By February 10, 2009 22 Comments Read More →

The Rule of 3

TheRuleOf3
Photo by moriza

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.

Yearly Goals
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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22 Comments on "The Rule of 3"

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  1. Gennaro says:

    3 is also the perfect number of exmaples in an in-text list of examples. Biblical too.

  2. Louisa says:

    I’ve done this for year goals, but never on a day to day basis before. Sounds like it could be a very effective way of making the most of any day and staying focused.

  3. “Don’t confuse activities with results” – this is the most common mistake, folks apply GTD to complete tasks vs achieving results. The language is also important too, the taxonomy. Once people get familiar with the language of outcomes vs the language of tasks the world become a much better place where people achieve more with less.

  4. Rob Boucher says:

    Being on J.D. team and essentially being an analyzer of sorts, I’ve seen first hand where this helps. I would go back and forth between creating large lists to keep track of a lot of information and flying by the seat of my pants because the list would get too big to manage.

    Mainly, what I’ve learned that that having the large list in front of you can often causes churn (at least for me). My mind tends to be easily associative vs linear, meaning that’s it’s easies for me to go of on related thoughts then to go step by step. So giving me 3 things without seeing anything else help to keep me on target.

    The outcomes only took me about 3 months to master. :) I was so task based. Now I can see that a number of tasks where the best way to an outcome. Keeping my email clean is the classic actually. I would often work to keep my email in one of my “spam” areas clean from time to time. Just the other night I asked myself “what was the outcome I was going for?” The answer was, that it was an easier task that I knew how to do and I was trying to get to a feeling of accomplishment and it was easy to do (meaning I didn’t have to use my prefrontal cortex to do the work, further draining me). See other J.D post on this.

    In the end it’s probably important to remember that the outcome is a chosen outcome because we think it’s going to produce a certain feeling or experience. Many times it may not and so we need to remind ourselves to evaluate the outcomes. That’s where the Friday reflection ccomes in.

    Rob

  5. J.D. Meier says:

    @ Gennaro

    There is a certain niceness about 3 examples to round out a point.

    @ Louisa

    I think the day to day basis is really where it helps the most. It’s like having little tests for success each day.

    @ Alik

    Yes, the language is very important, especially when it comes to conceptual differences. It seems like most systems are optimized around hacking through tasks. The problem is even if you prioritize your tasks, you’re effectively locking in on your “how.” I prefer to set my sites on the results and then be flexible in how I get there.

    @ Rob

    Really good illustration of putting the point in practice. Seeing the 3 things as a target for results is a great way to put it. You’re effectively framing your results in a way that’s easy to define and check against each day.

    Friday reflection definitely helps. It gives me a chance to step back and figure out what’s working well and what isn’t. Since I tend to hit whatever 3 things I set for the week, Friday is a great reality check. It tells me whether I picked the right bets. This is really where I tune each week. Each week I get better at picking 3 bets for the week.

  6. Ribbon says:

    Great post! I’ve learned something here :-)

    best wishes

  7. Ribbon says:

    PS it was the image that caught my attention and encouraged me to read……….just thought that you may like to know that.

  8. JD says:

    @ Ribbon

    Thanks for stopping by. I used to avoid images, but now I like having them. I think they help compliment the text.

  9. Today I am aiming for 7, but only because I did none yesterday and only 2 things of note on Sunday.

    Three is a magic number, I agree. If you can do 2 – why not go for 3!!

  10. JD says:

    @ Jannie

    One of the secrets of feeling good about your results each day is the ability to let things slough off. Otherwise, it’s one last straw that broke the camel’s back. 7 is definitely an awesome number, but that’s a lot of outcomes in a day. For today, I have about 30 tasks, but I fold them into 3 outcomes so it’s easy for me to see the end in mind.

    If it helps to know, on the weekends I don’t set any outcomes. I like to be a slacker at least two days of the week ;)

  11. Hi JD,

    Followed the link in your latest post to this one. Love it. I’ve always known 3 worked, and the military example is easy to remember. Thanks!

  12. Todd Doubleu says:

    Thanks for the great post! Makes good sense. More coherent to be sure. I am trying to use the number three as a constraint when it comes to tags. If I’m not mistaken, your post above used: “Effectiveness, Getting Results, Productivity.” That would be a good illustration of what I’m trying to do when I bookmark something for future search. Thanks again for all your work!

  13. JD says:

    @ Daphne

    Thank you. I stumbled on to the rule of 3 through trial and error with my teams, but then it was interesting that it was supported in so many other contexts.

    @ Todd

    Thank you. Good point on how to apply it for tags. In fact, if I remember correctly, I originally was overwhelmed with options for tagging this post, but the rule of 3 helped me quickly narrow down.

    I think it’s a reminder how quantity or time can really help us focus and prioritize.

  14. This is the first time I’ve heard about this Rule of 3, and I really appreciate it. Thinking about it, it’s so easy to remember 3 things and focus on just 3 areas rather than fill our heads with several worries we can’t even address. Nice!

  15. JD says:

    @ Joyce — It’s super simple, yet so effective. It always surprised me just how effective it really is.

  16. Paige von says:

    three (3) III, is my favoriate number

    hi, here by way of the Funster, Jannie

    happy weekend

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