The 1-3-5 Rule is Your Answer to Crushing Your Daily To-Do List

1-3-5 rule"
1-3-5 rule
Source: @pnw-prod | Pexels
Source: @pnw-prod | Pexels

I have two ongoing to-do lists I keep in my Apple Notes—one for work, the other for miscellaneous tasks—which I go through and update each morning when my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed mind is perhaps a little too ambitious. Check off laundry, an article draft, and unanswered emails all before lunch? No problem. But by the end of the day, much to my chagrin, my to-do lists are still seemingly endless, and it feels like I have nothing to show for it.

Blame it on my perfectionism, my insatiable hunger and opening the fridge every half hour as if something new miraculously appeared, or a meeting I have to log onto right as my writer’s block has lifted—distractions happen, and mastering the art of the to-do list is no easy feat. And experts agree: The common struggle to tackle our to-do lists is real—41 percent of to­-do items are never completed. Cue the 1-3-5 rule. Is it the answer to our to-do list and productivity woes? Keep reading to find out for yourself.

What is the 1-3-5 rule?

We chalk up falling short on our to-do lists to interruptions and procrastinating tendencies, but we set ourselves up for failure by overloading our to-do lists, not conceptualizing actionable plans when making them, and our ineptness at estimating how long it will take to complete tasks (there’s even a word for it: planning fallacy). The good news is the 1-3-5 rule addresses all of our shortcomings. Created by The Muse’s founder and president, Alex Cavoulacos, it’s one of her secrets for actually getting sh*t done and conquering your to-do list. Here’s the rundown: “On any given day, assume that you can only accomplish one big thing, three medium things, and five small things,” Cavoulacos explained.

How to apply the 1-3-5 rule

The first step is creating a comprehensive master list of everything you need to get done. Then, narrow down that list to a more digestible daily to-do list. Choose one big task, three medium tasks, and five small tasks to complete in a day, so your daily to-do list consists of just those nine items. For example, if you have a large project that needs to be turned in by the end of the week, you would identify that as your one big task. Then, you would identify three medium tasks, like following up with a client, outlining meeting plan notes, and sending invoices. Finally, five smaller tasks would round out your list. This could look like answering priority emails, setting meeting times, checking in with your teammates, or anything else you have on your plate that doesn’t take too long to accomplish.

Easier said than done, though, right? “I know it can be tough to narrow your list of to-dos down to 1-3-5—but it’s important to prioritize,” Cavoulacos said. “Like it or not, you only have so many hours in the day, and you’re only going to get a finite number of things done. Forcing yourself to choose a 1-3-5 list means the things you get done will be the things you chose to do—rather than what just happened to get done.” Bottom line: By having your 1-3-5 list at the ready before you start the day, you’ll be intentional with your time and focus and prioritize your most important tasks.

Tips for making the most of the 1-3-5 rule

Now that you have a clear framework to structure your day, it’s time to put the 1-3-5 rule into practice. Here are a few expert-backed tips that can help you benefit from implementing this rule.

Make your tasks specific

When writing our to-do lists, we usually jot down each assignment in a few words, a vague description at best. The non-descriptive nature of our lists only creates yet another deterrent and time-suck because you’re left wondering how you’re going to even start said assignment. Instead, write out clear-cut, actionable to-dos so that when you get to each assignment, you’re ready to tackle it head-on. For example, rather than simply writing “emails” on your 1-3-5 list, write “file emails into appropriate categories” or “respond to flagged emails.”

Start with the most difficult task first

According to Brian Tracy, the author of the legendary book about productivity, Eat That Frog! (more than 450,000 copies sold and translated into 23 languages), if the first thing you do each morning is eat a live frog, then you’re done with the toughest thing for the day. “Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task,” Tracy said. “It is the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. So, ‘eat that frog’ is another way of saying that if you have two important tasks before you, start with the biggest, hardest, and most important task first.” In other words, make your “frog,” AKA your one big task, the most challenging thing, the thing you’ve been putting on the back burner.

Write your 1-3-5 list ahead of time

“Before leaving work, take a few minutes to define your 1-3-5 for the next day so you’re ready to hit the ground running in the morning,” Cavoulacos recommended. Whether it’s before you shut your laptop for the day or first thing in the morning, carve out time to sit down and thoughtfully plan out your 1-3-5 list. You’ll end up saving time in the long run when you take the extra 5-10 minutes to build your list intentionally rather than doing it on a whim. If going old school and writing it out by hand isn’t for you, try using digital to-do list apps, like Todoist, Google Tasks, or Trello, or giving The Muse’s template a whirl.

Be flexible

If nine to-do items still seem too daunting or if your days are packed with meetings, you might need to cut your number of items down. Start with 1-2-3 and slowly build your way up to 1-3-5. The Muse Editors who’ve tried the 1-3-5 rule firsthand suggest leaving some of your task slots blank to fill in as things come up, especially if you have a lot of unexpected tasks thrown at you in your job. Don’t get fixated on the numbers or the logistics. Give the 1-3-5 (or your own version) a go in order to hone in on the things that matter most to you. It’s as easy as 1-2-3 or 1-3-5.