Productivity Notes: The Rule of 3

Productivity Notes: The Rule of 3


We're right there with you. At our office, we spend so much time discussing new ways to make the most of our time, it's shocking we get things done. Productivity as a concept is fascinating, and most of us agree it's a key to career success. But we also noticed something else about ourselves: despite our preoccupation with productivity techniques, we never actually try them. 

And so we created Productivity Notes, our new series, in which we spend a full work week trying one of the trendiest productivity techniques, apps, or tricks. Do they work? Or do they just make life harder than it was? We intend to find out. This week: the Rule of 3. 


What it is: According to Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project, it’s “the best productivity hack out there.” {click to tweet} And it's really simple actually. Here’s how he suggests you do it:

  1. At the start of every morning, fast-forward to the end of the day and ask: When the day is done, what three things will I want to have accomplished?
  2. Do the same at the start of every week.

What it isn’t: An app or a babysitter. You’re largely on your own for keeping momentum with this system.

How to do it: Organize it however you like, whether that’s jotting down your tasks on a notepad or something higher tech. I chose the latter, creating a sub-calendar on my Google Calendar app (which is way better than the desktop version, BTW) and assigning my daily tasks real periods of time. I also spent 5-10 minutes in bed each morning fiddling in my iPhone Notes, writing down all the projects I needed to do and then cutting them down to my chosen three. (I am, after all, an editor by profession.) 


Thanks to a Mother’s Day weekend trip (and the exorbitant price of Sunday evening flights), I’m taking on the workday remotely. And thanks to the time change, I start earlier than my coworkers and pretty much everyone in my world (it’s 5AM in Los Angeles when I start checking emails). First step: selecting my three tasks.

I don’t think I realized how difficult it would be to just think of three. There are dozens of tasks on my to-do list, and I start getting bogged down thanks to the power of choice. A few minutes into brainstorming, when I still haven't picked a single task, I force myself to hit pause. Time to regroup.

Three for the Week

I decide to start with my weekly goals because I have a pretty clear idea of my priorities there. 1. I have a summer trip planned next month so I need editorial in fighting shape before then. 2. We’re anticipating that our traffic will drop for the summer so we need to implement some ways to offset that. 3. This week, we’re launching Hire a Mentor, our new one-on-one career advice platform (update: it's live now!). Thus, the week's goals go something like this:

Task #1: Have the next three weeks of content in place, ready for final edits.

Task #2: Design and present the team with some new forms of content to implement over the next 60 days.

Task #3: Get the marketing push for Hire a Mentor in fighting shape through various copyediting and design projects. 

Three for the Day

Before assigning my three daily tasks, I consider my current state: I’m going to be on the move all day (and offline for a couple hours while I’m flying) so I decide to dedicate my list to creative and concept-related projects—the sorts that don’t require emails, meetings, or technology.

Task #1: Brainstorm and outline some new multimedia content options for CC to present to the team on Tuesday.

Task #2: Finally explore and test Slack as a possible team planning tool.

Task #3: Research and brainstorm our next round of Contessa profile reach outs (Mandy Moore: call me!).

I do the multimedia brainstorm from my mom’s house, capturing everything in a spreadsheet on Drive so I can pull it up from my phone at the airport later. I’m done with the first round before I have to meet her with lunch. Check that off the list. Task #2 happens while I’m waiting for my flight. Thanks to my very real fear of TSA lines, I get to the gate almost an hour and a half early. 90 minutes is more than enough time to start exploring and testing Slack. I take advantage of the leftover time to answer emails from CC writers. Task #3? That happens on the flight. I pull out my iPhone (in Airplane Mode of course) and open Notes where I jot down ideas while listening to all the podcasts I’ve put off playing. By the time my flight lands, I’m done for the day and gladly meet friends for a glass of wine on my drive back from the airport. I might also pat myself on the back once or twice.

Productivity Level (Scale of 1-5): 4.5 

Observations: Despite having had everything stacked against me (family commitments, flights, etc), I've managed to put in a full day's worth of work. 


Is it really just three tasks? What if you have personal and professional to-dos? Do you combine them? Make separate lists for work and home? Last night, I realized I had a headlight out so that’s a definite to-do for today, but it also has absolutely nothing to do with my week-long goals. So what’s a girl to do?   

Ultimately, I decide to split the list in two: work and home. Headlight goes on the home list, along with “go grocery shopping” and “prep lunches for the week.”

At work, Tuesdays are our busiest day and I’ve been out of the office, so there are many discussions to be had. By 4PM, I’ve only accomplished two of my assigned work tasks, and I have zero motivation to tackle the third. Then, an unexpected design project for our Hire a Mentor platform comes up. I’m maybe cheating already, but I bump my third assigned task to Wednesday and replace it with the Hire a Mentor thing. Priorities.

By the time I get home, I’m amped to get my after hours tasks done, mostly because I’m embarrassed I didn't finish up the work ones. On the commute, I stop at the grocery store and an AutoZone. But by the time I get home and pop the hood, I’m faced with a major disappointment: looks like the last time a mechanic replaced my light, he broke something. The current bulb is somehow rigged into place and is definitely not DIYable. What happens when your task is actually impossible to do? 

Productivity Level (Scale of 1-5):: 2, maybe 3.  

Observations: I'm...confused. Should I have stayed late at work to get that third task done?


After yesterday’s disappointing end, I decide to keep it strictly professional: three work-related tasks only. The day flies by and by 1PM, I’ve completed all three. I guess I feel triumphant, but mostly I wonder if I picked tasks that were too easy? There’s a clear learning curve here. 

Productivity Level (Scale of 1-5): 4

Observations: I want to give myself a 5 because I got everything done, but I can't help wondering if I could have done more.


Um, I completely forget to assign my three tasks until around noon—at which point I try to backtrack and assign myself tasks I’d already completed. Yes, this was absurd and no, it didn’t help anybody, least of all myself. At about 4PM, Lauren asks for help editing some new worksheets—which turns into a much bigger project than either of us was expecting. This quickly becomes one of my biggest projects of the day, and I didn’t see it coming. I’m starting to suspect that this three task thing doesn’t really suit our workflow.  

Productivity Level (Scale of 1-5):

Observations: I feel like I'm losing my Rule of 3 motivation, and I'm not sure how to get it back. 


For my last day, I decide to really do it up right. I pick my three tasks, and I assign them to my calendar with allotted periods of time. It helps that we work from home on Fridays since that means a lot of focus time (and no meetings). I look back at my three goals/tasks for the week. Hire a Mentor marketing? Miraculously, done. Content plan? A great series of meetings earlier in the week went well, plus I've got some other ideas up my sleeve that hit me during a lunch hour walk yesterday. So...done-ish.  That leaves the vacation issue so I decide to prioritize tasks that will help prepare me for that (and for the zero cell service I’ll have while there). By the time the workday winds down, content's in shape, I'm well on my way to finalizing the calendar, and I'm more than ready for a 5PM glass of rosé.

Productivity Level (Scale of 1-5): 5  

Observations: Something about putting it in perspective by referencing your week's goals really, really helps.


A few things, really:

The Issue with Work Enviroments

I think this productivity hack would work a lot better if you work for yourself or if you have a pretty regular schedule with plenty of private work time. Our team roles are very fluid, and there’s definitely a “drop everything and help a girl out” mentality around the CC offices. If and when we have a bigger project going on (like launching Hire a Mentor), you don’t really know what might come up, when, or how long it will take. For that reason, pre-planning priorities proved difficult. 

Saying No Is Hard 

I also have a really hard time saying no to projects. To use the Rule of 3, one of the key requirements is that you also make the call on what not to work on. {click to tweet} My tendency is to try to take care of everything, whether that means longer hours or scrambling up my schedule to somehow accommodate each task. I quickly found myself shifting assignments to other days or removing one task to replace it with another. It was…a bit anxiety-inducing, honestly, and made the process feel more disorganized than it should be (so don’t do it like me). In other words, the hardest part of this system was staying on top of myself, not the Rule of 3. 

But It Really Does Hold You Accountable

That being said, the hack did make me a lot more productive. Bailey argues that: “For every minute you spend using the Rule of 3, you gain back at least 10 minutes of productivity.” I’m not sure about that, but it definitely cut down on time-wasting. You know those moments (especially right after lunch) where you’re finding it hard to refocus? I’d open my calendar, check the next task, and get to it. It was a great way to hold myself accountable.

So...Should I Try It?

Sure, give it a shot for a week. You won’t be sorry.

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What productivity hack should we try next? Get at us in the comments.