Ignore the Top Three Tasks Box

If you have ever thought about planning, I’m sure you’ve heard the advice, and seen the layouts that direct you, to list your top three tasks for the day.  I’m here to say, be careful!  Some very bad things can happen when you put all your task eggs into one basket.

Although the three task advice givers are often giving this advice in the context of a more detailed and comprehensive approach to planning, most people who encounter this “three top tasks” list are completely overwhelmed and have bought a planner as a knee jerk reaction to crisis. Your new planner has a space for “three top tasks”, so you dutifully fill in three tasks at the start of your day.  If this is you, check out these reasons for saying no to the top three tasks box. 

If you just thought “Well, what AM I supposed to do?”, scroll to the bottom for what to do instead.

Consequences of Top Three Task Advice for the Overwhelmed

A few things can happen when you are overwhelmed and have to narrow down your list into just three tasks:

Bypass really thinking about your life

If you only have three spaces to write down the most important things to do in a day, you are not likely to take the time to write down all the possibilities of things that need to be done in your day and week.  Face it, when given the limitation of just three lines, you just write down the first three things foremost in your anxiety driven mind.  These are likely to just be the urgent, not the important.

Quote: Your greatest danger is letting the urgent things crowd out the important. - Charles Hummel, Tyranny of the Urgent

Fail to break down your tasks into achievable chunks

Another thing that happens is that you do not break those things spiraling around in your head into actual tasks.  You are in rush mode (I’ve just got to write down three things and then I can get going on getting things done) so you write down something broad and vague. For example, sign up for a gym membership. This one task actually consists of multiple tasks: research which gyms are in the area, research how much each costs, research what each one offers, go visit the top contenders, etc.  Multiply that by three top tasks and you’ve set yourself up for disaster.

Accumulate specific tasks into master tasks

When you have so so so much to do, and there’s only three lines, a common solution is to just start grouping tasks into master tasks and writing those on the list.  If you have to go the grocery store, pick up the dry cleaning, pick up a prescription and do to the post office, you just write ‘run errands’ on the list.  Of course you will just remember everything, right?  And so you have to go out again later to do that thing you forgot because it wasn’t written down.

No idea whether you have time to do them all

This is the biggest logistical problem of the top three task box.  Even if you manage to break down all your tasks in your head and pick just the most important ones, have you actually considered whether you have enough time in your day to do them?  There’s a lot that just has to happen in your day that doesn’t get written down, including interruptions.  Those three tasks might just be impossible. This brings me to my final point –

Set up for failure – because you couldn’t even get just three things done

You’ve written those top three tasks proudly at the beginning of your day with full expectation that at least you can get those three tasks done. Then at the end of the day when you haven’t got that cute little checkmark next to each one, how do you feel?  How likely is it that you will even bother to specify anything the next day, or even pick up your planner by week’s end?

What to do instead

I’ve got a couple specific posts written to help you – Overwhelmed by your To Do List has a five step plan to get your priorities and life in order.

Don’t Start by Buying a Planner will help you set up a system that works BEFORE you invest in a planner.

Overwhelmed by your to do list?
Don't Start by Buying a Planner

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