How to Use the 1-3-5 Rule to Boost Your Productivity at Work

May 22, 2023

You have multiple tasks piled up on your plate every day, and you cant stop more from coming in. It's natural to feel that you can never get things under control at work.

How will you digest the inflow of work and balance your input with the output?

In other words, how can you put your productivity back on track once you lose control? 

The short answer; follow the 1-3-5 rule.

Let’s take a look at how you can do that.


According to Zippia, 82% of American employees don’t use any time management system, and only 20% feel that their workload is under control. 

It shouldn't be surprising that you struggle to prioritize your tasks and get sidetracked by small, insignificant ones if you are trying to figure it all out without any management hacks or productivity tracking tools.

So what is the 1-3-5 rule, and how can you apply it to create an adequate time and productivity management technique? Before we get into the detail, here is a summary of what you will learn from this blog:


  • 1-3-5 rule is a time management technique that divides your daily tasks into 3 basic categories of big, medium, and small, based on their significance and urgency.
  • Focusing on a limited number of well-defined tasks can lead to greater productivity and a sense of accomplishment with work-life balance.
  • To get the most out of 1-3-5 method, you must prioritize the tasks accurately, tackle the most difficult and most important tasks first, and consider task dependencies while creating your to-do list.
  • Combining the 1-3-5 rule with a digital time-tracking tool enables you to prioritize your tasks more efficiently according to your productivity patterns.

What is the 1-3-5 Rule?

The 1-3-5 rule is a task management technique that emphasizes prioritization and focus. It suggests allocating one large, three medium, and five small tasks to tackle within a day. It is based on the idea that we tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish in a day, leading to feelings of overwhelm and stress.

Limiting your daily workload to manageable portions allows you to minimizing distractions and realistically achieve your goals while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Where did this rule come from? 

It is hard to pin down the exact origins of the 1-3-5 rule, but it's believed to have originated in the world of productivity and time management. Many productivity experts have recommended variations of the 1-3-5 rule over the years, recognizing its effectiveness in helping people stay focused and organized.

Some versions of the 1-3-5 rule have been attributed to specific people or organizations. In his 2001 book, Getting Things Done (GTD), David Allen emphasizes the importance of maintaining a clear mind by externalizing commitments to relieve mental clutter. 

GTD is a time management method that focuses on the following;

  • capturing all tasks and ideas in an external system
  • clarifying the desired outcomes for each task
  • organizing tasks into appropriate categories and contexts
  • regularly reviewing and updating task lists
  • taking robust actions to complete tasks 

In 2016, Chris Bailey outlined a similar productivity strategy as the “Rule of 3”. However, it's important to note that the concept of limiting daily tasks to a manageable number has been around for much longer than that. 

These widely popular systems have influenced countless individuals and organizations seeking to improve their productivity and efficiency.

Advantages of using the 1-3-5 rule: How Does it Affect Productivity? 

While specific research directly examining the method might be limited, the underlying principles of task prioritization and focused work have been extensively studied and proven to greatly impact productivity management. 

The 1-3-5 rule enhances your productivity in multiple yet interconnected ways:

1. Effective Time Management

Task prioritization positively influences time management behaviors, increasing job satisfaction and reducing work-related stress. Effective time management goes beyond organizing your work to gain control over your life. It's about seizing control of your life first and then strategically structuring your professional responsibilities to align with it.

The 1-3-5 rule helps individuals manage their time by prioritizing tasks and focusing on the most important ones. By allocating dedicated slots for each task category, individuals can have a clearer sense of how to effectively give their time and resources to create a work-life balance.

2. Increased Productivity

Professor Gloria Mark suggests that uninterrupted work periods improve productivity and task completion rates. The 1-3-5 rule aligns with this idea by encouraging you to tackle your most significant task first, allowing you to devote concentrated effort and energy. It provides you a sense of accomplishment that helps build momentum and motivation for the subsequent medium and small tasks.

According to a 2022 timewatch survey, 91% of US and UK employees say better time management reduces stress at work, while 90% say it leads to increased productivity.

3. Stress Relief

According to a Microsoft research, 73% of people who use a to-do list to manage their time report that it has a calming effect on work-related anxiety. The 1-3-5 rule helps you further break down your tasks into manageable chunks, reducing the feeling of overwhelm. 

Prioritizing goals helps you experience a greater sense of control and reduced stress. By limiting the number of tasks for the day, you can focus on what truly matters, prevent burnout, and enhance overall well-being.

How to Apply 1-3-5 Rule

While the rule itself is straightforward, it's essential to approach its application thoughtfully and intentionally to get the most out of it.

The steps involved in creating an effective 1-3-5 to-do list are;

  1. Identify your goals and objectives: Before applying the 1-3-5 rule, you need to have a clear sense of your goals and objectives. Consider what's most important to you and what tasks or projects are most critical to achieving those goals.
  1. Make a list of potential tasks: Once you understand your goals and priorities, list all the jobs and projects you must complete. Be sure to include short-term and long-term goals and any recurring or routine tasks you must meet regularly.
Doesn’t look like Pink Panther has clear priorities!
  1. Arrange by priority: Next, prioritize your tasks based on their importance and urgency. Identify your one big assignment for the day, as well as your three medium and five small tasks. Consider factors like deadlines, impact on your goals, and level of effort and time required. 
  1. Make a schedule: Once you've identified your daily tasks, it's important to schedule them in a way that allows you to focus on your most important work first. Consider when you're most productive and plan your most important piece of work for that time of day. Be sure to allow enough time for each task and build in breaks or buffer time as needed. You can use an automated time-tracking tool for creating a streamlined schedule.
  1. Focus on the task at hand: Focusing on one thing at a time is essential, giving it your concentrated attention until it's complete. Avoid multitasking or getting distracted by other engagements, as this can reduce your productivity and make it harder to achieve your goals.

How to Apply the 1-3-5 Rule in Different Work Settings

The 1-3-5 rule can be applied in various work settings, from corporate offices to small businesses to remote work environments. 

For instance, if you are a project manager working on a software development project, this is how it works:

1 big task:

Completing the core functionality of the software.

3 medium tasks:

Conducting user testing, resolving critical bugs, and finalizing the user interface.

5 small tasks:

Updating documentation, scheduling team meetings, performing code reviews, addressing minor bugs, and providing support to the development team.

Regardless of your work setting or role, you can adapt the 1-3-5 rule to create effective strategies to maintain consistent focus on your goals and objectives.

Use Time Tracking and Productivity Solutions to Maximize the Advantages of 1-3-5 Rule

While the rule is as good as gold, bringing in time-tracking and productivity solutions significantly maximises its benefits. 

Here's how time tracking and productivity solutions support the 1-3-5 rule:

1. Task tracking and organization

Time-tracking tools like timegram allow individuals to record and organize their tasks systematically. They provide a centralized platform where assignments can be listed, categorized, and prioritized according to the 1-3-5 rule. It helps individuals maintain a clear overview of their projects and align them within the 1-3-5 framework.

2. Time allocation and Scheduling

A time-tracking app can assist you in allocating time to each task category specified in the 1-3-5 rule. These tools allow you to estimate and allot specific time slots for big, medium, and small tasks. By assigning dedicated time blocks, individuals can ensure they have enough time to focus on each task category and avoid overloading their schedules.

3. Progress monitoring and accountability

Productivity solutions offer features that track progress and provide visual representations of completed tasks. You can stay motivated and accountable to the 1-3-5 rule by monitoring your progress. Seeing completed tasks can boost morale and provide a sense of achievement, reinforcing the productivity benefits of the rule.

timegram’s Highlights feature allows you to search, select and log your most productive hours

4. Performance analysis and insights

An effective time-tracking solution provides analytics and insights into individual performance and productivity trends. These analytics can help you identify patterns, understand your productivity peaks and dips, and make informed adjustments to your task management and workflow. By analyzing the data, you can fine-tune the implementation of the 1-3-5 rule to optimize your productivity.

Best Practices for Using the 1-3-5 Rule (And What Not to Do)

To ensure the successful implementation of the 1-3-5 rule, adhering to certain practices while avoiding common mistakes that could hinder the desired outcome is crucial.

Let’s have a look at the best practices for using the 1-3-5 rule:

1. Keep the Bar Low 

Start by setting realistic and achievable goals for the day. Consider your overall workload, deadlines, and available resources. Be honest about what can be accomplished in a day, and adjust your expectations accordingly.     

One common mistake is squeezing in too many tasks within the 1-3-5 to-do list. Overloading the list can lead to overwhelm and reduced productivity. It's better to accomplish a few critical tasks well rather than spreading yourself too thin and accomplishing little of real value.

2. Eat the Frog First!

Prioritization is the spirit of the 1-3-5 rule. Once you have identified the most high-impact task on your list, which is usually the most difficult one, dive right in!

Brian Tracy’s Eat that Frog refers to tackling the most challenging or unpleasant task first thing in the morning to increase productivity and avoid procrastination.

If tasks are not properly prioritized, less significant ones may overshadow the most important things. But if you can eat that enormous frog first thing in the morning, you can do anything!

3. Harness Your Turbo Time

Using productivity tools alongside the best practices of the 1-3-5 rule allows you to assess your performance against the time you allocate to each task category. timegram can help you track and analyze how you spend your time, providing insights into your productivity patterns.

Use the insights to your best advantage by scheduling the most important tasks (the one big task) during your most productive hours of the day when your energy levels peak. 

4. Slice Your To-Dos

When faced with a large and complex undertaking, it's common to feel overwhelmed and unsure where to begin. Breaking down complex tasks into smaller, manageable subtasks makes them less overwhelming and easier to approach. You can focus on incremental progress and maintain a sense of accomplishment as you complete each subtask.

Combining this approach with the 1-3-5 method facilitates a more systematic and organized approach, enabling you to tackle each subtask with clarity and focus, boosting motivation and propelling you forward.

5. Time-Block Your Schedule

Tasks can easily spill over without proper time blocking and dedicated focus, leading to inefficiency. Allocate specific time slots for each task category (big, medium, small) and commit to focusing solely on the task at hand during those designated periods. Minimize distractions and create a conducive work environment to maintain focus.

Consider utilizing time-blocking techniques like the Pomodoro method, where you break your work into focused intervals, typically 25 minutes, followed by short 5-10 minute breaks. It will help you create a structured and efficient work schedule that keeps you engaged and optimizes productivity.

6. Be Flexible

Sometimes, unexpected events or new priorities arise, causing the original task list to become irrelevant. Recognize that unforeseen events or new priorities may appear during the day, which may lead to frustration and feeling overwhelmed.

Be flexible and willing to adjust your task list to accommodate changes. Adaptability is crucial for maintaining productivity and managing unforeseen workloads effectively.

7. Avoid Multitasking

Multitasking can lead to decreased productivity and reduced quality of work. Instead, focus on one task at a time. Give your full attention and effort to each task before moving on to the next one.                  

A jack of all trades is a master of none!

8. Consider Task Dependencies

Tasks are often interdependent, meaning completing one task may rely on completing another. Neglecting task dependencies while arranging your 1-3-5 list can hinder productivity. When applying the 1-3-5 rule, take into account any dependencies and plan tasks accordingly to ensure a smooth workflow.

9. Celebrate Progress

A mistake that often goes unnoticed is neglecting to acknowledge and celebrate completed tasks. Recognizing progress and achievements can boost motivation and satisfaction. Take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate each completed task, no matter how small, to maintain a positive mindset and momentum.


The 1-3-5 rule of dividing daily tasks into the categories of big, medium and small originated from the idea of transferring all work related information and concerns from one's mind to an external system. 

This involves visualizing your objectives, and subsequently breaking them down into actionable work items with defined time constraints.

By externalizing and organizing these elements, individuals can effectively manage their workload and have a clear understanding of the tasks at hand, leading to increased productivity and reduced mental burden.

Putting this idea into practice becomes easier when you organize your tasks based on the performance insights provided by a dedicated time-tracking tool like timegram.

timegram is a privacy-first time-tracking tool that provides you visual insights into your productivity patterns and helps you evaluate your progress on daily and weekly tasks. 

Combining the 1-3-5 rule with timegram allows you to organize and allocate your time more effectively, and ensures an effective implementation of the 1-3-5 rule.

Discover more about our key features and start using timegram for free!


What is the 1-3-5 to-do list?

The 1-3-5 to-do list is a simple yet effective productivity technique for organizing and prioritizing tasks in the categories of 1 big, 2 medium, and 3 small tasks. By limiting the number of tasks in each category, the 1-3-5 rule helps you focus on the most essential and achievable tasks. This approach allows for a balanced workload and increases the likelihood of completing important tasks without feeling overloaded.

What is the Pomodoro technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It utilizes timed intervals to structure work routine and improve productivity. The technique involves breaking work into focused intervals, typically 25 minutes in length, called "pomodoros," followed by short breaks of around 5 minutes. After completing four pomodoros, you can take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

timegram logo

Ready to use time to your advantage
with timegram?

Give it a shot!

Sidra Ali Shah

About the author

Sidra is a research scholar and a philosophy nerd who fell in love with language at a very young age. She believes it's words and their combinations that make the world go round. In her free time, she likes to brainstorm with her children.

Start Your Journey With Us.

See why remote-friendly organizations globally love using timegram for their teams.

Start Your Journey With Us.

See why remote-friendly organizations globally love using timegram for their teams.

More Interesting Blogs for You

Try timegram Today!

No credit card required. No strings attached. Just pure time tracking automation magic.

Don’t Leave Empty-Handed!

Do you manage a remote team?

Get this guide to learn how time tracking helps measure remote team performance and why it is crucial to use the right tool for ensuring better employee productivity.

Get Your Guide