Try the rule of 3 to be more productive

29 January, 2018

How to be intentional - instead of reactive - during the workday

“Is your day by design or by default?” – J.D. Meier

Have you ever noticed how much of your time at the workplace is spent reacting to outside forces and events? Be it responding to emails as they arrive or firefighting day-to-day “emergencies”, too many people are swept along by ad-hoc waves and currents – instead of charting their own deliberate course. Unsurprisingly, this has a huge impact on productivity. Instead of devoting the bulk of your time to work that brings you closer to your goals, you fritter away precious hours in minor tasks that seem urgent but are actually insignificant.

This reactiveness usually stems from a lack of planning. Without a plan, you become vulnerable to all sorts of outside influences, from the ping of a new chat window, to an invitation for an impromptu meeting. Such unscheduled events rule your day, leaving little time for work that is core to your job – work that challenges and fulfils you.

Take a moment to consider this: We are about one month into 2018. In the first four weeks of the new year, what important things have you accomplished? By important, I mean tasks that contribute to your key outcomes and big picture goals. If you are struggling to recall what exactly you have achieved these past few weeks, then you are probably working reactively rather than deliberately. Despite your days being a busy whirlwind of activity, your work isn’t contributing in a meaningful way – both at an individual as well as an organisational level.

So, my message this week focuses on how to be more intentional – rather than reactive – at work. This approach enables you to seize the day and use your valuable time for work that truly matters to you. I also want to highlight the Rule of Three, a simple yet highly effective tool that could help you spend your workdays more thoughtfully and productively.

Reimagine productivity

For a more deliberate approach towards work, it’s important to rethink the basics of productivity. To begin with, what is it? For most people, feeling productive implies checking off the maximum number of items on their to-do list. In reality, however, that is a very superficial understanding of the concept. You may complete 8 out of 10 items on your agenda – but what if the 2 incomplete items are the most important ones? Chris Bailey, productivity expert and author, puts it perfectly: “Productivity isn’t about doing more things – it’s about doing the right things.” In other words, a more intentional attitude to productivity means identifying actions that will have the best and maximum impact, and then making sure you get to them first.

The Rule of Three

To put it very simply, here is the Rule of Three (which comes from J.D. Meier’s book, Getting Results the Agile Way): Before you begin work each day, decide the three things you want to accomplish by the end of the day. Do the same at the beginning of each week.

Yes, it’s really as simple as that.

In fact, its simplicity is what makes the Rule of Three such a fantastic tool. Too many supposedly effective productivity aids get mired in their own complexity – and most of us can’t keep up the required effort for long. But the Rule of Three offers a realistic balance of efficiency and ease. The method is simple enough to become a habit for life, and the payoff is big.

When you decide the three most important things to spend your time on, you take back control of your day; you are no longer in reactive mode, open to any and all stimuli that happen to come your way. If you find yourself wandering off track into irrelevant tasks, you have three solid priorities to which you can return.

Plus, if you follow the Rule of Three in a top-down fashion (i.e., define three goals for the year, then the month, then the week, and then for each day), your day-to-day work becomes closely aligned with your larger objectives. So, you wrap up each day with the satisfaction of doing something meaningful that adds value to your work and life.

Last but not least, practicing the Rule of Three makes you a better colleague! Whether you are updating your manager or assigning tasks to your team, this method teaches you to keep things simple and focused. Instead of overwhelming people with rambling lists that include all sorts of inconsequential details, you become better at paring information down to the essentials.

While the Rule of Three is wonderfully simple to implement, here are five tips that could make it work even more smoothly:

1. Plan ahead

The moment you walk through the office door (or open your laptop, in case you’re working from home), you are likely get pulled in a hundred different directions – which means you will instantly go into reactive mode. So, it’s better to come up with your top three tasks before the workday begins, perhaps the previous night or at home in the morning. This way, you can hit the ground running. It’s also best to write your list down so that you have a reminder.

2. Adapt and tweak 

Personal productivity is not an exact science, and perfect predictions are impossible. You may complete all three of your tasks by 2 PM, or you may be struggling with your first even at the end of a long day. That’s okay; flexibility is your friend. If you hit your goals early, come up with another key item for the day and get started on it. If you leave a task unfinished, carry it forward to the next day’s list. If the same item keeps carrying over for many days, ask yourself – is it really that important? Maybe it’s time to let it go or delegate it to someone else.

3. React when required 

In his article, Get More Done with the Rule of 3, Jeremy Anderberg explains that even with planning, you will still need to occasionally respond to outside events:

No matter how deliberate we are with our day, sometimes our actions are still based on something that arrives out of the blue. In those instances, perform a quick triage… either “do it, queue it, schedule it, or delegate it.”

4. Harness your circadian rhythm

Personalise your productivity plans based on the unique preferences of your body and mind. With the Rule of Three, it’s best for you to work according to your own circadian rhythm. At what time of day are you most focused and alert? Make sure to reserve those peak hours for your top three tasks.

5. Fill the gaps 

Between high-intensity periods, there are lulls – no one can (or should) work on tasks that demand their complete focus for long periods. For those in-between times, why not come up with a list of secondary, “good to accomplish” tasks? These may not be of critical importance, but accomplishing them would still contribute in some way to your growth and end goals. You can include micro-tasks to fill short bursts of free time (e.g., read a useful article, write a letter of introduction) as well as easy tasks to fill low-energy hours (e.g., archive important documents, send update emails).

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


  • Prashant Nandakumar says:


    This is a very useful article. Thanks for sharing. This is something that we face every day in work, at times we are most engrossed in doing reactive tasks, though one gets a sense of satisfaction post that too. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t give one a feeling of a productive day. Would try to use this rule of 3 and will share my experience through it. Also, would love an article of yours on goal setting which is independent of the level you might be in the organisation, as to how to align your career aspirations in your current role and KRAs?



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