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Balancing the most important tasks on your to-do list with other less important but still must-do items can be a frustrating daily challenge. The 3-3-3 method, devised by productivity writer Oliver Burkeman, can be a solution:

  • Spend three hours on your most important thing.
  • Complete three shorter tasks you’ve been avoiding.
  • Work on three maintenance activities to keep life in order.

There’s a balance to that system. It carves out time for deep work on your priority. It recognizes the mundane. And it prods you to deal with stuff that you have been avoiding, likely involving frustration.

Entrepreneur Sahil Bloom has found the method helpful for removing the anxiety of “never enough” thinking: Ambitious people, like himself, getting into bed at the end of the day and feeling they could have done more.

He has found that spending three focused hours on your most important thing is guaranteed to generate meaningful daily, weekly and monthly progress. Completing three shorter tasks you’ve been avoiding keeps what he calls your “doom pile” from getting too large. Working on three maintenance activities allows you to make progress on other areas of life, like health, relationships and housekeeping.

He recommends each evening writing down your 3-3-3 plan for the next day. “As you go through the day, cross each off the list. If you do it, you’ll get into bed with the satisfied feeling of a day well spent,” he writes on his blog.

Of course, that system doesn’t mention meetings, which can swallow up so much of the day – and your energy. A recent study of 400 full-time knowledge workers offers insight into how to balance those meetings with your own individual assignments.

What affects energy is not the sheer amount of time spent in meetings, but the relative proportion of meeting time compared to what is spent on individual tasks. And the impact comes through what seems an unrelated factor: breaks.

“We found that, on a given day, the more time knowledge workers dedicate to meetings relative to their own individual tasks, the less they engage in small break activities (for example, a short walk, casual conversations, brief fun reading) to restore their energy during that day. The absence of such break activities, which are crucial for periodic replenishment, harms their workday energy. The impaired energy in turn has a negative impact on the knowledge workers’ task performance, creativity and job satisfaction at work,” management professors Chen Zhang and Gretchen Spreitzer and PhD candidate Zhaodong Qiu write in Harvard Business Review.

So preserve those breaks. Eliminating them to get more done – amid the pressure of meetings and your to-do list – may mean getting less done.

The study also showed that when structured appropriately, meetings and individual tasks can create what the researchers call a “pressure complementarity effect” during the workday. Again, it comes to balance: High-pressure individual tasks accompanied by a low-pressure meeting, or conversely, low-pressure individual tasks accompanied by a high-pressure meeting. Those configurations can enhance your energy.

Plan as well around end-of-day fatigue. Research into health inspection of food found that each subsequent hour an inspector conducts inspections during the day results in 3.7 per cent fewer citations per inspection that day, likely because of fatigue. In addition, if the inspectors begin an inspection at a time that would mean they would not finish before their normal quitting time, they finish the inspection 4 per cent more quickly than usual – and catch 5 per cent fewer violations.

As you read those statistics, you no doubt thought of your diminishing effectiveness at the end of the day. Maria Ibanez, an associate professor of operations management at the Kellogg School of Management, told a Northwestern University newsletter the research shows we need to be smarter about scheduling the day.

Quick hits

  • Confidence is considered important for career success. But so, we’re told, is vulnerability. Put them together and you have an oxymoron, confident vulnerability, that learning and development consultant Damon Lembi says is critical for growth. People can’t learn if they don’t feel it’s safe to admit what they don’t know or ask for help when it’s needed.
  • There is almost always another way to get where you want to go, advises author James Clear. Don’t keep trying to open a locked door.
  • Ottawa sales consultant Colleen Francis warns about the thief of success: ego. In particular, she points to the “internal dialogue we all have with ourselves that – if left unchecked – can manifest itself as self-absorption, stubbornness and gives others the impression we have an attitude problem.”
  • Focusing on what matters requires continuous effort, observes Shane Parish, in his Brain Food newsletter. You face a daily battle to focus on your ultimate goal, not the quick wins that lead nowhere you want to go.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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