Make a Better To-do List With the 1-3-5 Method


No matter what kind of productivity goals you have and which techniques you plan to use to get it all done, you still probably start with a to-do list. Learning to formulate a solid to-do list is the key first step to being productive, since you need it to move on to other planning stages, like using the Eisenhower matrix to prioritize tasks or Kanban to organize them. Try using the 1-3-5 rule for a while and see how this to-do list system works for you. 

What is the 1-3-5 rule?

The 1-3-5 rule acknowledges that in a typical day, you just don’t have time to do it all. What you do reasonably have time for is one major task, three medium-sized tasks, and five little ones. 

These can be related or they can be separate. For instance, a big task might be going to your tax appointment, which is unrelated to your three mid-sized tasks: grocery shopping, preparing for a meeting at work, and picking up a gift for a friend’s birthday. Small tasks can be anything from answering emails to laying out your clothes for the week, depending on what you consider large, medium, and small. 

Conversely, the rule can also apply to major tasks and involve batching them into smaller groups. Say you’re planning a vacation. The 1-3-5 rule can help you break up everything you need to do. The big task can be booking flights and hotel accommodations. Three medium tasks might be getting tickets to whatever you’ll be doing while you’re at the destination, shopping for what you’ll need, and securing a pet sitter. Little tasks can be anything from setting an OOO to emailing around the itinerary. 

How to use the 1-3-5 rule to be productive

Start each day by making a to-do list, then go through and pull out anything especially timely. (Here’s where a knowledge of that Eisenhower matrix, which helps you prioritize responsibilities by urgency and importance, is going to be useful.) From that group, identify one big task, three medium ones, and five little ones. That’s your to-do list for the day. Acknowledging upfront that you can’t and won’t get it all done in a single day helps you stay focused on what you can and will do, rather than stressing about the remainder that you’re saving for tomorrow. 

Next, block out time in your calendar for each task. Use timeboxing, or the technique of giving every single thing you need to do in a day a designated time on your calendar, and consider giving yourself just a smidge less time than you think you need for everything, to defeat Parkinson’s law, which is the idea that you’ll waste time if you give yourself too long to do anything. Once you’ve laid out your day, start with that big task. Known as “eating the frog,” the big-task-first approach will give you a sense of accomplishment on completion, propelling you forward into those mid- and smaller-sized tasks. Plus, it stands to reason that the major responsibility will take the most time and resources, so knocking it out first ensures you have the time and resources to give it. 

Finally, be flexible. Unexpected assignments or duties crop up all the time and may not be easily categorized into the 1-3-5 boxes. You may also not finish one of your tasks for the day. The goal here isn’t to beat yourself up or be super strict. Rather, it’s to help you feel less overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things you need to do, prioritize them, and get a good amount done every day. If something doesn’t get taken care of, make sure to stick it back on the list the next day and keep going. 

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