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Prioritizing tasks with the 1-3-5 rule

Last updated on
January 5, 2022
Prioritizing tasks with the 1-3-5 rule

When you’ve got a lot on your plate, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed—especially when your to-do list just seems to be getting longer and longer. Productivity experts may tell us that prioritization is key, but because there’s no set way to prioritize, it can be difficult knowing exactly what you should focus on. It can be tempting to tackle all your small, easy tasks first, so you feel that you’ve accomplished something—but you may then find that you don’t have time for the tasks that matter most.

The good news is that there are lots of different prioritization techniques out there, from eat the frog to the time management matrix. As one of the most effective and simple prioritization strategies, the 1-3-5 rule is one of the best for helping us to complete both big and small tasks in tandem. Here’s how to apply it.

What is the 1-3-5 rule?

The 1-3-5 rule focuses on understanding that we can only accomplish a finite number of things each day. Writing down an endless list of tasks is not only pointless, it can also cause us to feel stressed and overwhelmed. When we inevitably don’t achieve many of the tasks on our list—41% of to-do list items never get completed—we’re then left feeling disappointed and disheartened.

So, when you’re using the 1-3-5 rule, you’re accepting that you can probably achieve nine different tasks each day. 1-3-5 rule to-do lists should be balanced, containing:

  • One big task that requires a decent amount of effort;
  • Three medium tasks that aren’t particularly demanding;
  • Five small tasks that can be completed pretty quickly and easily.

Most people are able to achieve these nine tasks in one day (although obviously this won’t always be the case) and each task serves a different purpose. Big tasks give you a sense of accomplishment and show you what you can achieve; medium tasks are usually important for propelling larger projects and tasks forward; and small tasks act as little wins and help keep you motivated.

The benefits of the 1-3-5 rule

The 1-3-5 rule can be used by anyone, but it’s especially beneficial for people who have a lot of varied responsibilities each day. It can lend structure and calm to what would otherwise be a rather chaotic day, and help you ensure interruptions and distractions don’t stop you achieving your goals.

Because the 1-3-5 rule is structured hierarchically, it means that you’ll always have enough time to complete the most important thing on your list. If you don’t manage to complete all nine tasks, you can simply move them over into tomorrow’s list—but you should always try to ensure they’re one of the five smaller tasks.

Plus, tackling the biggest task first and knowing you’ve done the thing that matters most can have a very positive effect on our mindset and motivation. "If I can tackle the big thing, I feel like I'm halfway there," says Betty Liu, the executive vice chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, who uses the 1-3-5 rule every day. "I have to say, it's been an amazing productivity booster."

And once you complete the last small task on your list, there are benefits to your work/life balance too: “You feel so much better, as if you really completed the day,” Liu states. “"It frees you up mentally to turn off your phone, sit down and relax, enjoy time with your family—because you don't feel that lingering guilt that you should have answered that email or you should have had that one more meeting.”

Applying the 1-3-5 rule

So what’s the best way to apply the 1-3-5 rule? Generally it’s wise to make your list as soon as you finish work, when tomorrow’s responsibilities are fresh in your mind—and this means you can hit the ground running in the morning. There’s flexibility with this rule, too: if you know you have lots of meetings the next day, for example, you might not be able to achieve all nine tasks; and if you often have unexpected tasks crop up, you can leave a few of the small or middle tasks blank.

When making your list, the first thing you need to do is categorize your tasks. Most people will have an instinctive awareness of what classifies as a big, medium, or small task, but if you aren’t sure you can calculate them by duration. You can use automatic time tracking to keep track of how long you’re actually spending on tasks—and then if you realize that a small task is taking longer than you thought, you’ll know to move it into the medium task category next time.

While tackling the big task first can be motivating, the “Eat That Frog” mentality doesn’t work for everyone. It’s great if you’re at your most productive in the mornings, but if you’re a slow starter, you might want to tackle some of the smaller tasks first; that way, you’re getting the ball rolling, but leaving the more challenging work until your brain is more warmed up.

Like most productivity hacks and prioritization techniques, one size definitely doesn’t fit all, and just because working through the 1-3-5 in a chronological manner works for some people, it may not for you. But regardless of how you choose to work through your list, the 1-3-5 rule can help you stay on top of your work, avoid distractions, and achieve your goals. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you get your work done, as long as it is done.

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