Plans fail in more ways than they succeed. Complex plans fail in far more ways than simple ones. Good plans and strategies are usually simple.
This is especially true when your own behavior becomes a factor in success. An exercise plan, studying strategy or business goal doesn’t just succeed or fail based on its interaction with the world. It succeeds or fails based on its interaction with you.
Complicated plans are harder to stick with. They introduce mental overhead in thinking about the plan itself. That overhead cost distracts from the real work, sometimes to the exclusion of it.
Although it’s not universal, I’ve found a good rule of thumb for my goals. With any goal, pick a maximum of three things. Now do those three things well. Let everything else fade into the background.
A Lesson in Simplifying Your Plans
The idea of three occurred to me when examining my recent projects. In each, I started with a sophisticated plan that appealed to my ego. The original plan was complex—fitting of the difficulty of the challenge I wanted to tackle. But as I went on, I found the complexities distracting. Eventually, coincidentally, I settled on only three main activities for each goal.
During the MIT Challenge I started with an impressive list of tasks and schedules. Eventually I burrowed down to three activities: input (which was either reading or watching lectures, depending on the class), problem sets and the Feynman technique. Little else.
Learning Chinese I had a similar array of tasks: textbooks, phonetic drills, handwriting exercises, shadowing and more. By the end, there were just three that took up almost all my time: conversations, Anki and listening drills.
A plan sometimes starts complex when you’re not sure what works. But a good plan finishes simple.
The Power of Just Three Things
Examining other areas of my life, I saw the same repetition. Areas my life was going well had around three core activities. Areas which were disordered and progress was stalled had bloated plans.
My productivity system: a list of weekly tasks, a list of daily tasks and a calendar for scheduling.
My exercise routine: two routines at the gym and a day hiking in the mountains.
Other areas of my life aren’t making the same progress, and I now see the root cause: too many things I’m trying to do well simultaneously.
What if Three Isn’t Enough?
Three is only a pattern I’ve observed in my successful projects. There’s no magic to the number, aside from its elegance.
The number depends crucially on how you group things. Lifting weights also benefits from simplicity, but three might be too little. Instead you might choose three workouts instead of just three lifts. Stronglifts has become quite popular, and it has two workout plans of three exercises each (five unique exercises, in total).
Even if your goal is too multifaceted to be solved with three activities, it might still make sense to focus on only three at a time. Learning Chinese can’t be covered in just conversations, flashcards and audio input. That ignores pronunciation, reading and writing.
But trying to improve every aspect simultaneously is distracting. Focusing on those three for a few months meant I could make meaningful progress. Now, I’ve switched reading practice for audio input. My three things have changed, but the routine activities remain simple.
Simplicity Breeds Focus
Simple plans are boring. But that boredom also cuts away the ability to be distracted by whatever shiny new idea comes your way. When you’re only doing three activities, you can’t constantly hop between diets, apps or plans.
Simple plans are not optimal plans. But the goal isn’t to be optimal, it’s to be achievable.
People underestimate mental overhead. A plan you do automatically, unthinkingly, day after day, is a plan where almost all of your mental energies are spent accomplishing the goal. A plan you obsess and stress over eats up your energy not doing any actual work.
What are Your Three Things?
Pick an area of your life you’re not making the kind of progress you’d like to make. Ask yourself what three activities you would do, if you could only do those three things. Now commit to focusing only on those three things for a month.
Don’t quibble about definitions. Does a diet have to be three meals? Or three rules? Or three types of food? It doesn’t matter. The goal of having three things is mental simplicity so that your willpower is focused exclusively on executing the plan not thinking about it.
What if three won’t get you all the way? That’s fine. Work on your three for a few months and then switch. As long as the switching occurs infrequently enough, you’re still relying on habits to do your actions and not willpower.
What are your three things? Write it below in the comments!