Daniel Eden, Designer

3×3 GTD: A Priority-Driven To Do List

I’ve been through Facebook’s performance review cycle 7 times now, and finally feel like I’ve gotten a handle on how to effectively tell the story of my work; though until early last year, I found myself falling into a trap.

My peer feedback took a pretty familiar shape for the first four or five review cycles: “You’re doing great; just do more.” Fair enough, I’d think—it makes sense on the face of it that the way you continue to grow is to do more stuff. But cycle after cycle, I’d add to an ever-growing list of “things I’m doing”, yet the feedback would be the same: “You’re doing great; just do more.”

You’ve probably experienced firsthand the fact that we, as humans, have an upper limit to the number of things we can do. Not only that, but you’ll probably know that the greater the number of things you’re trying to do, the lower the general quality of those things becomes. When I found my list of things-I’m-doing growing, I noticed a stagnation in my career growth. How could this be? I was doing so much!

When I lamented about this to my team’s director last year, he made a simple suggestion: focus on fewer things, with greater impact. This advice seems obvious in hindsight, but has completely changed my approach to how I prioritise work and think about my growth as a designer.

Over the last 12 months or so, I’ve turned this bit of advice into a to-do framework that works well for me, keeps me feeling productive (even during a crisis like COVID-19), and helps me tell a clearer story about the impact of my work. The essential idea is that we can only feasibly achieve three big things a year, and only feasibly achieve three small (but important) things a day.

Here are the rules of this framework, in a nutshell:

  • Pick three big projects or focus areas for the next 6–12 months. Everything you do has to ladder up to one of those areas.
  • Pick three small jobs/tasks per day. Three’s the limit. Anything else that comes in either replaces one of today’s jobs, or goes on the list-of-three for tomorrow or some other day.

That’s it. If you take nothing else from this framework, those are the important pieces. But, if you have a moment, I’ll share some of the weedy details about how I’ve finessed this framework in practice.

Division of Labour

In order for this framework to succeed, it’s important that those around you know about it and agree that you’re focusing on the right big things. Coming to this agreement early on will help you when it comes to triaging or deferring work that doesn’t contribute to your big things: it’s likely that someone else’s big things would align well with the work that would distract you from yours.

I’ve also tried to keep a balance of my three things such that I always have a 2:1 ratio of professional work to personal goals, or vice versa. For example, I might have 2 big work things and 1 big personal thing for the year, but my day-to-day will be more flexible, so that some days I have 2 personal things and 1 work thing to take care of.

Three Big Things Annually

Choosing the three big things you’ll focus on is something that usually works best in collaboration with others: be it your manager, your peers, or your spouse/family, it helps to think about what you can achieve on a 6–12 month timeline that will help with your growth, long-term personal or professional goals, and/or your business’s goals.

On the professional side, I’ve found that a good rule of thumb for choosing the right thing is that you should look for projects/focus areas that:

  • Can be achieved in 6–12 months. You don’t want your focus area to be so small that you achieve it in one month.
  • Can be broken down into smaller (~3 week) milestones. You don’t want your focus area to be so big/ambiguous that you can’t set smaller, movable milestones and ensure you have a good stream of successes ahead of you.
  • Use ~3 different skills (example skills: communication, leadership, product thinking, visual design). If your focus area requires more than three core competencies, you probably need to work with more people to achieve it. If, on the other hand, your focus area really just leverages one core competency, then the scope may be too narrow, and it limits your opportunities for growth.

For personal focus areas, one of the big three could be:

  • Reaching a savings goal
  • Pulling off a big life event, like a house move or a wedding
  • Reaching a weight loss goal or establishing a workout routine

I think one of the critical things to bear in mind when choosing these big three is that you want to be able to feel like you’re making real progress. This is why it’s important that the goals can be broken up into milestones, or have some measurable quality that you can count on changing over time.

A final word of advice about the three big things is to talk about them regularly with your stakeholders. Continue to make sure, week over week, that you’re making progress towards them, and that they’re still the right things to focus on. You may find that your focus areas will change over time, and that’s ok! The environment you live and work in will change without announcement, and it’s only natural that your goals should respond to those changes.

Three Small Things Daily

Once you’ve set those three big focus areas, you can safely store them in the back of your mind. They will be the guiding principle behind everything that you do: anything that doesn’t clearly contribute to one of those goals, you should feel permission to decline (provided, of course, you and your manager/peers are aligned with those goals). This makes choosing three daily things a little easier: if you can go into each day and deflect anything that comes your way and is a distraction from your primary focuses, then you can set better expectations for yourself and for those around you about what’s important to you.

When it comes to choosing the three things that you do want to do each day, there are a couple of rules of thumb I try to bear in mind:

  • Make the jobs small enough to be achievable within 1 hour. This kind of time-limiting might be aggressive, but it’s intentionally limiting. Anything longer than an hour, and the task feels insurmountable. This rule basically means that you have three booked hours, each dedicated to one of your three jobs; the rest of the day is free to use for anything that pops up. You could schedule a calendar event for each of those three things, or just leverage the free time between your normal meetings to get them done.
  • Treat errands with the same weight as regular work. Even regular chores like doing laundry, buying groceries, or cleaning your home are things that detract from your limited time and energy resources. Don’t treat them any differently from your professional work: make them one of your daily jobs, and don’t try to count them as “free” things! Checking them off your list will help you feel accomplished, and sustaining a feeling of accomplishment and progress towards an end goal is what this framework is all about. These odd jobs are harder to directly link to your three big things, but the fact of the matter is that without doing them, your normal life can’t be conducted: they must be done.
  • Don’t beat yourself up for not checking off all three jobs every day. Usually this happens if one of your three jobs ends up taking longer than you expected, or just slips your mind. When this happens, move the job over to tomorrow, or some other day when you feel like you’ll be more able to take care of it.

After practicing these tactics for a while, you should find that it becomes more natural to decline or delegate things that are an ineffective use of your time, and that you’re able to see how all the small things you’ve done over 6–12 months add up to remarkable achievements. Although I’m sure your mileage may very, I’m hopeful that this framework is useful for those who, like me, are looking for better focus and a longer-lasting sense of achievement.

Written, designed, and built by Daniel Eden, a designer who you can find on Twitter, GitHub, or good old-fashioned Email.