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The absolute best technique I’ve found to work deliberately and with intention every day is the Rule of 3.
Takeaway: The absolute best technique I’ve found to work deliberately and with intention every day is the Rule of 3. The rule is simple: at the beginning of each day, before you start working, decide what three things you want to accomplish by the end of the day. Do the same at the start of every week.
THE RULE OF 3
Knowing your most valuable tasks is important, but as G.I. Joe would say, knowing is only half the battle. When you sit in front of your computer tomorrow morning and open up your inbox, it is far too easy to forget about what’s important to work on when more urgent (but less important) tasks come your way. So while working deliberately is good in theory, what does it actually look like in practice?
I have experimented with dozens of systems to manage everything on my plate—everything from the GTD (Getting Things Done) system, to “kanban,” to keeping sticky notes everywhere, to trying out more productivity apps than I can count. Most of them worked well for capturing and organizing everything I had to get done—and I’ll talk about the ones that will help you the most later on. But every single one of them also had a rather large downside: they didn’t help me slow down and work more deliberately.
Having a great system for managing what you need to get done is important, but it’s just as important to work on the tasks you organize in your system deliberately, with intention. That’s what this chapter is about. Before you invest in better managing your time, attention, and energy, it’s important you continue laying the groundwork by deciding what to focus on every day.
And that’s where the Rule of 3 comes in.
About halfway into my project I picked up a productivity book named Getting Results the Agile Way, written by J. D. Meier, Microsoft’s director of business programs. On the surface, the book looks more like a textbook than it does a general interest book—it’s typeset in Papyrus, which is among my least favorite typefaces on the planet. But the content is incredibly powerful because of the way it focuses on productivity through a lens of simplicity. One of my favorite nuggets from the book is “the Rule of 3.”
Though the concept behind the idea is nothing new—and has been talked about before by productivity bloggers like Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and Gina Trapani of Lifehacker—it was new to me, and too intriguing not to try.
Although you can download all the productivity apps in the world (and I have), no app will make you care about what you have to do like the Rule of 3.
The rule is dead simple:
- At the beginning of every day, mentally fast-forward to the end of the day, and ask yourself: When the day is over, what three things will I want to have accomplished? Write those three things down. 2. Do the same at the beginning of every week.
The three things you identify then become your focus for the day and the week ahead. That’s it.
Determine the foremost meaningful tasks in your work and life. Use the Rule of 3 on a daily and weekly basis.
THINKING IN THREES
When I asked J. D. Meier why choosing just three daily and weekly accomplishments works best—why not two? or one? or four or five?—he had an intriguing answer. “I originally focused on the Rule of 3 because when my manager asked me what the team achieved for the week, he didn’t want a laundry list. He was willing to listen to three compelling outcomes.”
When J.D. later asked his own team members what they were focused on for the day, he similarly found himself not wanting to hear more than three outcomes, or three meaningful things: “And for myself, I found that three things was very easy to keep top of mind, without having to write it down or look it up. I could rattle off my three outcomes in the hall. This especially helped when doing prioritization on the fly or to really keep myself on track.”
Three may seem like an arbitrary number on the surface, but it’s large enough to fit the main things you want to accomplish, and small enough to make you think hard about what’s important. The rule also helps you work smarter because by deciding what you intend to accomplish, you consequently decide what you don’t intend to accomplish. And since the rule focuses on the goals you want to accomplish instead of how much you get done, it’s much more in line with what productivity is all about.
You don’t have to look far to see evidence that we like to think in threes. According to J.D., “the simplest reason [three accomplishments work so well] is because our brains are trained from early on to think in threes: the beginning, the middle, the end.” For example, “the military uses threes to help people remember survival information: You can go three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food.”
When you look around, there are also countless examples of sets of threes embedded everywhere: the three bears, three blind mice, three little pigs, and three musketeers; phrases like “blood, sweat, and tears” and “the good, the bad, and the ugly”; and ideas like gold, silver, and bronze medals, and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Our mind is wired to think in groups of three.
It also works well because, well, despite your best intentions, emergencies come up, more urgent tasks come your way, and crises will erupt. Defining three things to accomplish will give you a guiding light when you’re in the trenches, as opposed to tackling a laundry list of things you want to get done, and the dissatisfied feeling of not accomplishing any of it.
While later I’ll dive into the best ways I’ve found to deflect unimportant work, shrink low-impact tasks, and minimize the noise around you, having just three items to focus on throughout the day and week will help you stay centered and accomplish more even on days where everything hits the fan. I think J.D. put it well when he said, “Simplicity makes it easier to evolve and innovate and deal with complexity.”
The focuser can thus achieve competitive advantage by dedicating itself to the segments exclusively. Breadth of target is clearly a matter of degree, but the essence of focus is the exploitation of a narrow target’s differences from the balance of the industry. Narrow focus in and of itself is not sufficient for above-average performance.
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