Being creative and productive don’t always go hand in hand, or in my case, they constantly argue and smack each other around a lot. As I continue to dig deeper into the creative process, I’ve found many systems centered around the Getting Things Done mindset and experimented with a good amount of them. Most are so “task-oriented” that they leave little room for brainstorming, spur-of-the-moment ideas and side trips, and just what I’m going to label as “creative freedom”. Now many people are very successful in writing down a list of tasks to accomplish during the day, and one by one checking off each one. I’ve seen pictures of several bullet journals that make me want to take a nap after just reading them. And if these methods work for you, I celebrate you for being so orderly and precise.
There are so many things that can be put on those to-do lists…things we need to do, ought to do, should do, might do, want to do… it’s impossible to ever get to the end. The entire day is spent just checking tasks off the list.
In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman has developed what he calls the 3/3/3 method. Here is a summary of his premise…
“Those of us who spend our working days doing things with computers and ideas and words (instead of, you know, actually building houses out of bricks, or something) face the omnipresent challenge of how to organise them. My case may be fairly extreme, but at most points, each weekday, I could choose to tackle almost any of the items on my plate – and while that freedom is exhilarating, it’s also daunting. This is where it’s useful to follow some rule for structuring the day, like the 90/90/1 Rule, or the Most Important Tasks method, to name two I’ve found beneficial.
It’s not that any one rule is the objectively right one. These aren’t natural laws. But a simple heuristic is useful because a) it makes it easier to decide what to focus on; and b) for reasons that remain slightly mysterious to me, it provides much more motivation to actually do what you intended. In that spirit, I offer a rule I invented – or, if I’m honest, cobbled together from various sources – and which has served me well for months now. Following an intensive process of focus grouping and brand development, I’ve named it the 3/3/3 technique.
Every normal working day, my intention is:
• to spend three hours on my most important current project, having defined some kind of specific goal for the progress I aim to make on it that day;
• to complete three shorter tasks, usually urgent to-dos or “sticky” tasks I’ve been avoiding, usually just a few minutes each (I count calls and meetings here, too); and
• to dedicate time to three ‘maintenance activities’, things that need my daily attention in order to keep life running smoothly.
1. It’s non-comprehensive in terms of tasks. It’s not a grandiose attempt to find time for all the things I’d ideally like to do with the day; nor is it an attempt to organise every single thing I do most days (family activities, phone calls with friends, housework, school runs, etcetera). It’s just an effort to pick a handful of things that matter, and to try to ensure that no matter how the day pans out, they get done. On a good day I might do more. But that’s extra, not part of the plan.
2. It’s intended to take less than the time available. Most weekdays, I get about eight hours to control largely as I wish, and it’s no coincidence my 3/3/3 activities account only for about six of them. This isn’t a foolproof way around Hofstadter’s Law (Hofstadter’s Law: “A task will always take longer than expected, even when Hofstadter’s Law is taken into account.”) But it does mean I don’t embark on each day as if on a tightrope walk, needing everything to go exactly right in order for me to make it through the plan.
3. It’s loosely structured, not overstructured or unstructured. I’ve reluctantly come to accept that while I’ve used and preached it in the past, and admire those who stick to it, rigorous “time-boxing” – assigning a specific task or type of task to every hour of the workday – isn’t for me. One of two problems always arises. Either things don’t go as planned, and I find it hard to roll with the punches by repeatedly revising the plan. Or things do go as planned, and the plan starts to feel oppressive; I resent having to spend the day trudging my way through it. The 3/3/3 method gives shape to the day (for example, I know I need to do those three focal hours before anything else, or they’ll never get done) without boxing me in.
The most revealing thing about the method for me, though, has been how it functions as a form of “active patience”, training me to be satisfied with accomplishing less on any individual day as a way to accomplish more over the long haul. It’s tempting to disdain a plan as modest as 3/3/3 on the grounds that you can’t possibly afford to get so little done each day – so you adopt a far more ambitious plan instead, or simply dive in without a plan, intent on (say) writing for seven hours straight, or blasting through your admin backlog.
“The man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly,” wrote Adam Smith, “not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.” Yes, doing less is a way to be kinder to yourself, and to be more present to the world around you – but paradoxically, it’s also an excellent way to get more done.
I’m currently using this method of trying to be more productive with my time and add an additional hour a day for reading. It keeps me moving forward towards accomplishing my goals but feels less restrictive than the more rigid methods. It also encourages a more positive mindset and continued focus on the end goal. At the end of the day, it’s more about what did get done than all the little things that didn’t.