work?”

Thorin Klosowski at Lifehacker reminds us that American founding father Benjamin Franklin used a very similar technique to set his goals for each day:

[Benjamin Franklin] also asked himself a couple of simple questions at the beginning and end of the day: “What good shall I do this day?” in the morning and “What good have I done today?” before bed.

Let’s put these two learnings together and incorporate them into the Rule of 3.

To start your day, ask yourself the following:

“What 3 things, if I accomplished them today, would make for a good day’s work?”

At the end of the day, review these 3 outcomes. Did you achieve them?

They don’t all have to be massive undertakings. Here’s an example of 3 achievable outcomes for a day:

  1. Complete research for initial plan.
  2. Call car insurance company to negotiate better rate.
  3. Take a 5 minute walk.

All you have to do is expand this question to each relevant timeframe:

  • What 3 things, if I accomplished them this week, would make for a good week’s work?
  • What 3 things, if I accomplished them this month, would make for a good month’s work?
  • What 3 things, if I accomplished them this year, would make for a good year’s work?

The beauty of it is the goals you set under the Rule of 3 are entirely up to you. What constitutes a good day’s work for one person won’t necessarily for another. And that’s entirely okay.

The Rule of 3 is flexible, and it’s meant just for you.

Slay the Unending To-Do List Dragon

If you’re anything like how I used to be, your to-do list is the unending tail of a dragon, never to be progressed on, accomplished, finished, defeated, or slain.

The Rule of 3 can change that.

Courtesy of 99u, here’s Noah Kagan, AppSumo founder (and employee #30 at Facebook and #4 at Mint), discussing the Rule of 3 as one of his most productive developers uses the technique (jump to 5:10):


He has a master Excel list that lists every single task that needs to be done, ever. He takes three things each day and puts those at the top. From the beginning of the work day — and he only works 9-5, he doesn’t do crazy startup hours — he does nothing else but get those three things done. No meetings, no phone calls, and no e-mails; his day is focused on the moving forward of three items.

If that sounds crazy, let me assure you that it isn’t.

There’s a reason Noah Kagan has singled this guy out as a being a productivity beast. The Rule of 3 empowers you to be the most productive person in the office because you actually follow through on the things you’re supposed to do.

That statement might seem trivial, but it isn’t.

So many knowledge workers are pulled in 10 different directions every day. These hapless busy-bees and burnout candidates are at the mercy of all kinds of stakeholders, bosses, and interruptions.

They might commit to doing 8-10 things a day, but how many of these walking burnouts (a) get around to doing all of them and (b) actually do them well?

Not many.

The power of the Rule of 3 is in mental focus and concentration. It’s a pre-commitment to finishing 3 things that matter. Day-in, day-out, no exceptions.

Achieving 3 important outcomes a day might not seem like much, but that’s 1,095 meaningful results over the course of a year.

How many salary slaves, contract employees, and creators can claim they accomplish so much in any given year?

The Rule of 3 and Structured Procrastination

Structured procrastination is the practice of accomplishing everything on your to-do list except the most important stuff at the top. The Rule of 3 would seem to conflict with structured procrastination.

If you are a structured procrastinator, you should still implement the Rule of 3. The key to using the Rule of 3 if you are a procrastinator is to bubble up important but amorphous goals to the top of your list each day/week/month/year.

So go ahead and put “Write chapter one of novel” at the top of your to-do list, with the full knowledge that you’re never going to complete it. This level of self-deception is not optimal, but necessary for some people.

Just be sure that for every high-value task you ignore, you’re completing 4-5 medium-value ones instead. Structured procrastination as a technique simply doesn’t work otherwise–it becomes plain-old procrastination.

The Rule of 3 and the Pomodoro Technique

I love this combo.

Take the Rule of 3 to set your three daily outcomes. Use the Pomodoro Technique and the 8-10 working Pomodoros you get each day to focus on completing your 3 outcomes. Harness the power of timeboxing to your advantage.

If you do the math, each of your three daily outcomes should take between 2-4 Pomodoros (or one to two hours) each day. If any single to-do takes longer than that, it’s probably really two to-do’s that you should split up.

Repeat the next day.

I can’t tell you how much you will get done combining these two powerhouse techniques. If you get this combination down, you can pretty much stop reading any productivity and lifehacking blog out there.

You will be a time management master.

Start today.

What 3 things, if you accomplished them today, would make for a good day’s work?

Image by aturkus.

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