Despite productivity apps galore (over 200 in iTunes alone) my to-do list continued to mushroom. The result was constant overwhelm and frustration.

On the other hand, my husband, who also runs his own business, seemed to get through his to-do list with ease. I originally put this down to a difference in personalities.

He tried to tell me that the ‘secret sauce’ of his productivity was to concentrate on three priorities every day. He gave me this advice even before we realised that the rule of three was an actual ‘thing’. It turns out this principle was used as far back as 1776 by Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. In the Declaration of Independence, he chose to focus on three absolute rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The idea is that we’re wired to process things in threes.

Here are some examples:

  • ABCs.
  • Ready, set, go.
  • Just do it.

Fast-forward to today and books like Getting Results the Agile Way by J.D. Meier, explain how to systematically use the rule of three to avoid overwhelm.

Anyway, my stubbornness meant I held on to my usual to-do list. I scoffed at whether such a seemingly simple solution could work. After being totally fed up of running on the hamster wheel, I reluctantly decided to try the rule of three.

How I use the rule of three

Being busy is a form of laziness–lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” – Tim Ferris

I was guilty of adding to my to-do list without a second thought. Mindlessly including items was a deliberate distraction from answering tough questions. Painstakingly assessing goals takes a lot of time and work. It’s even harder to get rid of the noise that adds little or no value. I wanted to make my goals as specific as possible and pinpoint what was absolutely necessary to reach them. This is how I did it:

1. Dissected my goals

I always write down what I want to achieve at the start of the year. To begin with, I broke down these goals into realistic monthly and weekly milestones. This road map forced me to purposely think about my actions in relation to my targets. I must admit that my experience in Project Management came in handy when organizing my goals into attainable actions.

2. Became results-oriented

My entries are results-oriented, as opposed to just listing tasks. So, instead of noting down ‘prepare proposal’, my entry would be, ‘secure new client.’ Focusing on outcomes helps keep me motivated. I push myself to get to the reward in the fastest time possible.

3. Gave my best

I work on my three actions at the start of the day, when I have the most energy. I devote my best to the things that matter most. Unless urgent, I complete any tasks outside of my main three, at the end of the day. I use automation as much as possible for secondary tasks. So, minimum time is spent on things like sorting emails, paying bills and sending invoices.

What I learned from the rule of three

1. Focus

Focus provides the foresight to move forward.”

I’ve been practicing the rule of three for a while and I’m bowled over by the results. I didn’t realize the amount of ‘wooly’ tasks that were on my old to-do list. These things gave me a sense of satisfaction to cross off but added nothing to my bottom line. My productivity has skyrocketed since focusing on only what’s necessary to achieve my goals. The rule of three has been an effective way to zero-in on actions that will get me to my end goals.

2. Clarity

Lack of clarity causes confusion and chaos.”

After my to-do list was pruned, I then set-up personalized and automated systems (I call them ‘productivity recipes’) for reoccurring tasks. Thankfully, this wasn’t too difficult because I created processes and systems for multi-million dollar projects in my former life. Productivity recipes reduced my list even more, as day-to-day things that crowded my to-do list were taken care of in the background. This allowed me to have a clearer view of what really needed my attention and so made it easier to prioritize my three tasks.

3. Rest

“You achieve great feats and function at your best when you balance work, fun and rest.”

The rule of three has helped me to chill-out and have more fun. My heart would start racing just looking at the endless rows of tasks on my old to-do list. I do the usual things like exercise, meditate and eat well to reduce stress. Still, I felt unhappy due to being crushed under the weight of my to-do list. Now, I don’t feel panicky, even if a task carries over to the next day.

When stuff happens

I’m no robot and because unexpected things happen, I sometimes can’t get my three actions done in a day. Incomplete work carries over to the next day and I keep on going. I’m realizing that the key to working this system is consistency. Where I finish my tasks earlier, I do a little victory dance, then move on to my secondary tasks.
Using the rule of three when you have a long to-do list may seem counter-productive. This rule isn’t perfect, but could work wonders if you give it a try. You could experience higher productivity, more clarity and feel more relaxed. Just like me, you might realize that three is your magic number.

All unattributed quotes are my own.


  • Karan Johnson

    Content & Productivity Consultant.

    Karan Johnson is a content and productivity consultant on a mission to save businesses money and readers the headache associated with bad writing. An ex-Lead Project Management Officer, who partnered with companies such as Microsoft and Virgin, she has experience in providing clear and simple writing for businesses of any size. Karan has a firm belief that a healthy and happy consultant translates to awesome work and satisfied clients. So, she spends her spare time helping other consultants and freelancers stay healthy.