The Rule of Three


While I’m hiking The Long Trail, I’m reposting old favorites. This one originally published January 14, 2014.

Despite my annual resolution not to make New Year’s resolutions, I can’t help myself, so like the Lord High Executioner in the Mikado, I have a little list – not of people to behead, but of things to do. It seems endless, not just with new tasks, like renovate my website, learn how to tweet, and dig an asparagus bed, but also with the repetitive ones of groceries, finances and laundry.

But the Big Projects are repetitive too: write, exercise, be kind and generous. In fact, I could probably use the same list year after year, but I don’t. I think there’s some value to recommitting to the Big Ideals, like productivity and health. When it comes to writing my daily list of things to do, however, I limit myself to three.

To give credit where credit is due, I learned this technique from the therapist I saw in my twenties, the one who helped me come to terms with being a writer. In those days, I’d write lists that started with Wake up, and included tasks like Shower, Brush teeth, Dress. In my own defense, putting these tasks on the list did give me the satisfaction of crossing them off, boosting my sense of accomplishment before I even left my apartment to teach. But it was also like paying attention to static, and never getting past the Activities of Daily Life. So I tried the Rule of Three, and it worked so well, I’ve used it ever since, especially when I allow my To Do List to become overpopulated with tasks that I’ll do as a matter of course, whether I write them down or not.

I use the Rule of Three to clarify each day. Today, for instance, my three tasks are: write my post, work on Ellen, and follow up on business tasks. I To-Do-Listwill have the first task completed before eight; I’ll spend the bulk of the day working on the novel, where I’m nearly finished creating a list of new scenes that have to be written, as I continue to increase the story’s complications and bring the minor characters to life. In between bouts at my desk, I’ll come in to my office and call my producer at the radio station and the client who hasn’t yet returned the contract for a teaching gig that’s fast approaching.

Of course, I have more to do than “just work” – like meal preparation, errands, exercise and such. Whether it’s because I’m absent-minded or middle-aged, I have to write things down in order to remember them, and mapping out these other activities in my planner helps me be efficient. For instance, I attend a yoga class every Tuesday afternoon. This is on the schedule but not the To Do List. While this may seem like splitting hairs, it works for me, especially since if I’m struck fluent and find myself in a writing groove at 4 pm, I can choose not to go. I have to write; achieving a full-lotus is optional.

Because attending yoga requires a car trip past a bank and a grocery , I build those errands in to my exercise. But if I don’t go to yoga – the groceries can wait. In fact, everything can wait – until I’ve finished the three items on my To Do List for the day.

In many ways, this method of listing mimics my own writing process: I generate a rough draft that’s messy and inclusive, and then I hone it down. By allowing myself only three tasks a day, I’m forced to prioritize and I’m able to stay focused. Rather than being obsessed by crossing tasks off the list, I’m encouraged by how much I actually get done.

I’m curious to know how others use lists to boost creativity. And if anyone tries this Rule of Three, please let me know how it goes.

dll2013Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist, and editor currently accepting select clients developing projects in prose. Her novel Into the Wilderness won the Independent Publishers’ Gold Medal for Regional Fiction. She lives in southern Vermont.

Even though I’m attempting a through-hike of Vermont’s Long Trail, you can still receive An Essay Every Wednesday emailed directly to your inbox – by subscribing at It’s easy, it’s entertaining, it’s educational, and it’s free.

44 thoughts on “The Rule of Three

  1. This year, I got a planner for 2014. Every night, I write a list of things I want to do the next day. I look at it in the morning and try to complete everything on the list. Sometimes, I have big things to do. I would like to try the Rule of Three method today. Here are the three things: Update my About Me Page, continue with my Inspiration Board, and go to the Spoken Word Conference. Oh, and a bonus is birthday doodles (Tomorrow’s my birthday) Thank you for the cool idea. I’ll get back to you on how it goes.

    • How do your prioritize with so many? When I made long lists, I found myself spinning my wheels, doing the inconsequential first, just to be able to get them out of the way. Some days, I’d never make it to the meat of the day.

      • Im very good at multi-tasking (which is both a good and a bad thing ) I am able to juggle alot and still find a way to get it all done. even if it means sacrificing a bit of “down” time for myself.

    • I find prioritizing is key – not just in getting through the day, but also in getting through a scene, chapter, novel. I’m always asking, What’s important here? And what can go? I’m getting good at throwing stuff out!
      Thanks for reading the blog.

  2. Thanks for this. I use a small legal pad and try to map out my week by putting a square around a date and day. What usually happens, though, is that first day, say it’s Monday, has a list 20 items long, because I don’t want to forget I have to do them. What I tend to do is say I’ll complete them that week instead of that day, then check them off as I do them. I’ll try the rule of three. Way more sane.

  3. I used to end up with very long to-do lists and they can be overwhelming. Subconsciously, I began shortening my list and now I just have 3 things on it: yoga, writing and French lessons. It makes my daily tasks much more achievable; and I think you’re correct in saying that all (or most) of the other tasks still get done, despite not making the list.

  4. When you wrote that you used to write down items on your list just to have the satisfaction of crossing them off, I knew I had to keep reading because that is what I do. And like your former self, the “important things fell by the way side even if I crossed off 8 things on my list. I think for me in this transition of becoming a writer, my list of things to do is my way of justifying that I accomplished something during the day because unless you are freelancing, working on a short story or novel takes a lot of time and the rewards aren’t as easily seen with a traditional job (like mine as a former teacher). I like your idea of 3 things and then having items on a schedule and since the week is still new, I think I will try it out. Thanks for a great (and timely) post!

  5. At the office, I use a big notepad to write a list of things to do at work. I also give them numbers to set the priority and at the end of the day I feel very accomplished when all the lists already scratched. While for my private life, I used an app to track my resolution 🙂 🙂

    I love your post! It encourages me to do this the whole year and onward.

  6. Thank you for this great piece! I’ve reblogged it on Converse with Kurti. It’s my personal blog, but getting a schedule that works is one of my main problems in my life. I’m definitely going to try this!

  7. Our company provides us with a Franklin Covey Day Planner and knowing how expensive they can be, I use mine regularly. I mark my deadlines for projects then I work backwards and schedule time during the days to work on the smaller tasks that need to get done in order finish the project on time. This relieves a lot of stress when the deadline comes and I don’t have to scramble at the last minute.

    Of course I also use my planner for personal things, like picking up prescriptions or mailing a package. But I also use it for an even more personal purpose. Each week I ask myself what can I do to be a better friend/ co-worker/ partner/ daughter/ sister…you get the picture. Then I add to my planner things like call Dad, set dinner date with friends, text son, make cookies for boyfriend…Sometimes we get caught up in our busy daily lives we forget to make time for those really important people.

    Your rule of 3 sounds like a good way for me to schedule my day. Three items should be quiet doable and not make my day feel overwhelming…Thanks!

  8. Number one on my To do list is to look at my agenda. That is where I keep appointments and trivial tasks, and that is why I often forget to look. As for the writing tasks, that list is so short I can keep it in my head. Write fiction. Or. Write non-fiction. Hmm. Maybe I should add Submit.

  9. That’s a great idea! I have written a lot on lists on my blog, especially in my The Untangling Ten project, but I have never met anyone who did a list of three, I think I’ll try that! In some ways it is what I do when I list everything, sort and prioritize, and in other ways it is not! I’ll try it and see what the differences are! Thanks!
    Solveig at

  10. I am trying to stick to it more this year because I find lists so helpful. I have various ones for the house ( we’ve just moved) and for my writing. I don’t always tick off everything on the list, but writing that list first things does get me motivated.

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this! I too keep a “to do list,” but it usually includes very minute detail of every specific thing I want to get done. It’s sort of overwhelming. Your Rule of Three method would get the job done and be so much more satisfying and easier to manage (mentally) for me. I’m so glad I saw this, thank you!

  12. This is genius! I’m addicted to lists. I write them for everything, and sometimes things take months to get crossed off. I end up writing them again and again in the hopes that today will be the day. Sometimes I have to tell myself that rather than writing another list, I can spend that time DOING something that’s on one of my lists. It works for me. Sometimes. Maybe I should try the rule of 3….

  13. Since the turn of the year I have been working very hard to schedule a daily writing session around everything else that needs to be done on a daily basis. By writing lists I have been able to separate things more clearly and make better use of my time. Thanks for sharing your insights with us 🙂

    Heather xxx

  14. Pingback: How ten makes three | Indexyourlife

  15. This rule is a good one. My friends and family are always impressed how well organized I am even if I am working from home (especially getting dressed and not wearing the pajama all day long). 😉 I have a strict early morning routine with getting ready for the day, taking care of the cat and preparing a whole box of sandwiches, fruits, veggies and sweets for my work day. In the late afternoon after work I do things like exercising, cooking, meeting friends. I have a work schedule and a leisure time activity schedule and a weekly to do list. Otherwise I would get lost. But there are days as well when I really like to skip all that and just go with the flow. 😉

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  17. I’m a very disorganised person really so this is something that I should maybe practice! I’m a self employed Reflexologist and as such have had to get used to reorganised my whole day or week at times to fit around clients. I do have 7 goals a month list though, which I do tend to adhere to.

    • It’s not you, it’s the agenda models that just don’t get the fact that lots of self-employed professionals have to reorganize continuously around client needs (sometimes just whims). I manage about 3/4 goals a week 🙂

  18. Pingback: How to Sustain Political Activism and Write a Book | Live to Write – Write to Live

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