Adapting the 1-3-5 Rule

The problem with to-do lists in general, and even Getting Things Done “next steps” lists, is that I have a tendency to want to bite off more than I can chew. I want it all done, and I want it all done now! They never end. The GTD system especially promotes just knocking small stuff out as it arises, to keep it building up. That can rapidly turn into a time sink, though, as a 30 second email response here, a quick 2-minute task there, add up to four hours of trivia that keep you from getting to even the medium-priority stuff, let alone tackling the big thing looming like an elephant in the room. That’s stressful.

A couple of months ago I started applying the 1-3-5 rule to my own personal productivity system. If you’re not familiar with it, the 1-3-5 rules helps you focus your to-do list so that you don’t overwhelm yourself. The assumption it operates on is that realistically, on any given day, you can only accomplish 1 big thing, 3 medium things, and 5 small things. You review your to-do list at the start of the day, identify what the most important things on the list are, assess which are not only the most sensitive but the most time consuming, and cherry pick.

The most difficult part has been determining the priorities. The big things often identify themselves, because they have fixed deadlines, or they’re going to eat up the bulk of my day. It’s either the only thing that matters, or it’s the thing that I have to build the rest of my day’s schedule around. It’s 3 and 5 that can become almost interchangeable. There’s more of a line between medium stuff and small stuff sometimes. If the trash needs to go out because it’s garbage day, that’s a deadline. Does that make it a 3, because it’s not huge but has to be done, or is it a 5 because it’s only going to take a minute out of my day? Or does it fall under the boilerplate stuff like showering, shaving, and eating meals, because it’s a recurring task? I assign things like that a 5, because it’s not a daily thing and not part of my daily routine, so I may need a reminder. Meal preparation is boilerplate and isn’t on the list, unless I’m making a special dinner that requires extra prep time, then it can be a 3 or a 5.

The more I’ve used this system, the easier prioritizing has become. Having to assess not just what needs to be done as basic data capture, but ranking things in order of importance and limiting the amount that you can do, takes getting used to, but it’s been useful. I’ve had realization that there are medium-priority tasks that keep getting deferred for big things, a long list of small things eating my day, and big things that get squeezed because I feel I need to give more time to the longer lists of less important stuff.

It’s been working for me so far. The only spin of my own that I’ve added is that I’ve started keeping 3 separate data capture lists. I prioritize as things arise, and add them to what seems to be the appropriate list. When I plan my day, I can pick my 1-3-5 based on those lists. If something happens that keeps me from working on something, say I’m waiting on someone else for information to proceed with a 3, I pick a different 3. If I get to the end of the work day and still have some time, I might do an extra 3 or a couple of 5’s and bang them out. Bonus! I set a realistic expectation with myself as to how much I could and would accomplish, but if I’m able to do more, I end up feeling really really go, rather than beating myself up that my overall to-do list probably got longer over the course of the day.

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