How to Use the Rule of Three to Master Productivity
I introduced The Rule of Three in my best-seller, Getting Results the Agile Way, as a way to help everybody master productivity, time management, and work-life balance.
The Rule of Three is a very simple way to get better results with skill.
Rather than get overwhelmed by your tasks, you get intentional about your three victories that you want to accomplish.
Think in Three Wins.
This puts you in control, now matter how chaotic things are around you.
Three is the Magic Number
When I explain parts of Agile Results to my friends, they seem to really latch on to The Rule of Three.
Three is an interesting number. You’ve seen it in fairy tales, like the Three Little Pigs, or Three Blind Mice.
You’ve seen marketing use it, to help land a message.
You’ve probably been in a variety of settings where people would say something to the effect of, “here’s three things to remember, or here’s three things we should do, or here are the three big goals for the year, etc.”
I also learned that the military even uses The Rule of Three to teach survival:
- 3 minutes without air
- 3 days without water
- 3 weeks without food
- 3 months without hope.
Three is the magic number.
Why Three Versus Two or Five?
Why not 5 (or more)? Why not just two? Why not just one?
Because it’s easier to remember three things versus five. It’s easier to chunk things down into three pillars or parts, like the “three legs of a stool.”
And if you only have two things, then you are up against the “Tyranny of Or”. The Tyranny of Or is when you are faced with choosing between two things (this “or” that), when in reality is you are usually better off balancing among three things.
And if you are focused on just one thing, chances are, you are dropping other balls that you really need to balance, to keep your world going round, and to better balance work and life.
Focusing on three victories helps you make progress in the right direction, and compound your efforts in a more profound way.
Work on the Right Things, at the Right Time, the Right Way
When you use The Rule of Three, you get intentional.
You get intentional about directing your time, your energy, and your attention to work on the right things, at the right time, the right way.
If nothing else, it gives you a very simple vision, so you know what you are striving for.
Without a simple vision, your days can ride off in all directions, and you might do a lot, but it wont’s feel as meaningful and you won’t feel a strong sense of accomplishment.
Rather than luck into results, you can carve out the time and energy you do have and spend it better towards results that really matter to you.
The Rule of Three Helps You Rise Above the Noise
The Rule of Three helps you put a bow on the things you actually do accomplish.
You can look back and remind yourself what you actually set out to do. You can compare with what you actually achieved.
I’ve been using the Rule of Three for years to drive better results both for myself and with my teams.
It’s the simplest way to go from running around like a chicken with your head cut off to a peaceful calm, an inner peace knowing what you are trying to achieve with the time and energy you’ve got.
It’s one of the first skills I teach the people I mentor to help them get on track and learn the art of ruthless prioritization.
Use The Rule of Three to Chunk Things Down
Here’s how to think about The Rule of Three when you are setting your goals:
- 3 wins for the day
- 3 wins for the week
- 3 wins for month
- 3 wins for the year
A win is simply an outcome is simply a result that you want to accomplish. It’s your victories and achievements.
It’s your progress (and remember to seek progress over perfection.)
Simply identify three outcomes.
The outcomes at each level support each other and help guide your results.
Articulate such compelling wins that they pull you forward — you just can’t wait to achieve them.
See the Forest for the Trees
When you have three wins or three outcomes at each level (day, week, month, year), you can see the forest for the trees.
To put it another way, your three results for the year are bigger than your three results for the month, are bigger than your three results for the week, are bigger than your three results for the day.
The Rule of Three is your simple sanity check.
Focus on Wins and Outcomes Over Activities
Don’t confuse activities or tasks with results.
You’re driving for three results (or wins, 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.
Try The Rule of Three for Better Yearly Goals
If you find you get lost in your goals or if your goals are too complex, try The Rule of Three.
For example, my three wins for this past year were:
- Get to my fighting weight.
- Go on an epic adventure.
- Write my book.
Have a Vision for Your Day, Your Week, Your Month, Your Year
Your outcomes and wins are simple visions of the future.
You can see them and experience them in your mind’s eye like a scene in a movie.
Play out your wins and outcomes. Imagine accomplishing them. If you imagine your win or outcome, and it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it, change it.
The more compelling your win is and the more clarity you create around it, the better your results will be (or the deeper your learning will be.)
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 vision I can use to guide myself throughout the year.
Personally, I recommend having your three simple goals, as well as doing a deep dive on goal setting.
Chunk Your Mini-Goals Down to Your Available Time and Energy
How much time do you really have and how much energy do you really have today for that goal you set?
One of the best things you can do is be honest with yourself about what you can actually accomplish with the time you have left and the energy you’ve got.
And the surprising things is, you might suddenly find new energy and passion as you practice turning your chores into chances to rise and shine.
How To Practice The Rule of Three
Here are some quick ways you can practice the The Rule of Three for better results:
- Start your day with The Rule of Three. When I wake up, the first thing I do is ask myself, “What Three Wins do I want to accomplish today?”. Of course, I usually accomplish way more than that, but The Rule of Three is a way to help me prioritize and focus where to spend my time, energy, and attention with skill.
- Test yourself. What are the three things you want to accomplish today? If you have to look them up, it’s too complicated. If your Three Wins are complicated, chances are they are really activities. Play around with how you say your three outcomes out loud. Seriously, say them out loud: “Today, I want to X, Y, and Z” For example, “Today, I want to share a compelling article, be more mindful in my workout, and finish my presentation.” The more you practice out loud, the more you will get a sense of what’s worth it, and what’s not. (And once you figure out the Three Wins you want today, write them down — even if you throw the paper away. You will be surprised how much more your Three Wins sink in and guide you through your day.)
- 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 three accomplishments. It’s this kind of personal attitude of gratitude that helps you build your momentum. If you didn’t accomplish the three outcomes you wanted, then at least you learned something. Either bite off smaller chunks or try another approach. Having three accomplishments under your belt is a pragmatic way to feel good about results.
You’ll get better with practice.
What’s interesting is that you will the days when you need the Rule of Three the most, are when you are using it the least.
As soon as you catch yourself, use The Rule of Three to get a handle back on your day.
This article was written by J.D. Meier, Director of Innovation at Microsoft | Digital Transformation | Change Leadership | Agile Program Management
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