the big three

Marian Parsonsa slice of life, Balance, Running a Business42 Comments

When I worked in the corporate world (can you even imagine that?), I would keep a running to-do list on a legal pad.  Each day, I would work through the list until it was “quitting time” and, whatever was left on the list would get transferred to a fresh piece of paper as the start of my to-do list for the next day.

That method worked well when my job was over the minute I left the office to start my commute home.  I was never nagged by what was undone.  My work very rarely came home with me.

Since I started my own business, I’ve used the same method of keeping a running to-do list.  It seemed like a good business practice.

Here’s the problem… my running to do list made me feel like there were never enough hours in the day and like my work day couldn’t end until everything was crossed off.  I rarely felt like, even after packed-full, highly productive days, my effort was enough.

Isn’t it silly that a list on a piece of paper can do that?  I was letting it drive me and override decisions that should’ve been made, like I need to close the computer while I’m helping the boys with homework or I need to stop to eat or it’s 1:00 in the morning and it’s way past appropriate or sane business hours.

While on my creative retreat, I heard an idea presented on a couple of different podcasts – instead of having a long list of things to do, set a daily goal of three things.  If the rest of the day is completely useless, what are the three things that need to get done?  Or should get done?  Or it would just be really nice to have done?

The first time I heard this advice, I didn’t put much weight it.  Three things.  Okay.  Got it.  I’ve got my lists and I can do way more than three things in a day.  Like being busy is a badge of honor to be proudly displayed along with my dark circles and paint-splattered sweatpants.

But, then I heard it again, framed in some more detail about why it works and how it can actually increase productivity.  I’ve said a similar thing in a different way in regard to home and creative projects, “Give yourself success in small things and you’ll be excited to do more.”

It was certainly worth a try.

So, last week I started each day with a list of just three things.

The Big Three.

Here’s what I learned…

  1. I was laser focused to get those three things done, so most days I had my three things done before lunch.  (And that was a after exercise and a shower.)  Then, it felt like I had all the time in the world.  I could paint or run errands or do some paperwork, answer e-mails, take Sebastian for a walk, read a magazine or art book.  Suddenly, my day didn’t seem so tightly packed.  There was breathing room, margin.
  2. I felt a great sense of accomplishment.  I didn’t go to bed thinking about all of the things I didn’t get to.  I didn’t work until my brain and body protested.  A few times, I actually had to remind myself that my work was done and I could go to bed.  Yes, even if it’s only 10:00.
  3. It made me look ahead to due dates, commitments, and take care of things that were a priority, before they become urgent.
  4. I could schedule time to work on things that aren’t pressing, but they are important to me.  How will I work on new projects and nurture new ideas if I’m always busy with everything that’s on my plate right now?
  5. A pile of work isn’t overwhelming when it’s boiled down to three things that need to be done.  It helped me see that a lot of things I viewed as urgent really weren’t urgent at all.

I’m still ironing out the kinks and settling into my new schedule, but last week was a big encouragement for me.

Have you ever tried working off of a three-item to-do list?

the big three

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42 Comments on “the big three”

  1. I immediately flung open my day planner….crossed off, added back in, regrouped, and feel encouraged. Thank you for always inspiring and encouraging ….and wonderful ideas!

  2. I love this! I tend to create absolutely ridiculous to do lists, and it makes me feel so unaccomplished to have to move half of it onto the next day. I’m definitely going to try this out!

  3. You knew someone was going to ask you this, but would you mind linking to the paper planner you are using? I LOVE the clean simple format of your weekly planner, esp the fact that the days are listed vertically, not horizontally. They are hard to find and I would love to get one:) Thank you!

    1. I couldn’t find the link to it online, but I found it from Target in the office/planner section. It’s made by Blue Sky and it has “2018” printed in gold on the front. It came in 2 sizes, but I got the standard page size.

    2. I have a similar planner made by Eccolo that my son picked up as a stocking stuffer before this past Christmas (2017) because he thought that I would like the scripture quotes inside. I love both those and this set up. Not as daunting as the bullet journal I keep trying to keep up. The facing page to the weeks calendar is just lined paper. I like that just as much. Good luck finding one that you like.

  4. Thank you. I am getting quite tired of waking up at 4am, with the realization that I have been “working” in my (twilight) sleep. Soooo too much to do, it is both daunting and, at least in the short term, overwhelming. However, you have reminded me, that you really can only eat an elephant, one (3) bite at a time (apologies to all elephants, everywhere.)

  5. Reminds me of Stephen Covey’s First Things First book. A great read….and reread! Highly recommend it. Still trying to implement the practice though…baby steps!

  6. I’ve started doing this ever since you mentioned it, and it’s a game changer for me too! I’ve been developing crazy to do lists as well, which I think is a challenge for anyone who owns their own business. I was in education before I owned my own business (thanks to your inspiration!!!!) and I didn’t have nearly as many responsibilities as I do now. When you’re an entrepreneur, everything is on you at first until you can afford to hire help or hire out. Even when you do, it’s easy to see nothing but an endless list of tasks. Picking three major hurdles to jump over every day is a breath of fresh air, and I’m so thankful you shared this! It’s definitely helping me!

  7. I’ve been doing this for a few years, but slightly differently. Whenever a to-do item pops in my head, I put it on a master list so I won’t forget it. Once it’s on my list, it doesn’t nag me and I won’t keep thinking in the back of my mind that I’ve forgotten something. Some of those aren’t pressing, but I want to get to eventually. I look at the list and underline three things I want to (or can) get done today. Or I move those three items to a “Today” list. Sometimes, my Today list is just mental. I only have to remember those three things and I don’t worry about anything other than my Big Three. Eventually I look at my master list and cross off all I’ve done. It’s quite a feeling of accomplishment.

    1. Thank you! I like the concept of the ‘master’ list. In reality there are more than just 3 things that need to be done – at some point. It’s then becomes a matter of priority as to when a task becomes one of the Big Three.

    2. Yes, I do keep a master list as well, but it’s not what I work off of daily, because it’s just too overwhelming!

    3. Marian, thanks so much for your transparency and authenticity. I’ve so enjoyed following along as you’ve made this house your home and tackled new business opportunities and challenges.

      Kate, I, too, keep a master list of projects – home, office, etc. And it’s made such a difference. Every morning, once I get to work, the first thing I do is pull out my master list and a post-it note, and write down my “three things” (okay, sometimes five, but rarely more). I used to keep an overwhelming to-do list, but once I started using the post-it method, my day became smoother and easier.

  8. I have to be completely honest with you. I had to stop following you on Instagram because everything you get done in a day made me feel so inadequate as a creative human being. Understand… That was me not you 😊 That being said, I have worked off of a 3-task list for about a year now and find that it works well as I navigate my physical issues. You are right that you become laser focused on those three things. Then, if like me, you are lying down while you write this comment, all is well with the world because those tasks are completed!

    1. I completely get that! I think social media can easily make us feel inadequate, because we’re watching “real people” do everything. They’re beautiful (filtered, well-lit) all the time, they are perfect moms, successful, creative, talented, fit, etc. and it can make your reality look depressing! Anyway, I hope you find my blog and instagram encouraging, but I totally understand that sometimes you need to turn it off. 🙂

  9. Marion – look into the Panda planner. I’ve been using it for about 2 weeks and it’s life changing. It adheres to the 3 goal rule.

  10. I have been retired for at least 25 years, and honestly I don’t know when I had time to actually work because I stay so busy. I still make those lists, but I do find that aside from the “master list” which I make or add to every season of the year, a weekly list is more effective for me. Whatever doesn’t get done this week gets transferred to the following week — that is, if I still have any interest in doing it. Sometimes I discover that it really didn’t matter in the first place. I do think list-making helps keep a person motivated to get things done, regardless of how old they are or at whatever stage of life they may be. I certainly get more done since I discovered the joys of list-making years ago. I think I used to keep a list of lists! Now — I am more relaxed. Kind of.

  11. Thank you for the post. I think it’s a great idea and will try if for sure….just started a blog and have to make a schedule so I can just add a three to do list. I feel so overwhelmed and this idea sounds so doable. But it reminds me of a friend’s diet before a special day. For 10 days she only ate 5 bites from her meal plate. Now that I couldn’t do…unless I used a serving spoon ;-).
    I think a monthly masters list is a must.
    Take good care

  12. Thank you for the post. I think it’s a great idea and will try if for sure….just started a blog and have to make a schedule so I can just add a three to do list. I feel so overwhelmed and this idea sounds so doable. But it reminds me of a friend’s diet before a special day. For 10 days she only ate 5 bites from her meal plate. Now that I couldn’t do…unless I used a serving spoon ;-).
    I think a monthly masters list is a must.
    Take good care

    1. So funny about the five bites. I do end up getting more than three things done in a day, but those are the three I focus on first and then it gets me rolling.

  13. Thank you for letting me know you are human after all. I am over sixty and have worked with making, repurposing things,and gardening a little. I’m a self taught cook and baker. When I make things for family and friends I’m told I need to start a web sight for those who wan to do want easy projects and want to cook foods with fast simple meals. I know they are joking but I refer them to you and your friends. Again I thank you.

  14. I’ve been doing this for the last couple of months after reading it in a book I’m studying. The author explains how God could have created creation in a second but instead did only a few important things each day. I believe this is a model for us and have put it into practice. But I have to actually REMIND myself that it’s okay and it’s a good idea because I’ve been so crazy busy for so many years. I would always feel inadequate, unfocused and less-than at the end of the day . I still struggle with those feelings some days and then I look at the 2 or 3 important things crossed off my to do list and feel better. I also keep a master projects list with sub-subject task lists and pull from that along with the calendar my 2 or 3 big things.

  15. I’m a retired RN, so I’ve always been task oriented and a list maker. When I left work at the end of the day I had to have everything done and not (usually) worry that I forgot something.
    Now my husband and I are trying to get through repairing our house here in Houston after the Harvey flood. Everyday there is a long list of items to do so we can finally get back in our house. It’s daunting, stressful and many days we would like to give up.
    I look forward to a “normal” life and want to try the 3 tasks per day, so I can explore some creative endeavors.
    Read your blog everyday… you are an inspiration to me. Thanks!

  16. Have not, but it’s a great idea. I used to work all week, and do “house stuff” when I got home and the entire weekend was filled with laundry, cleaning, and an entire list of things and by the time Sunday evening came, I was exhausted, and angry becuase I had spent my entire time off “working”. So it went… and the next week was the same thing and so on and so on…. Finally after I retired I stopped all that! If the laundry doesn’t get done, there’s always tomorrow and if the floor doesn’t get scrubbed – the dirt isn’t going anywhere… Much happier and less stressed now. I like the 3 item list – will give it a try. Thank you!

  17. Somehow this post reminded me of a beautiful quote I recently found. I think just being present and doing what you love at a pace equal with nature will leave you more than fulfilled.

    The quote: God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas, but for scars.

    I, too, need to practice this idea instead of trying to beat the clock. Thanks for the advice.

  18. Thank you for sharing your experience! It’s encouraging to know I’m not the only one who has felt overwhelmed running a business from home. It is hard to shut it off and feel like your “done” when you can look over and still see your work staring back at you! Since my husband has been home (he’s out of work), he has said he finally understands what I have been talking about all this time! There is a special challenge to working at home. I like this idea and will give it a try. It would be amazing to feel like I’ve actually accomplished some goals and have positive momentum in that direction. Thank you for sharing!

  19. Yes!! Goals are the key. My friends who do lists never feel like they get stuff done. I always here how busy they are but never seem to accomplish much. WTG with the Big 3!

  20. It sounds like a fab idea! I do the running list at my office job, but yes – stuff that I do outside of that sounds like it needs a contained list like this. I’ve been in a real funk lately and I bet it would really help me focus better and feel better about what I am accomplishing, rather than feeling crappy about all the things I have yet to get done.

  21. I never though of this, but my busy life could use this tip. I love the idea of 3 major things, perhaps I will try it in my house as well. Just 3 things to accomplish, maybe not a day, but a week. It would’nt seem so overwhelming to me, check, check and done…Thanks for passing this on. Marie

  22. Hi Marian!
    What a wonderful concept! Could you share the podcasts that you listened to that made the 3-priority-tasks-per-day suggestion?

  23. Hi Marian, I haven’t tried this, but I have also had times where I have been overwhelmed by the enormous ‘to-do’ lists that I am really good at generating. I have found one thing that helps me is to write down in a list what I do each day, as I do it, and then when I get to the end of the day I have a record of what I actually did. This has two benefits, firstly it stops that ‘I haven’t done anything today!’ negative self talk (because I can see I have actually done heaps), and secondly it helps me to focus on what I have done, rather than what I haven’t done, so that I feel a sense of accomplishment rather than failure, which sets me up for a positive tomorrow.

  24. Reading through the comments has been encouraging as well as your advice! I use the bullet journal system as my master list of things I need to get done. From the master list, I break it down into manageable weekly tasks and from there I break it down into daily tasks. Each evening I review what I accomplished and cross it off (so satisfying!) Then I plan the following day, pulling from my weekly list. This method helps me to see the big picture but still be able to keep the list manageable. Thanks for all you share across the social platforms – I love it all!!

  25. I’ve done this for a few years now, the list of three. Sometimes, if the three are easy, quick tasks, I’ll go up to five, but I never go beyond five. There is only so much to be done in a day, and when I slow down and move with intention, I find myself really enjoying the day rather than hustling through it. Life is too short for that kind of hustle. 🙂

    1. PS – handwriting my list makes a HUGE difference over keeping it on my phone on a list app. I can’t explain it except perhaps it feels more ‘real’ – and obviously, writing using a different part of the brain. 🙂

  26. Hi Marian, I have been a list maker for many years but the list grows way to big each day. I like the idea of three main things on your calendar and then a master list. Thanks for the encouragement!

  27. have had a planner for my bills for a couple of years. And, it works. I just got one for me and my things. Starting tomorrow, and hope it keeps me motivated. I am over 70, and need a little motivation these days. Thank you.

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  29. I tried the three things method. Trouble was, I hit the ground running in the AM and rev up again in the evening. The three things i got done were not the three things I planned to do, but three (or more) other things. The plans of mice and women do often go awry.

  30. Love this idea…. I tried it a few years ago and really felt that I was accomplishing things on my list and not wearing myself out! I also read a suggestion to make a list of everything (big, medium and small tasks) then choose your tasks according to the time you have that day…

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