Why is 3 the magic number for top priorities?

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Many of us understand the value of declaring top priorities, but what is the special magic associated with the number three?

By Ann Gomez

As a kid, I used to love going to Baskin Robbins. The 31 flavours of ice cream lit up my visual senses, filling me with joy and hope. I’ve always loved this array of choice, which comes down to a personality flaw: I want it all. Now. I want to taste it all. I want to do it all. I want to cross it all off my list – at the same time.

This approach generally worked during the early stages of my career. I offset my tendency to take on too much by throwing time at the problem. A few extra hours here and there allowed me to keep up.

Then it stopped working. Work ramped up right around the time my family started to grow. Once my first child was born (followed by three others), it became clear there would be no more extra time readily available. I knew I needed to reset my approach.

Fast forward to today and I am now firmly aware that more is not more. Chasing too many priorities spreads us thin, dilutes our efforts, and leads to overwhelm. Too many priorities, and too much choice, is a recipe for feeling over-committed and overloaded.

So, what is the right number of top priorities? Where do we draw the line between what we’re doing now versus later? The answer is simple: three.

Three is the right number of projects or goals we can chase at any time. Focusing on three priorities allows us to concentrate our efforts and make progress on our most important work. This keeps us in our zone of brilliance, where we do our best work and achieve the results we want. And when it comes to doing our best work, and achieving our big goals, we need to simplify.

Now, let’s be clear, each of your three priorities is bigger than any single task. Big projects like writing a dissertation or preparing a big report could be one of your core priorities. When these projects are done, or when you transition the work to someone else, you have capacity to take on new core priorities.

Other core priorities represent ongoing streams of work. If you lead a team, this is most definitely one of your core priorities. And this would include all the meetings, support and other work wrapped up in your role as a leader. Or you might serve clients and currently manage 10 different accounts, each with their own set of tasks and deadlines.

When you have a lot on the go, as we all do, grouping your work according to your three core priorities contains your work and helps you feel more focused and strategic. An incredible sense of calm settles in, allowing you to direct your energy into the doing rather than non-stop recalibrating. You’ll also be better able to make decisions about what comes next. This is what it truly means to prioritize. This is what allows you to make progress on your most essential goals.

So, what are your core priorities right now? I know it’s tempting to do more, but I encourage you to tap into the power of three. Unless, of course, we are talking about ice cream, in which case, I want to see all the options.

P.S. What about your other work that doesn’t align to your three core priorities? Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I’ll address these other tasks.

For more information about setting priorities, see Ann’s latest book, Workday Warrior: A Proven Path to Reclaiming Your Time, published by Dundurn Press, 2022.

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