Be More Realistic About Your To-Do List With The 3 + 2 Rule

Developer Jakub Stastny had a problem with organising his day for ages. Never-ending TODO lists led to frustration and consequently to procrastination; exhaustion from context switching; the feeling that he wasn't accomplishing anything. A few weeks ago he had a breakthrough, and he calls it the 3 + 2 rule.

Frustration From Never Ending Task Lists

Nowadays everyone is overwhelmed with seemingly endless task lists. You wake up at the morning, start working, you work and work and at the end of the day you realise that you have no idea what you have done. You know you've been working, but it feels like you have achieved nothing. So very frustrating!

With never ending task lists you tend to procrastinate. Why bother when you can't see the progress? Why bother why you will be working the whole day anyway? You need to see what have you achieved today and there has to be light on the end of the tunnel, you need to know that you'll have time for yourself as well. Sounds familiar? I've been struggling with this for years.

The 3 + 2 Rule

At the morning you think you can do a, b, c, d, e. But then something goes wrong with b and you spend much more time on it than you anticipated. Subsequently you can't finish c and d and you feel like you haven't done enough. Let it be. Instead of having unrealistic expectations, just acknowledge that you can do only 3 big things and 2 small things. Do them and call it a day!

So then I'm happy that I finished my 3 + 2 tasks rather than being unhappy that I couldn't finish seven of them. Easy. I use index cards for it. Every morning I sit down and write three main things I want to solve and two small ones. The main items should take from 2-3 hours, the minor ones no more than 20 minutes. And the results?

  • I accomplish more because I don't procrastinate as far as much as I used to.
  • I'm much more focused on whatever I do.
  • Context switching is ridiculously easy because this way you don't switch just very few times per day!
  • The 3 + 2 rule prevents burn-outs.
  • Work life vs personal life balance.

Context Switching Solved

Dealing with context switching was always a real hassle for me. I've been switching backward and forward and the result was complete lack of focus and not achieving much in either of these projects. Or sometimes I haven't been switching for a longer time and then I completely loose track about the project and it took me hours to get on the track again.

The 3 + 2 rule is all about focus. You don't have to worry about all your task list, you just have to deal with five things. You work on the first task, you are fully focused and you don't worry about other tasks. You don't have to worry what else did I forget in project X, because project X isn't on your index card for today. So you finish the task, then you switch. With 5 tasks, you can't switch more than four times.

Sounds good? Well, that was just the beginning... considering how easy is to switch between (small number of) projects, just do switch! If every day you have two big tasks from your contract, 1 big task from your start-up, then you won't loose track on any of these projects and you will distribute your time efficiently.

Being able to achieve more and yet enjoy my personal life is making me very happy. I hope it will work for you too! Please do let me know what do you think, I'd really appreciate any feedback, I'd especially like to know if you have the problems I used to have and in case you decided to give the 3 + 2 rule a go, then what's your opinion or problems you encountered.

The 3 + 2 Rule [101 Ideas]


    Just what I needed to read. I seem to spend more time adding to my to-do list then ticking things off. Mines in a spreadsheet, with a tab for "important & urgent", "important but not urgent" tasks etc... then I added tabs for side-projects, things to do on my website, further education etc. - i think theres over 500 things on there, haha! Ill add one last tab "3+2" and each day ill move 3 major & 2 minor things on there & actually get them done!!

    I have a piece of paper which I write on at the start of every day. It is sectioned off with all my projects with a line between each task. This helps me see that there is white space and that it isn't that bad.
    Then for the really important tasks that must be done that day, are highlighted in blue. Once I've done as much as I can with it and I'm waiting on someone or something else, it then gets a highlighted yellow dash next to it. Other tasks that are waiting on someone / something else have the highlighted yellow next to them. Once an item is complete it is crossed off in black texter.

    Works by keeping things out of my head, and my brain now hardly sees the yellow items. It also means that every time you have to re-write something at the start of the day, you start to get sick of it and just do it.

    Context-switching...groan, what an ugly concept

    Coincidentally I came up with a very similar system a couple of months ago. I'm usually mobile for work so rather than having a card or piece of paper to write my list I use the cloud. The central hub is Google Tasks. On my Android I use GTasks. In a browser I use my iGoogle page.

    I have 3 main lists Now, Soon, and Later. As well as that I have two seperate lists for big projects that I'm currently working on and one last list for weekend projects. The Now list is things I can get done right now today and could be my 3 + 2 items. Soon and Later are tasks of descending priority. On the web I setup my iGoogle page to show just those 6 lists all at once. Doing this makes it easy to get a quick overview and move tasks between lists. At the beginning of a day I will scan both Soon and Later and decide which ones get shifted and then expand just the Now list so that nothing else is visible and vying for my attention. I do the same with GTasks. That helps me to stay focused.

    One of the keys that has helped me start to accomplish more is to be far more selective about which tasks go onto the lists in the first place. Is it really important? Also I found it helpful to be more conservative in what I try to accomplish in any one day, which is also similar to the 3 +2 rule. These are two things that I have tried to make a habit.

    At the end of a day or week I like to go to the web page and look at completed tasks organised by date. It's a bit of a feel good exercise to actually see that things are being done and I am making headway. Over the last few weeks I've noticed that my ToDo lists are very slowly getting shorter. Seeing the lists shrink also feels good and helps get the motivaion up to continue with other tasks.

    There are other programs. I've tried using Wunderlist, Producteev, Astrid, etc, but they don't quite fit my needs quite like GTasks.

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