Pick Three Things. Now Do Them Well

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!

  • Dane

    “If you have more than 3 priorities you have none.” Or something close to that. And I’ve too found it to be the most helpful with progress. Pick the 3 most important and go to town. Great post–great to keep this in mind and too easy to forget it’s power.

  • Jacky

    My current study plan for Physics and Calculus:

    1. Reading/Lectures
    2. Practice exercises
    3. Self-tests/quizzes

  • NANDEESH H N

    I totally agree man. Simplicity is the road to greatness.

  • Catherine Cavanaugh

    3 things eh? I can do that. 3 is easy. I end up pushing too many goals too hard and too fast and end up feeling like a failure because I can’t do them all. 3 is totally do-able.

  • Elfin

    It’s funny how simplicity gets downplayed. Simplicity is not easy, it is way harder to apply to our lives. But as you said, it is vital, it keeps us focused and motivated. Now I understand this logically, rationally, but applying it to my own goals required somebody else, you, pointing it out to me ! But how many times have I told other people the same thing ? How crazy are our brains that we need somebody from the outside to tell us something for it actually to sink in ?
    3 things sounds great, it is a compromise between too many and too few. Definitely do-able, what a relief !

  • Arya

    I am presently executing complex plans for my exam on nov1st.And the plans arent going grt .so taking ur advice i am throwing out my elaborate plans and sticking to jus three things..studing in anki,doing ful pattern exams, doing half hour practice sets. I hope this works out..

  • Sebastian Aiden Daniels

    Focusing on just three things is good advice. I have definitely sputtered in my past by focusing on too many things and as you say getting distracted by the shiny objects.

    I am going to have to think about what my three things are. I know one of them is my blog, which can be broken down into three things such as writing, social media marketing, and reading other blogs and commenting.

  • Mark Edwards

    Good observation. I took an Economics Psychology course that talked about this. It’s human nature to want to do things the simple way, and the more complicated it is, the less people take action. They design forms specific ways (i.e. opt-in and opt-out forms) to control the majorities decisions.

    It’s almost scary because studies have even been done where doctors choose your surgery based on how much thinking and intricacy goes into the decision.

    Einstein once said, ““Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

  • Briana

    3 really is the magic number. For writing, it’s intro, body, conclusion. I really need to incorporate it in every part of my life. Including books maybe. No more than 3 at a time

  • yu wang

    yeah.we always think we can do many think at same time,but the trueth is we can’t done well for everything. Steve Jobs said that pay your attention on five important things,and throw other things away.

  • Scott, are you familiar with OKRs? This really reminded me of them, and I think you’ll enjoy learning a bit about them if you’re not already aware of the approach: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OKR

    Here’s a good video / presentation about them from Google Ventures: https://www.gv.com/lib/how-google-sets-goals-objectives-and-key-results-okrs

  • Patrick Kanaley

    Scott, are you familiar with OKRs? This really reminded me of them, and I think you’ll enjoy learning a bit about them if you’re not already aware of the approach: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

    Here’s a good video / presentation about them from Google Ventures: https://www.gv.com/lib/how-goo

  • Sarah Salvo

    Thanks for the great suggestion. At work, while I come up with tons of ideas and can start working on many of them, I truly have difficulty finishing them. Upon reading your post, it occurred to me that perhaps I was just making my steps too complicated. So, simplify I shall. Thanks for the tips Scott! 🙂

  • Sarah Salvo

    Thanks for the great suggestion. At work, while I come up with tons of ideas and can start working on many of them, I truly have difficulty finishing them. Upon reading your post, it occurred to me that perhaps I was just making my steps too complicated. So, simplify I shall. Thanks for the tips Scott! 🙂

  • SRK

    Thanks Scoot. The article was really useful. It gives some hope:)

  • SRK

    Thanks Scoot. The article was really useful. It gives some hope:)

  • SRK

    Scott

  • SRK

    Scott

  • Thanks….this is really helpf

    St

  • louise mollot

    3 things 1.. to Unite a group of women of variety ages,2 ..who are ..interested in wellness lifestyle..3 ..organize collective land buy to live n garden Fukuoka style

  • louise mollot

    I mean..Wellness like…lettuceheals.com

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