“Good things happen when you set your priorities straight.” — Scott Caan
If you really want to master your productivity, then master the Rule of 3.
The Rule of 3 is a way to simplify and cluster your activity into 3 meaningful outcomes, results, or achievements.
When you use the Rule of 3, you’re effectively answering the question:
”What will be my 3 best achievements today?”
I like to call it your 3 Wins, but you can think of it as your 3 Results, or 3 Achievements, or 3 Outcomes…or whatever helps you apply the Rule of 3 in a way that’s meaningful for you.
The Rule of 3 helps individuals, as well as teams, as a mental model to help organize and structure productivity.
It helps by setting a simple limit on work in focus and work in flight.
And the Rule of 3 helps you tell the story of your achievements, whether it’s to yourself or others.
The Rule of 3 has been the backbone for my productivity system, Agile Results for more than two decades.
I’ve battle-tested the Rule of 3 from simple scenarios to highly complex scenarios involving large teams spread around the world. I’ve tested it with Moms, Dads, artists, students, teachers, leaders, and achievers, and everything in between.
Life without the Rule of 3
Before we consider life with the Rule of 3, let’s first take a look at life without the Rule of 3.
Without the Rule of 3, my day is chaotic and a scramble among competing demands for my time and attention.
I have an overwhelming list of To Dos. I have a calendar full of back-to-back appointments.
And I have an endless incoming stream of requests for help in some way, shape or form, that I must make sense of.
Without the Rule of 3, I’ll spend the day trying to get things done. I’ll try to figure out the most useful things to do, while also dealing with more things that come my way throughout the day.
At the end of the day, a good question would be:
“What did you accomplish today?”
Without the Rule of 3, the immediate answer that comes to mind is that I made it through my meetings and worked on a bunch of stuff.
I might be hard pressed to put that into any sort of meaningful story of achievement or progress, other than I was crazy busy.
I know I was crazy busy, but I’d rather be crazy productive.
Life with the Rule of 3
With the Rule of 3, I visualize my victories that are wroth achieving. I remind myself that all things are created twice: first in your mind, then in the world.
With the Rule of 3, I actually start with the question:
“What 3 key results do I want to achieve today?”
To answer that question, I start by scanning my day for possibilities.
I review my reminders and tasks. I review my calendar and take note of my meetings and appointments. I take inventory of my time and energy that I really have available while accounting for my non-negotiables.
This gives me a very clear sense of my day from the balcony view.
With the Rule of 3 in hand, I get intentional. This is my chance to slow down to speed up. I write down my 3 Wins that I hope to achieve today.
This simple act does more for my productivity game than any collection of productivity hacks. This simple exercise forces me to create a simple vision for my day. It forces me to prioritize what to work on. It channels my energy towards meaningful achievements.
And it gives me a very simple way to focus and to refocus if I should lose my way throughout the day.
And at the end of the day, I’ll have greater clarity and confidence when I answer the question, “What did you accomplish today?”
Regardless of what I achieved in my day, I now have a strong foundation for learning and adapting so I get better over time.
The Rule of 3 Helps You Win the Game of Productivity
I know mastering the productivity game is figuring out how to spend the right time, on the right things, the right way, with the right energy.
Really, this all starts by identifying what you want to accomplish.
It could be as simple as have a great breakfast or have a great day to as complex as whatever your day demands.
All you are really doing is creating clarity around what’s important now for you to spend your time and energy on.
You do this by working backwards from the end of the day. You simply imagine that when your day is done, what are the 3 Wins or 3 Achievements you want under your belt.
This sets you up to have “all of you” your side.
What I mean by that is effective productivity is a “whole-person” productivity. You want your mind, body emotions, and spirit all on the same page and all going in the same direction. This congruence is how you show up as an unstoppable force of nature and how you become a force multiplier in any situation.
By having “all of you” on your side with a clear vision of the end results you wan to achieve, you fight yourself less and your motivation will flow more naturally. In effect, you win the productivity game by playing your better game and operating at a higher level.
Good Things Happen When You Set Your Priorities Straight
The Rule of 3 is a great way to focus on your priorities. I think it was Scott Berkun that said long ago, “priorities are the backbone of progress”, and that rings true.
Your priorities are what’s important now, next, and for the long term.
The challenge is that when you have an ever-growing list of things to do, it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees.
This is where the Rule of 3 shines.
Using the Rule of 3 you can hone in on your 3 most meaningful achievements and hold them front and center.
You already know the difference that focus makes when it comes to achieving results.
The Rule of 3 is a way to leverage that focus and to use it o bubble up your 3 most meaningful achievements into a clear target.
The Rule of 3 is the Difference of Highly Effective People
Stephen Covey has a great definition for success:
“Success is when you realize obstacles you face are challenges to help you become better — and your response equals the challenge.”
Highly effective people reframe the obstacles in their day to challenges and opportunities.
The Rule of 3 strikes again.
According to Stephen Covey, the first 3 habits of highly effective people are:
- be proactive
- begin with the end in mind
- put first things first
Those 3 habits are the foundation for your personal victories.
By practicing the Rule of 3, you practice the short set of the best habits of highly effective people.
The Rule of 3 Helps Organize Your Mind
Your mind is the ultimate productivity system that you have.
The Rule of 3 helps you organize your mind and keep things simple.
It helps you always know what is top of mind so that you can focus your energy where it matters most.
It helps you look ahead to easily remember what you are trying to accomplish.
The Rule of 3 helps you look back to recap and recount what you have accomplished.
By keeping your mind organized, you realize your full potential when it comes to giving your best where you have your best to give.
Turn Chaos Into Clarity
With great clarity comes great confidence. And confidence generates energy.
In one of my favorite leadership classes, our instructor has us imagine we are driving along Highway One on a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the road is clear, our music is blasting, and we’re driving fast down the open road.
But then we round a bend, and there is fog and visibility is limited. It turns into a white-knuckle drive as we struggle to see the road, driving slowly and cautiously.
We round another bend, and the clouds part, the sun shines, and we see a long stretch of the open road again.
The point of the exercise is that when you can’t see where you are going, it can create confusion and anxiety.
But when you can see the road ahead, that clarity creates confidence.
Use the Rule of 3 to carve out a path and create your own clarity from the chaos.
The Rule of Helps You Focus on the Vital Few
Over my lifetime, I’ve noticed that highly effective people focus on the vital few things that matter.
They’re fully aware of all that’s going on around them, but they choose to focus their energy where they can make a difference.
They embrace the timeless principle of personal effectiveness:
“Focus on what you control, and let the rest go.”
The Rule of 3 is effectively a way to reframe your day to focus on the vital few things that matter and to focus on what you control.
The Pareto Principle states that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. You might hear this idea also called the 80/20 rule or the law of the vital few. The main idea is that not all activities or efforts produce the same value, and that often times it’s a small handful of efforts that produce the greatest results.
By practicing the Rule of 3, you have a chance to put the Pareto Principle into practice and focus on the vital few efforts that matter most.
The Rule of 3 is a Chunking Mechanism (and it works for OKRs, too)
The Rule of 3 is a simple way to chunk things down. When something is too big, or too complex, break it down again.
You can use the Rule of 3 to chunk down our day. You can use it to chunk down your week. You can use it to chunk down your month.
When you use the Rule of 3, you are basically identifying 3 chunks of change that are worth it.
It works with OKRs, too.
OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results and it’s effectively a collaborative goal-setting methodology for individuals and teams. You use the OKRs as a way to track progress, create alignment, and inspire results around measurable goals.
When I see leaders stuck or overwhelmed when they are creating their OKRs, I simply ask them a variation of “What are the 3 Wins or 3 victory stories that you want to be able to tell at the end of the quarter?” or “What are the 3 Wins or victory stories you want to be able to tell at the end of the year?”
Once again, the Rule of 3 helps chunk something big down to size, so that people can wrap their heads around it and actually make progress.
Think in 3 Wins
The easiest way to practice the Rule of 3 is to practice what I call:
Think in 3 Wins
It’s a simple practice to understand, and it’s easy to do, but it’s a challenge to master.
The idea is this:
- Think in 3 Wins for Today
- Think in 3 Wins for This Week
- Think in 3 Wins for This Month
- Think in 3 Wins for This Quarter
- Think in 3 Wins for This Year
Work backwards from the end of today. Work backwards from the end of this week. Work backwards from the end of this month.
Work backwards from the end of this quarter. Work backwards from the end of this year.
Ask yourself, “What are my 3 Wins for…”:
- What are my 3 Wins for Today?
- What are my 3 Wins for This Week?
- What are my 3 Wins for This Year?
- What are my 3 Wins for This Quarter?
- What are my 3 Wins for This Year?
Ask “What are my 3 Wins for Today?” at the start of your day, ask “What are my 3 Wins for This Week?” at the start of your week, etc.
It’s simple in practice, but it’s the essence of profound results.
Think in 3 Scenes (Morning, Noon, and Night)
Sometimes people get stuck when they are trying to use the Rule of 3.
Either they don’t know where to start, or they feel overwhelmed.
What I suggest in those cases is just start by breaking your day down into morning, noon, and night.
Just imagine what a scene of victory might look like:
- What is a victory scene for your morning?
- What is a victory scene for your afternoon?
- What is a victory scene for your evening?
This is a very simple way to apply the Rule of 3 to your day and to practice visualizing what you want to accomplish.
Remember that all things are created twice, first in your mind, then in the world.
Interestingly, a few years back I found out that Tony Robbins actually uses this same approach to drive his day.
He visualizes 3 victories for his day: morning, noon, and night.
It’s how he gets intentional about his results, creates clarity for his day, and summon his best energy for his best results.
Use the Rule of 3 to Zoom in and Zoom Out
I often think that Rule of 3 is like a Russian nesting doll in that bigger stuff can hold smaller stuff inside, and you can unpack it, or you can package it up into something bigger.
You can use the Rule of 3 to zoom in and out by using time frames.
For example, I can also zoom in, by focusing on my 3 Wins for Today. I can zoom out to my week and focus on my 3 Wins for This Week. I can also zoom out further by focusing on my 3 Wins for This Month. I can zoom out even further by focusing on my 3 Wins for This Quarter or 3 Wins for This Year.
This ability to zoom in and out with the Rule of 3 gives you great flexibility. Sometimes, you will find that you just need to focus on right here, right now. Other times, you will find that you really need to zoom out and get a more strategic view.
The Rule of 3 is a Tool for Gratitude
The Rule of 3 is a simple way to bound your gratitude, by asking yourself:
“What are 3 things you’re grateful for?”
It’s a simple enough prompt.
The power comes from actually feeling grateful.
According to Tony Robbins, when you are feeling grateful, you can’t feel fear. Whenever you need to summon more power, focus on creating a feeling of gratitude. It might surprise you to learn that Tony Robbins said he doesn’t always start his day motivated. He developed a habit of gratitude to kickstart his motivation in the morning.
I find it helpful to use gratitude to kickstart the morning or to cap my day or to cap my week. The more I practice it, the easier it gets, and it’s a really fast way to recharge my energy and motivation.
The Rule of 3 is a Tool for Reflection
If you know Agile Results, you are familiar with my Monday Vision, Daily Wins, Friday Reflection routine.
Friday Reflection is a simple exercise that uses the Rule of 3 to ask two simple questions:
- What are 3 things going well?
- What are 3 things to improve?
The idea here is to really reflect on your results for the week and to notice your behavior patterns.
For example, if you nailed your 3 Wins for This Week, but you don’t really feel the impact, this is a chance to check your values. If you didn’t achieve your 3 Wins, then it’s a chance to ask whether you got randomized or sidetracked, or if you actually traded up.
But the goal for this reflection is to pay attention to behaviors that you want to keep doing and that you want to change.
Your thoughts are behaviors, too.
Apply the Rule of 3 to Work and Life
One place where I see people can get tripped up is when they figure out how to apply the Rule of 3 to work and life.
If you are just worried about your worklife, then it seems easy enough to figure out your 3 Wins for Today.
But what if you have a bunch of personal goals outside of work, what do you do?
Do you squish everything into 3 Wins for Today and combine both work and life?
For some people that have a lot of integration for work and life, that makes sense.
But for some people, no, that doesn’t work.
It’s actually easier to keep two separate lists: one for personal and one for work.
I’ve seen all sorts of variations, but the thing to keep in mind is that the purpose of the Rule of 3 is to limit your lists so you can prioritize and focus effectively.
It’s not about creating 3 things for everything.
Create up to 3, so that you can manage your mind more effectively.
It’s Outcomes Not Activities
Always keep in mind that it’s outcomes, not activities.
Too often I hear people complain that they have more than 3 things to do.
Of course, you do.
We all do.
We have any things going on in our life and a lot of things to stay on top of.
But that’s what all of your other lists are for.
The point of the Rule of 3 is to be able to tell a simple story of 3 Wins that are worth it.
This is the difference between “what are you trying to do?” and “what are you trying to accomplish?” (and that’s a world of difference 😉
Your 3 Wins are the highlights that you are trying to achieve, not the laundry list of To-Dos.
These 3 Wins should bring meaning, focus, and energy so that your long To Do lists actually accrue to meaningful results.
Your 3 Wins become your directional North Star to guide and channel your time, energy, and tasks toward your ambitions.
Practice Your 3 Wins as Headlines or Highlights
Practice saying your 3 Wins out loud. Say them to yourself. Be able to say them to others.
This will help you really get comfortable using the Rule of 3.
When you look back on your day or your week, when you look for the headlines or the highlights, you really start to learn what Wins look like.
This exercise will help you practice articulating what an outcome should actually be.
I say “headline” or “highlight” to remind you that what you’re doing is stating your victories.
You aren’t adding the depth and detail. The depth and detail comes through the actions that your headlines and highlights inspire.
All you really need is the one-sentence reminder or one-liner reminder of what your win actually is.
And the best way to practice that is by thinking in terms of headlines and highlights.
This is especially helpful if you have a habit of making things complicated or going into a bunch of detail.
This is how you can practice simplifying and being able to create your tickler list of future wins.
Apply the Rule of 3 to Books and Learning
Whenever you read something you can ask yourself the following question:
“What are my 3 takeaways?”
This is a simple way to glean insight and turn that insight into action.
When you look at your bookshelf, or Kindle library, for each book challenge yourself with that question.
It’s a very revealing question.
Ultimately, you want to address the question, “How can I use this?”
By honing in on 3 actionable insights or 3 key takeaways, you will become much better at learning how to learn.
Any book you read suddenly becomes a gateway to up leveling your mindset, skillset, and toolset.
Don’t Let the Rule of 3 Break You
The Rule of 3 should never feel like a burden. Make it fun to figure out 3 compelling wins.
Enjoy the process.
Turn your chores into chances.
Don’t “call back a customer”. Instead, “win a raving fan.”
Don’t “create a project plan”. Instead, “lead an epic adventure.”
Don’t “finish task set”. Instead, “master your craft”.
Find opportunities to connect your 3 Wins to your values and to your strengths.
The more time you spend in your strengths, the more you will grow your skills and compound your impact.
If you ever dread the Rule of 3, then relax, take a deep breath, and ask yourself a more empowering question.
Play with your language and change it up so that you always enjoy bringing out your best.
When All Else Fails, Write 3 Wins Down on a Yellow Sticky
If you fall off the horse, or feel overwhelmed, or don’t know where to start, start simple:
Write down your 3 Wins on a yellow sticky.
Yes. Really. A yellow sticky.
There is something very grounding about a yellow sticky with your 3 Wins.
Even if you throw your sticky away, the process of writing your 3 Wins down is the fruitful part of the exercise.
It’s taking that quick pause before you dive into your day, to define your success and carve out your personal victories.
But really you can use this simple exercise any time of day, whenever you feel you’re lost or off track.
What are Your 3 Wins for Today?
We covered a lot of ground, but all you really need to remember is the question:
“What are my 3 Wins for Today?”
That one question will cut through all the fluff and all the noise in your day.
That one question will help lift you up from wherever you are and activate your greatest gifts.
That one question will help you harness and hone in on giving your best where you have your best to give.
And that is how you make each day your masterpiece…the pragmatic way… the Agile Way.