The 3x3 rule — or how to be realistic about time management

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I was a self-confessed expert in setting unrealistic goals for myself. Usually, it involved a to-do list from hell with 20+ tasks I needed to get done all at once — or at least within the same day. Usually, the result was going home with a guilty conscience.

So, I went in search of something better, and I found this: The 3x3 rule. The rule is the brainchild of the office manager at IdeasLab, Maria Garde, with my own personal addition. I’ve been sticking to this concept, and I have to say it’s been an amazing improvement from my usual routine.

If you, like me, have had completely unrealistic expectations of what a sustainable work routine is, I hope the 3x3 rule will be a lifesaver. Here are the 3 elements:

3 tasks

Yes, you only have 3 tasks for each day. That’s it! And when you’re done, you’re done.

I really struggled with this at first. My usual routine was to write down 3 MAIN tasks, and then fill up the rest of my to-do lists with 17 smaller tasks, which I somehow thought I would magically get done. The result was that either nothing really got done or everything got half-done.

So, what kind of 3 tasks should you include on your list? I like Maria’s answer, so I’m just going to pass it on: Basically, it’s whatever you feel like. On days where you feel like you have lots of energy, the tasks will probably be bigger than days, where you basically feel like staying in bed. On those days you just go for three smaller tasks. No task is too small!

Another of Maria’s recommendations — especially for people, who work in front of a screen most of the day — is that one of the tasks shouldn’t include screen time at all. Anything from post-it note brainstorming to watering the office plants.

3 hours of productive work

How many hours can we actually stay focused and productive? From my personal experience, I’ve found out that it’s a lot less than we think it is. Maria’s rule is 3 hours of productive work! If you’ve been productive for 3 hours, it’s a job well done. Period!

I’ve been sticking to this rule, and it actually feels like I’m getting a lot more done these days. I usually don’t work 3 hours in a row, but during my productive hours I turn off all distractions and stay completely focused on the task.

And yes, there’s probably some more stuff you need to get done during the day, but the point is that it’s shouldn’t be anything, which requires 100% of your attention.

3 good things

My own personal addition to the rule of 3 is finding 3 good things about your workday. It doesn’t have to be epic achievements. Getting yourself a cup of coffee, talking to a good colleague, sticking to your 3 tasks, and not adding anything else to your list, is enough.

My reason for adding this rule is because my default work mode is to focus on all the unfinished tasks and things, which didn’t go according to plan. I need those 3 good things to balance it out.

Carrying out the 3x3 rule

At first, it seems like these rules are ridiculously easy, and that’s exactly the point. They’re supposed to be incredibly easy to stop you from leaving work every day with a guilty conscience and an unfinished to-do list.

However, committing to these 3 rules long-term is actually a lot harder than it seems. Just editing your tasks down to 3 a day is a massive challenge. You might feel like changing it up and adding more tasks and putting in more productive hours, as things progress, but try not to. Instead, think of it as saving up extra battery time for those low-energy days.

If the 3x3 rule is too much, just start off with focusing on the 3 tasks for today and 3 productive work hours. After all, you should find out what works for you in the long run.

I realise that most people work with others, have meetings, and can’t be 100% in control of their own time. However, I still encourage you to try it out for a couple of weeks. In the end, it’s not about being in charge of your own time all the time. It’s about finding a strategy that actually works for you.

What are your best tips for time management?

Originally published at

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