In pursuit of financial independence and personal fulfillment

2 simple rules that jump-start your productivity

Have you ever had those days where you just don’t have the energy or concentration to get done what you know you need to get done?

I sometimes find myself gravitating toward distraction or busywork — the simple things that maybe need to get done, but aren’t the top thing requiring my attention. It’s frustrating to feel like the inertia of inaction is keeping you from getting stuff done.

I recently learned two tricks that have been really helpful in the short time I’ve been using them. Hopefully they can work for you, too.

The 1-3-5 rule

This productivity trick came to me through Chris Guillebeau’s newsletter, but he credits The Muse co-founders Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew with its origin. In “The New Rules of Work,” they suggest focusing your daily to-do list by limiting it to one big task, three medium tasks and five small tasks.

Lists have always been a good way for me to keep track of my to-dos and a feel-good way to cross things off. But a long list with lots of things all mixed together in the order I thought of them isn’t really conducive to quick prioritization.

Enter the 1-3-5 rule.

I use a fresh Post-It note at the beginning of each day and draw two lines across it. The top section is my Big Goal — the one thing I need to get done by the end of the day. It may be something important due the next day or a section of a larger, longer project that helps move the chains down the field.

The middle section are three medium tasks for the day. These are things that will take 30 minutes to an hour of work to get done. These are typically important items, and often something that must be done within a day or two.

The bottom section contains the five easy things I want to get done that day. This could be making a doctor’s appointment, paying a bill, sending an email, following up on a conversation. These take a few minutes to 20 minutes.

Depending on my mood, I can either knock out a medium goal or several small goals right off the bat to get the productivity juices flowing. Crossing off one or two items on a massive list is nice, but not as nice as crossing one or two items off a list of just nine.

So far, this has kept me on track and knocking off to-dos at a great clip.

The 5-second rule

I learned about the 5-second rule when Lewis Howes interviewed Mel Robbins on The School of Greatness podcast.

This isn’t the 5-second rule we all used in middle school when a few stray Skittles made their way to the floor. (OK, some of us still use it today, even if it may or may not be a good idea.)

What Robbins suggests in her book, “The 5 Second Rule,” is that from the moment we get that inspiration to do something, say something, or somehow act on something, we have five seconds before our brain decides that status quo is safer and shuts down our desire for action.

It’s based on our habit loops, which make us more comfortable to do the things we’re accustomed to doing and less likely to act on something new.

The simple way to overcome this? Once you get that urge, count down from five and when you hit one, you will have activated the part of your brain that can use rational thought rather than encoded habit to get you moving.

As unassuming as this advice sounds, I’ve found it to work. There’s a sense of urgency when you count down like that. You’ve given yourself a very short window to make a decision, and unless you can rationally explain why it would be a bad thing to do, you owe it to yourself to get in gear and do it.

Do I really want to vacuum the stairs? Of course not! But if the thought crosses my mind, I can’t logically talk myself out of the need to do it in five seconds, so I get off my butt and grab the vacuum. I’m done in 10 minutes and feel like I accomplished something and it wasn’t even hard. What else can I do?

Putting the two together

If making my 1-3-5 list helps organize what I have to do with my day, the 5-second rule keeps me on track when my natural inclination is to procrastinate. I look at an item on the list, count down and get after it.

There’s accountability on both fronts. If I count down and don’t start working, I feel like a total chump, and nobody wants that. Then, at the end of the day, I should have my list crossed off and not have to worry about picking those things back up the next day because they slipped through the cracks.

Do you have any productivity hacks that help you get stuff done, even when you’re not feeling it?


  1. Cubert

    Good stuff! I’ll look to incorporate these into my routine – alongside my daily 5AM wake up call!

  2. the Budget Epicurean

    These are both so simple, but they sound like they could really work! I like the idea of a smaller to-do list. When it gets soooo long, I just feel overwhelmed and don’t do any of it. Far better to accomplish just a handful of things, but important things.

    • I Dream of FIRE

      The list has been super helpful for me. Home or work, I can jot down a quick roadmap for what needs to be done and make sure I get at least those things done. If I get more done, bonus!

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