About 15 years ago, I moved to Seattle and joined a global dot-com. It was a portfolio company comprised of many well-known travel brands, each with their own leadership, culture, and customers. It was also a publicly traded company so there was a board of directors, quarterly earnings, etc.
I was brought in to run communications and, in that role, I supported the CEO. He was a big business brain, having done mergers and acquisitions at a large financial institution in New York before being asked by his billionaire business mentor to move West and lead these bustling brands. He was also just 35 years old.
Part of what was fun – and draining – about this environment was that it was always go-go. Every day brought new challenges and there were plenty of places to jump into interesting things. Plus, there was a lot of travel to the different countries, offices, and events.
Despite all this, I noticed the CEO had a sense of calm amid the activity. There was almost always a handful of people huddled outside his office waiting to grab him for a quick this-or-that. Yet he was always on time for meetings and focused in his conversations.
I myself was trying to figure out the pace of the place, so one day I asked him how he managed all the demands for his time.
He reached over to his computer screen and pulled off a sticky note: “Every day, I write down three things,” he said. “If I get them done, the rest of the day is a bonus.”
The simplicity of that was stunning. Clearly there were more than three critical things that needed attention yet that was also why he had a team. Sure, people wanted the CEO to be part of the conversation or decision – but it wasn’t always needed.
As I grew with the company, so did the pull on my own time. With certain titles came more invitations to meetings and decisions and committees. It can be intoxicating to be seen as so critical, but the reality is all you really get in return is a power hangover.
The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that clarity can be far more powerful than volume. Involvement makes you busy, focus makes you productive.
That “three-things principle” stuck with me then and is part of my productivity practice to this day.
Our brains are wired to look for information. And this modern, digital world offers that up in abundance. This built-in distraction feature is part of what extends our daily to-do list. We can be in the middle of taking action, remember something else, stop to make a note of it, open a new browser window, then remember another note, see a red notification on a device, and off we go trying to sort the new and the remembered into our already busy brain.
Selecting the key three at the start of your day does more than make a mental promise; it attaches priority to your brain’s radar. The act of identifying the three actions for the day is a mental filtration system. A stack ranking of these items above others is already a completed cognitive task.
The beauty of three key things is that it is within reach. Even with incoming interruptions, surprises, additions, and distractions, it’s possible for you to start or make progress on each of the three. For this to happen, each need to be independent items. It’s really easy to over-stretch when we pick priorities.
The CEO’s list for that day, I remember, included making a phone call and sending an email – examples of tangible actions that can be completed in a relatively short amount of time. For the sake of this conversation, let’s say that means an hour or less. A time-bound focus helps us to break apart progress from the pursuit of all-or-nothing perfectionism. This is important scientifically as well as psychologically.
Going back to information processing, our brains can take in a huge volume of data. But there’s a cost. When sorting through volumes of information, the brain has to sort the important from the trivial. It does this with the help of the 80-plus billion neurons which send, receive, and transmit signals throughout the body.
Episode 10 explored the decision fatigue that comes when you spend your approximately 1,000 awake minutes in pursuit of the tens of thousands of decisions we make every day.
Let’s go back to the daily list. From a mental wellbeing perspective, it isn’t about you having to complete each item. You already win by having identified what should rise above the rest. There will be days when it’s hard to get even one of them done. However, your brain already has them registered with a mental notation. So it’s a step ahead next time a distraction pops up – and it will.
If you find yourself battling daily distractions, check out episode 27-it explores the cost we pay when we don’t invest in ways to minimize those papercuts to our productivity.
For today, think about what key things can be done fairly quickly. You don’t fail if they don’t get done. You simply ensure they are on the brain’s radar as other information tries to get its attention.
As an added nudge, what if one of the daily three included something you want to do – something that was fun or kind to yourself. A call to schedule a massage, emailing someone who means a lot to you, going for a walk on a break.
What if you got to be on your own list?
What if a list felt empowering instead of overwhelming?
Like most tools in the path to doing fewer things better, this is simply an idea. One that moves closer to fewer and focuses less on the better.
The key piece is to be in charge of your own list, or at least part of it. Then the rest is a bonus.
It’s one more way we can take care to take good care.