Use the 1-2-3 list to get more done and have more fun doing it.

Regular readers know that I’m a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology for time design. One of his principles is that you can never “do” a project, you can only do the next thing that needs to be done on that project. So, following his coaching, every week I update my list of active projects, then make weekly and daily to-do lists of the next steps for those projects.

But here’s the rub: some of those steps – survey the major players in an industry – for example, might take a few hours, while others, like check in with a subcontractor on progress, might take just 30 minutes. So, any to-do list that doesn’t allow for these distinctions isn’t going to be as useful as it could be. I notice that when I’m faced with a to-do list made up of tasks of varying time allowances, I tend to gravitate to those simple tasks that take less than an hour. By day’s end I’ve had multiple dopamine rewards from crossing tasks off of the list, but the larger, more time-consuming tasks remain undone.

Enter the 1-2-3 List.

The concept behind the 1-2-3 list is simple. It’s based on the recognition that I want to make measurable progress on larger, more complex projects, but that it’s unlikely that I will address more than one of these projects every day. Because in any given day I also need to allow for a couple of tasks that take an hour or so, as well as even more that take just 30-45 minutes.

Futurist and researcher Stowe Boyd describes his use of this system this way:

A long time ago, I realized that for whatever reasons, I really am able to only accomplish a handful of tasks per day. This leaves out the maintenance of reading and writing emails, and other minor annoyances, but does include things like meetings, working on client and internal projects, and all larger-grained work activities.

Specifically, I have learned that I can do the following:

One major activity, such as working for a few hours on client research, or writing for a few hours. This is the ‘1? in the ‘1-2-3?.

Two medium sized activities, like a 45 minute phone call, or doing an hour-long webinar. This is the ‘2? in the ‘1-2-3?.

Three short activities, taking less than 45 minutes. This is the ‘3? in the ‘1-2-3?.

Simple, right? And you know from experience that all of the other minutes will be vacuumed like crumbs into the Hoover of interruptions, distractions and chit chat.

Here’s another advantage to delineating my to-do lists of tasks by the amount of time they take. My bio-clock is set to be the most productive in the morning. By designating which major activity I am going to focus on that day, I can put it in my calendar first thing in the morning. If I address my medium size activities mid-day, then by day’s end, when I am least energetic and motivated, I’ve got little to do but simpler, easy-to-knock-off tasks.

Astute students of productivity will notice that this method of parsing priorities also supports the Rocks, Pebble and Sand theory of time management. In this model, rocks represent the most important parts of our lives, such as health, family, and relationships. Pebbles represent the other things that matter, such as career and school. Sand represents the small things that tend to distract us, such as whiling hours away on Facebook and zoning out in front of the video screen. The only way to fit the big rocks, the things that matter the most, into a finite space such as a jar, is to put the big rocks in first, and the small sand last.


Image by Tom Fassbender via Creative Commons

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