Daniel Eden, Designer

3×3 GTD: A Priority-Driven To Do List

I’ve been through Meta’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:

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:

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

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:

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.