The rule of 3 is a very simple way to get results. Rather than get overwhelmed by your tasks, you bite off 3 things you can accomplish. This puts you in control. If nothing else, it gives you a very simple frame for the day. I’ve been using the rule of 3 for a few years to drive results both for myself and for my teams. It’s the simplest way to go from running around like a chicken with your head cut off to a peaceful calm. It’s one of the first skills I teach my mentees at Microsoft to help them get on track and learn the art of ruthless prioritization.
3 is the Magic Number
When I explain parts of my new book to my friends, they seem to really latch on to this rule of 3. Three is an interesting number, not just in fairy tales, but I recently learned that the military uses the rule of 3 to teach survival: 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food, 3 months without hope. Three is the magic number.
The Rule of 3 Applied
Here’s how the rule of 3 applies to time:
- 3 outcomes for the day
- 3 outcomes for the week
- 3 outcomes for month
- 3 outcomes for the year
The outcomes at each level support each other and help guide your results.
The Forest from the Trees
Having 3 outcomes at each level (day, week, month, year) helps you see the forest from the trees. To put it another way, your 3 results for the year are bigger than your 3 results for the month, are bigger than your 3 results for the week, are bigger than your 3 results for the day. It’s your simple sanity check.
Outcomes Over Activities
Don’t confuse activities with results. You’re driving for 3 results (or outcomes). This helps you ground your activity against something meaningful for you. It also helps you focus on the end, not the means. One of the best ways to get results is to stay flexible in your approach, while keeping your eye on the prize.
If you find you get lost in your goals or if your goals are too complex, try the rule of 3. For example, my 3 outcomes for this year are:
- get to my fighting weight
- take an epic adventure
- ship my productivity book
Outcomes are Simple Visions
The outcomes are simple visions of the future. You can experience them and you can see them like a scene in a movie. While these outcomes are easy to say, there’s a lot behind them. For example, getting to my fighting weight actually includes things like being able to do splits and jumping/spinning kicks again. It also includes running long distance with my dogs. But “get to my fighting weight” is a simple metaphor I can use to guide myself throughout the year.
Personally, I recommend having your 3 simple goals, as well as doing a deep dive on goal setting (more on that in the future.)
Practicing the Rule of 3
Here’s some quick ways you can use the rule of 3:
- Start your day with the rule of 3. When I wake up, the first thing I do is figure out 3 things I want to accomplish. Of course, I usually accomplish way more than that, but 3 is a way to prioritize and focus.
- Test yourself. What are the 3 things you want to accomplish for the day? If you have to look them up, it’s too complicated. If your 3 outcomes are complicated, chances are they are really activities. Play around with how you say your 3 outcomes.
- Improve your estimates. By paying attention to your results, you’ll start to figure out how long things really take you. You’ll get better at estimating both for the day and for the week. Remember, you get to practice each day, so all you have to do is pay attention and you’ll improve.
- Feel good about results. When you end your day, note your 3 accomplishments. It’s an attitude of gratitude that builds momentum. If you didn’t accomplish the 3 outcomes you wanted, then at least you learned something. Either bite off smaller chunks or try another approach. Having 3 accomplishments under your belt is a pragmatic way to feel good about results.
You’ll get better with practice. What’s interesting is the days when I need the rule of 3 the most are when I’m using it the least. As soon as I catch myself, I get a handle back on my day.
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