Be More Productive with a 3-Point Plan

Images of a male hand counting to three

When you have limited time to get work done, you need to focus your effort and keep it on track. A 3-point plan helps you do that.

I mean something specific by a 3-point plan. It is not just a list of three tasks. It is a prioritized, integrated list that captures your intentions for how to use a particular block of time. For example, the morning before I left on a recent plane trip, I needed to pack, plus I had approximately an hour of discretionary time. I knew that if I didn't keep on track, I could easily waste that extra time. Worse, if I got deeply involved in something, I could make myself late for the plane. My 3-point plan for the morning was:

  • Get up early
  • Pack first
  • Pay bills/send receipts if possible

As you see, this is short and sweet. But it's deceptively simple. It is neither a list of tasks nor a list of goals; it builds in some contingency planning. Think of it as the purposes you need to hold in mind at the beginning, middle, and end of your time block.

How a 3-Point Plan Guides You

A plan like this provides an effective mental guide for your time for several reasons.

First, you can easily remember such a short plan. This makes a significant difference.

When I woke up about 30 minutes before my alarm clock went off, I spontaneously remembered this plan. I immediately realized I could increase my discretionary time by a half an hour. That would make it more likely I could both pay all the bills and send the receipts to my bookkeeper. The result? I jumped out of bed at 5:30 in the morning, and thanks to the extra half an hour, I did indeed get the receipts finished before I left. I never would have finished if I hadn't easily remembered the plan, even groggy in bed as I first woke up.

Second, having the next points in mind makes it easier to maintain an appropriate level of urgency. Once I was up, I needed to shower and dress before I could pack. These are routine activities that you can do efficiently or not. Having "pack first, pay bills/send receipts if possible" in mind helped me reject the many opportunities to lollygag along the way. Instead, each step in my morning routine was adapted to help me pack. As I finished using various tools and products, I systematically set them aside so they would be packed. When I chose my clothes for the day, I also chose the clothes to pack. Having my plan in mind expedited my morning routine, simplified my packing, and maximized the time I had to finish off the bills and receipts before I left for the airport.

Finally, having a 3-point plan helps you stay focused on the most important results. To pay the bills, I needed to look through some papers on my desk and about 100 emails in my inbox to make sure I got them all. Every one of those emails and pieces of paper could be a diversion. But I stayed focused on paying bills and collecting receipts, because I had in mind my purpose — and the words "if possible."

What Goes into a 3-Point Plan?

I suggested that you think of your 3-point plan as the purposes you need to hold in mind at the beginning, middle, and end of your time block. What exactly do I mean by that?

A purpose is a goal you hold in mind to guide your actions. But not any goal can be held in mind as a purpose. An effective purpose must be closely tied to the actual actions you plan to take. If your goal is too vague, such as "get a lot done before leaving," it will not help you make moment-by-moment decisions. Instead, you will flounder.

To guarantee that your purpose will guide you, you may need to break it into two component parts:

  1. The next physical action
  2. The reason for taking that action

I explain the mental benefits of identifying a next physical action in my recommendation for David Allen's Getting Things Done. I explain the mental benefits of naming the reason for your decisions in my blog post on What is Missing from Your Plan for the Day?

You need both parts of your purpose in mind so that you move forward smoothly. If you have ever stared at a blank page knowing you were supposed to "write something" but you had no idea what to do right now, you know how paralyzing it is when you don't know the next physical action to take.  If you have ever walked into another room and then wondered why you were there, you have seen what happens when you lose sight of your reason.

People often describe this as a failure of memory, but it is actually a failure of intention. You gave yourself the instruction that you needed to walk to your desk, but not why you needed something from your desk. If you gave yourself the instruction, "I need to get packing tape from the desk so I can seal up this heavy box," you would get all the way to the desk and back to the box with the packing tape without a hitch. That may sound like a lot of words to hold in mind as your purpose, but if you are only walking from one room to another and back, it is no problem.

On the other hand, if you are trying to do something more complicated than walk to a room to get an object, you can get in trouble if the purpose you hold in mind is too long and complex. You start to micromanage yourself and wind up stuck in the weeds.

Whenever you undertake a complex action, you need to be mindful of the need for mental crow space. You will use part of your crow space to keep track of the goal, but most of it will be focused on the task at hand. That will include making decisions, solving problems, and putting thoughts into words. All of those mental actions take considerable crow space.

As a rule of thumb, your entire 3-point plan needs to be about 15 words or less. When it's that short, you can keep track of the three parts (beginning, middle, and end) wordlessly. You can keep the whole plan in mind in the background. It just doesn't work if there are more words. You spend your time trying to remember the plan instead of doing the task. Incidentally, this is why it's a 3-point plan. Only a 3-point plan can be made short enough to fit in your crow.

More formally, the 3-point plan needs to be essentialized so that you can hold it in mind at every moment while you're taking action.

The operative word here is "you." You are the person who needs to understand and follow your 3-point plan. Only you. That makes it a lot easier to make the plan short.

Consider another 3-point plan I made on the same trip. I knew I'd have some time at the airport and on the plane when I could work on computer tasks, but the time would be broken up. I wanted to use those pieces of time effectively. Here is my exact plan:

  • L22-1 Emails
  • L21-4 Emails
  • Email

That list is wildly subjective. You may not understand it at all, but I knew exactly what it meant and why the items were in that order.

In plain English, here's what it meant to me: The first item consisted of about 7 emails I needed to edit before I could start selling my next Launch program. The task was due in a few days and it was the fastest, easiest task on the list, so I put it first. The second item on the list was to edit 30 emails that would go out over the next 30 days to people in the current Launch program. Some of these were needed in a few days, others later. I wanted to do them all at once to be efficient and to get that set of tasks off my mind. The final task, "email," meant "clean up as much email as you can using your normal processes." In other words, do the lower priority email replies last.

I was able to hold that paragraph of information in my mind as seven words because I knew exactly what I meant. It was a terrific 3-point plan that helped me jump into action each time I had a window of time to use my computer.

In the other plan I shared, I knew the risky parts, and so I included several words to keep me on track:

  • Get up early
  • Pack first
  • Pay bills/send receipts if possible

I didn't just need to get up (obviously), I needed to get up early — if I wanted to send the receipts. I didn't just need to pack (obviously), I needed to pack first — so that I didn't spend all of my time doing admin and then have trouble getting out the door. I didn't just need to pay a few bills (obviously), I wanted to send receipts — but the receipts could wait if necessary. The words I chose helped me maintain exactly the mindset I needed to get things done.

Similarly, your plan should include words that keep you focused. You can tell when you've succeeded, because when you state your plan, you feel like you are a little wind-up toy. Someone has just wound the key at your back so you are hopping into action.

How Do You Make a 3-Point Plan?

So how do you create such a short, effective 3-point plan for yourself?

You do it in your head.

Yes, this is really the answer.

If you can't create such a 3-point plan in your head, you have evidence that you are biting off more than you can chew. You are being a little unrealistic. When it's hard to make the plan in your head, you can bet it's going to be hard to take the steps.

If you're blank making the plan, you won't know what steps to take in action. If you're overloaded making the plan, more issues will come up as you try to take steps, and you'll be even more overloaded. If you're unclear when you're trying to make a plan, you can expect to hit a lot of unknowns when you take action. In other words, if you can't make a 3-point plan, you can expect to flounder a bit. The tasks are just a bit too complicated for you to march through them.

It turns out that making a 3-point plan is not just a way to guide your action, it's a great way to test whether or not you truly know what actions you need to take. If you can make a compelling 3-point plan, do so. If you can't, you need to do a little structured thinking before you jump into action. It's a signal you would benefit tremendously from 3 minutes of thinking on paper.

Incidentally, I learned the idea of testing my knowledge with a 3-point plan by giving impromptu speeches for the Ringers Toastmasters Club. During the 5-minute walk between my Manhattan apartment and the meeting location, I would try to come up with a speech title and short outline. Then if there were a last-minute opening for a speech, I would try to deliver that speech with no rehearsal and no additional preparation. The results? If I had a 3-point outline that I could hold in my head, I could give a terrific 5-7 minute speech. Anything more detailed and the speech would fall apart in a confusing mess. Making the 3-point outline was the test of whether I knew the topic well enough to give a coherent, interesting speech without further preparation.

The same is true in action. If you can make a compelling 3-point plan, you understand exactly what to do and the plan will help you execute it smoothly. If you can't, you have just learned something important about the state of your knowledge, skills, and values. You don't know exactly what to do or why you should do it. You have not broken the problem down far enough for your particular level of expertise.

This objective self-awareness is particularly useful when you have a limited block of time. If you flounder around in confusion, you are likely to waste the entire period. If you see exactly what to do and why, you can make great use of time blocks from five minutes to two hours.

So what do you do if your mind boggles at trying to come up with a 3-point plan? Step back and take stock. Use a generic 3-point plan like this:

  • Get a quick and dirty overview
  • Then identify possible to do's
  • Then make the plan

Those of you who have been in the Thinking Lab will recognize "Get a quick and dirty overview." This is one of the most effective things you can do when you're floundering. There are a dozen different ways to get a quick overview, all as easy as making a list.

You may be thinking, "Aren't these mental actions?" Not if you do them on paper. The #1 solution to mental overload is: offload to paper! Use "thinking on paper" to turn mental tasks into physical actions and guarantee you won't further tax your brain by trying to solve the problem in your head.

See? You can always make a 3-point plan.

That's why I recommend discipline in making a 3-point plan, especially if you have a limited block of time to use. Identify your next physical actions and why you need to take them, then sum up your plan in a few words. If you can't do that in your head, switch to a 3-point thinking process on paper. Your goal is to come up with three useful steps you can take, and reasons for why to take them, given that you are a bit confused and at risk of floundering. The discipline of making a 3-point plan will ensure you spend less time floundering and more time getting results you want.

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