The Rule of Three Explained



The Rule of Three is a very simple way to get results.

Rather than get overwhelmed by your tasks, you bite off three 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 Three 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 the people I mentor to help them get on track and learn the art of ruthless prioritization.

Three 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 Three.

Three is an interesting number, not just in fairy tales, but I also learned that the military 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.

The Rule of Three Applied

Here’s how the Rule of Three applies to time:

  1. 3 outcomes for the day
  2. 3 outcomes for the week
  3. 3 outcomes for month
  4. 3 outcomes for the year

An outcome is simply a result that you want to accomplish.

Simply identify three outcomes.

The outcomes at each level support each other and help guide your results.

See The Forest for the Trees

When you have 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.

Outcomes Over Activities

Don’t confuse activities with results.

You’re driving for three 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 Three.

For example, my three outcomes for this past year were:

  1. Get to my fighting weight.
  2. Take an epic adventure.
  3. Write my Agile Results 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 three simple goals, as well as doing a deep dive on goal setting.

Practicing the Rule of 3

Here are some quick ways you can use the Rule of 3:

  1. Start your day with the Rule of Three. When I wake up, the first thing I do is figure out three things I want to accomplish. Of course, I usually accomplish way more than that, but three is a way to prioritize and focus.
  2. Test yourself. What are the three things you want to accomplish for the day? If you have to look them up, it’s too complicated. If your three outcomes are complicated, chances are they are really activities. Play around with how you say your three outcomes out loud.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Three 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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