Prioritizing with the Rule of Threes

Steve Williamson, VP Digital Marketing and Content, eRep, Inc.
Monday, March 13, 2023
Prioritizing with the Rule of Threes

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When you have a lot to accomplish and are having a hard time prioritizing and figuring out where to start, follow the Rule of Threes.

Break your list into three equal-sized groups.

  • The items that go into the first group must get done and must get done before the other two groups.
  • The second group must get done but not right away.
  • Tasks that go into the third group would be nice if they are eventually completed, but the world won't end if they don't.

Although you may not keep the list exactly as it appears, and the importance or timing of some objectives may change, this approach helps you group things into more manageable chunks. While simultaneously helping you hone in on what needs tackling first, it can also help you weed out unimportant tasks from your agenda.

The Rule of Threes forces you to prioritize your tasks at a high level.

There are several reasons why this Rule of Threes is so helpful. First, it forces you to prioritize your tasks at a high level. It's easier to break things up into broad groups than it is to go through each one and compare it to all the others. Essentially it's a first and easy stab at dividing and conquering.

Second, by enforcing that each group be of relatively equal size, it helps you avoid the problem of treating everything as a top priority. You literally cannot get everything done at once; human multi-tasking is a myth. If there isn't room enough in the top group, you are forced to identify which tasks can be dropped into the second grouping.

By enforcing that each group be of relatively equal size, it helps you avoid the problem of treating everything as a top priority.

This method of equally sized groups can help you spot tasks that really don't need to be done at all. They also might be what can be considered "flex tasks." If they are accomplished, that's great, but if not, you're not losing much. Sometimes your overall task list gets shorter by this approach, and that's a good thing.

Finally, once you have placed your tasks into three equally sized groups, go through each grouping and prioritize its individual tasks in the order you will tackle them. You can choose to go after the tasks with the highest value, or the ones that can be accomplished the quickest. How you sort them is entirely up to you based on what you value, but the key is to remember to tackle them in serial order. Unless you are delegating tasks to multiple people or other resources, work on them one at a time until each is completed in turn.

Remember, humans cannot truly multi-task.

Bonus Tip:

If you are a service provider or consultant, it can often help to work with your client to break down their requested objectives into three groups of equal size. Label them "Must be done", "Will be done", and "Nice to have". Match up these groups to the resources (money and time) the client is able and willing to allocate to the project. If there is money and time left over, work your way down the "Nice to have" list until you run out of money in the budget.

For this exercise, assume that any tasks in the first two groups must be accomplished, and therefore will be paid for.

If there is a second round or additional resources are allocated to the budget (perhaps at the start of a new fiscal year) revisit this list and determine if any of the remaining "Nice to Have" tasks are still desired. You'll be surprised how often that list gets shortened through attrition because the client doesn't have enough motivation to pay for it.

In the real world, new objectives pop up all the time. Immediately determine if they can be postponed, and if not, feed them into the list following all of the same rules above.

Final Note

There are many ways to get things done. This Rule of Threes is just one way to look at competing projects so that they can be more easily prioritized. How we mentally view our to-do list is half the battle toward tackling what needs to be done or what should be put onto the back burner — or eliminated altogether.

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Steve Williamson

Steve Williamson

Innovator/Banker - VP Digital Marketing and Content, eRep, Inc.

Steve has a career in project management, software development and technical team leadership spanning three decades. He is the author of a series of fantasy novels called The Taesian Chronicles (, and when he isn't writing, he enjoys cycling, old-school table-top role-playing games, and buzzing around the virtual skies in his home-built flight simulator.

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