Why Is 3 the Magic Number for Top Priorities? - Dundurn
Jan 05, 2024

Why Is 3 the Magic Number for Top Priorities?

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 something I’ve struggled with all my life: I want it all. Now. And what I’m really talking about here is my list (although ice cream is a nice bonus).

I am very good at adding new ideas to my list. And I want to do it all. Now. I want to cross it all off my list and still have time to spare to watch some Netflix, ideally.

This ‘do it all’ 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.

It worked. Until 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 overcommitted 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. One of your core priorities could be to service your clients, which would include a wide range of activities across multiple accounts. Another core priority could be to lead a team. And another could be to lead a big project such as a product-line extension. Then, as your work evolves, you can modify your core priorities.

Some of your core priorities are project-based and have a clear endpoint. When you reach your goal, you have the capacity to take on a new core priority. Other core priorities represent ongoing streams of work. Client work and leadership responsibilities tend to be evergreen priorities. And these priorities would include all the meetings, deadlines, and other associated activities.

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.

To make the most of your time this year, I encourage you to align your goals to three core priorities. Then prioritize within those categories. This will help you maximize your most precious resource – your time. 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 still want to taste all the options.

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