Want to Get More Done?

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 1:20 PM EST

Strange as this sounds, I discovered one of my best productivity tips on maternity leave.

Here's what happened: like many people, I have exaggerated notions of what I can get done in a day. I wake up thinking that today is the day I'll research and write a 5000-word article and land a new client and touch base with three other ones and set my travel for next week and come up with a new book idea and go give a speech in, say, St. Louis, in defiance of all known laws of physics. As the motivational poster in my middle school principal's office put it, aim for the moon, and at least you'll land among the stars!

Aside from being astronomically incorrect, however, I've discovered that this metaphor has another big flaw. Massive to-do lists set you up for failure. Because even if you do several things, you can't possibly do everything. Shunting "write 5000 word article” from Tuesday to Wednesday to next week to never is just discouraging.

But shortly after the birth of my second child, I had a revelation. There was just no way I was going to plow through 50 professional and personal to-dos in a day. So I decided to practice fundamentalist time management. I would follow what I started calling the Rule of Three. I was going to put only 3 items beyond basic life maintenance on my to-do list. For instance, on Monday I might find some sources for a column, go for a walk and write a blog post. On Tuesday I might email the sources and do 2 interviews.

After a few weeks, I noticed something: I was actually getting a lot done. I pondered why this was, given that I had just, you know, had a baby. I soon realized that making a 3-item to-do list had some real benefits:

  1. It makes you ruthless about setting priorities. If you are only going to do 3 things, you'd better choose them well. When you have a 20 item to-do list, stuff sneaks on there that isn't advancing you or your organization toward your goals. Rather than feeling bad that you only get to those things on occasion, you probably shouldn't be doing them at all. They're distracting you from the important stuff.
  2. It gives you an immediate sense of accomplishment. In 24 hours you can definitely do 3 things. So you don't feel too stressed about life in general. Rather than facing daily failure, you score daily wins, which leads to the point  #3.
  3. Because a 3-item to-do list is doable, you do these things and move on. Over time, this adds up. Three things per workday is 15 per week. That's 750 in a 50-week year. Better to choose 750 tasks carefully, and score 750 for 750, then aim for 5000 and do less.

After a few months, I was able to devote more time to work, but I've tried to keep following a modified version of the Rule of Three (let's call it the "Rule of Three to Five”), with slightly more ambitious tasks than they were in those newborn days.

Regardless, it's worth pondering: If your day turned into a total disaster, which three tasks would still make it a success? Do those first. Or only do those, if necessary. You'll still be getting more done than most people ever pull off.

Image courtesy of flickr user, austinevan

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