Gina Trapani Has Stuck With One Productivity Trick. Here’s What It Is…
Few people can claim to be researching and writing about productivity as long as Gina Trapani has. Trapani is the co-founder of ThinkUp and Makerbase, and founding editor of Lifehacker. She has also written multiple books on tips and tricks to live a better life and get things done.
Over the years, Trapani has tried several productivity techniques and has narrowed them down to one system that works for her now. She shared her productivity secret with MakeUseOf.
The 3-Task System
“Each morning, before I open email or check Twitter or start working on anything, I think through exactly three things I’d like to complete by the end of the day. Just three. I add them to the top of my to-do list and start.”
“My three chosen tasks can change throughout the day given new information, and some days I get more than three done, but for me, three discrete completed tasks is almost always the goal.”
Trapani has used this system for a long time. Like with any productivity technique, it’s difficult to stick with it forever. When things are working well and the stress is less, she weaves off the system. “But when things heat up again I almost always return to it,” she adds.
Why You Should List 3 Tasks Only
You have to prioritize your task list, so Trapani’s system isn’t earth-shatteringly different. But the specific number here matters. She stresses that three tasks is the limit, nothing more and nothing less.
“After some experimenting (mostly with bigger numbers), I found ‘3’ to be not too big and not too small,” Trapani says. “I work better on a day-to-day basis shooting for achievable goals, and everyone can get three small tasks done in a day, no matter what.”
The number of tasks on your full to-do list can seem overwhelming, but prioritizing just three tasks for a day makes it seem more manageable, is the message here. Focusing on these three things prevents you from feeling like you’re falling behind on things, she adds.
The Benefits of the 3-Task System
Trapani has stuck with the 3-task system even through a stressful week of transitioning to new routines in her family, new household responsibilities, crashed servers at work, and generally combating the pitfalls of “everything that can go wrong will go wrong”.
“Stress and busyness is very much a state of mind, and it’s one that reduces my ability to be logical, flexible, and objective,” Trapani says. Sorting and prioritizing her list in advance helps in having a clear line of next actions. “Managing anxiety about not getting things done is key for me to get things done.”
Rethink, Reprioritize, Retry
It’s not like the 3-task system can’t fail. On most days, you will be able to finish three tasks and feel a sense of achievement when you see that “Done” list. But some days, even three tasks can seem like an uphill climb.
“Usually that means I didn’t think things through and break down the tasks enough, that I’d actually assigned myself a project, and not an atomic task. So, next time I try to make my tasks as small as possible.”
She adds that in case you are having a terrible day, it’s best to take a take a breath, re-prioritize your three tasks, and delegate and defer the others if possible. But the idea is that on a particularly busy day, don’t adhere to the goals you set for yourself at the start; be flexible in changing goals.
Achieving three tasks is what is important.
But sometimes, even that doesn’t work. “My day went completely and unexpectedly off the rails, and that’s okay too,” Trapani says. “Try again tomorrow, is my motto.”
How to Apply the 3-Task System
In her workflow, Trapani uses the ToDo.Txt app she created. It’s a simple text editor for writing tasks, with prioritization built into it by marking items as “A”, “B”, “C” and so on. And it syncs with your Dropbox.
Of course, you could use pretty much any to-do list app that lets you reorganize your tasks. For example, the cross-platform app Wunderlist will let you reorder the tasks in any list. Just drag-and-drop your day’s three tasks to the top.
You could even use some of the productive New Tab extensions for Chrome to make a simple list that you can change when you want.
The Larger Productivity Hack: You
Living a productive life is a marathon, not a sprint. Using the 3-task system or any other requires you to first take care of your health and happiness.
“Self-care is the non-negotiable groundwork,” Trapani says. “A good day where I feel accomplished starts the night before. If I get enough sleep, eat three squares, reduce my caffeine intake, and get some exercise, I’m much more able to get stuff done even when I’m pegged with tasks, or have to cope with unexpected stresses.”
In fact, Trapani only starts her 3-task prioritization exercise after a good night’s sleep and breakfast. Of course, this is subjective, but you can be productive whether you’re a morning person or a night owl. Figure out a healthy routine and lifestyle for you, and then start hacking your productivity — not the other way around.