What is the “1 3 5 rule” and how it can boost your daily productivity

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Every productivity expert will tell you that to get more out of your day you need to prioritize your work. When there’s a lot on your plate, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel like you’re constantly playing catch-up with a never-ending torrent of new tasks. By tackling work in a structured manner, you can reduce related stress, anxiety, and underperformance. 

But not every expert agrees on what is the best way to prioritize. That’s because there isn’t one. There is no golden bullet that will solve all your problems. Instead, there’s a wide range of different work prioritization strategies, and what might work for one person, won’t work for another. 

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The secret to sustained productivity success is to find the method that works best for you individually. And by “works best”, I mean one that you feel comfortable with to keep using. There’s little point in crafting elaborate productivity strategies that help you for a week, but then get abandoned because they’re just too exhausting or simply don’t work.

We have previously looked at such task prioritization strategies as the Eisenhower Matrix and the Pareto Principle. Today, let’s take a deeper look at the 1 3 5 rule – maybe this is the method you’ve been looking for all along. 

What is the 1 3 5 rule?

The 1 3 5 rule is a productivity method for organizing your work and getting through your to-do list. This productivity rule asks you to write down 9 tasks you will accomplish on a given day:

  • 1 big task that requires the most effort
  • 3 medium tasks that aren’t overly demanding
  • 5 small tasks that you can take care of quickly and easily 

Essentially, it’s a way to organize your to-do list to ensure you actually complete it. When crafting simple to-do lists, people tend to overestimate their daily capacity and as a result 41% of to-do list items never get completed. The 1 3 5 rule is designed to solve this problem by giving you clear daily goals that can be checked off one by one. 

Applying the 1 3 5 method will be most beneficial for people such as executives, managers, and team leads who have a lot of varied daily responsibilities – it can give structure to an otherwise hectic day and ensure distractions don’t pull you away from what really must be accomplished. 

That said, anyone can make use of this rule. For instance, if you only have one main task to do in a day, you can split the task up into smaller ones. Or, conversely, if you have dozens of tasks, then you can bundle them together in groups to give yourself better oversight of what must be done and prioritize the most essential items. 

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How to organize your tasks

The way you categorize your tasks is up to you. Most people will have an intuitive understanding of what classifies as big, medium, or small. But if you need some extra help, you can calculate them by hours. 

At a typical 8-hour job, you can expect to have around 6 hours of productive work. Taking this into account, you can split up the tasks in a variety of ways. For example, you can assign an equal amount of time to each category – 2h for the big task, 2h for medium ones, and 2h for the smaller items. This way, you have a full 2h to dedicate to your main task, 40 minutes for each medium one, and just over 20 minutes for each small one. 

You can use the DeskTime automatic time tracking to keep a close watch of how much time you spend on a task, either to discover how long a task actually takes (e.g. if a small task takes longer than expected, then next time you’ll know to move it to medium tasks) or to ensure you don’t exceed the allotted minutes. 

Another way to split up the hours would be to use a 3-2-1 ratio – 3h for the big task, 40 minutes per medium task, and 12 minutes for each small one. Whether you need to use such calculations at all, that’s entirely up to you. But if you do, then be careful because such a system assumes that different tasks should take equal amounts of time and that’s rarely the case in real life. So just consider the ratio to be a general guideline and don’t worry if one task takes 20 minutes longer and another – 20 minutes less. 

That said, allocating a specific amount of time be spent on a task can be a major productivity booster because, as Parkinson’s law states “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” and by setting clear boundaries you frame exactly how much effort a task requires and how much time you should spend to complete it. 

What tasks from my 1 3 5 plan should I start with?

Once again, there is no single correct approach. You should find a system that works for you and stick to it. Most people are more productive in the mornings, so it can make sense to employ the Eat The Frog method and tackle the big task first to get it over and done with. 

If you’re a slow starter, then getting some of the smaller tasks off your plate can wake you up and get the brain warmed up for bigger things. Plus, an early morning motivational boost that comes with ticking off completed tasks can give you the energy to keep moving forward. 

Still, our days rarely follow the same structure because of ever-changing priorities and constant distractions. There’s no point in following a strict task structure if it’s constantly disrupted. Remember – the goal is to complete the tasks and it doesn’t matter how you get it done, as long as you do. 

5 extra tips for the 1 3 5 rule

Here are some general tips that will help you make the most out of your 1 3 5 plan:

  1. It’s not exhaustive – this method should help you get the most important tasks done. During the day you’ll probably have lots of other small things to do and you shouldn’t ignore them just because they’re not on your 1 3 5 task list.
  2. It doesn’t have to be perfect – don’t spend too much time on crafting the perfect list because it can change throughout the day. Don’t hesitate to move a task to the next day if something else, more urgent, pops up. 
  3. Be specific – write your tasks clearly. Writing actionable tasks such as “create tomorrow’s to-do list” instead of “planning” will make it clear what you must do and when the task counts as completed, all while helping you stay better organized.  
  4. Incorporate non-work tasks – you can use this rule not only for work but for organizing your entire day. Or even if you use it only for work, you can still add a couple of small personal tasks such as “call mom” or “pick up groceries” to give yourself a productive break during the day. 
  5. Use apps to your advantage – there are several apps with 1 3 5 to-do list templates that can help you stay organized across all your devices, for example, 135list.

Trying out and using a 1 3 5 to-do list for a week will help you understand whether it’s for you. You can also track your productivity levels in DeskTime to see whether it has a positive impact on your work. 

Conclusion

The 1 3 5 rule is yet another method to get your to-do list organized. It’s simple, efficient, and can help you get on top of your work. How exactly you use it, that’s up to you – you can adapt the method however you like to ensure you get the most out of it and the longer you’ll use it, the better you’ll get at it. 

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