Try The 1-3-5 List-Making Technique To Get Stuff Done

Accomplish more! Power through! Achieve maximum efficiency! These shouty truisms might not change the fact that some of our current jobs are going to be outsourced to robots soon. But as dealing with burnout, balancing side hustles, and overcoming career slumps become challenges we may have to deal with, maybe it’s time we rethought an all-or-nothing approach to productivity.

I love making lists. They help get things (worries, half-formed project ideas, goals, daily responsibilities, anything really) out of my head and onto the page (or screen). The problem is that lists can be just as disorganised, and unhelpful, as thoughts swirling around in our heads in a non-concrete form. So I researched list-making techniques, determined to find one that would transform me once and for all, and decided to test-drive something called the 1-3-5 technique: a to-do list of one big thing, three medium-sized things and five little things.

Here’s what I learned about asking my brain to focus on no more than nine things in a day.

It helps (forces) you to figure out what’s important to you

Narrowing your day down to nine prioritised things – and sticking to it – is hard. After all:

It forced me to ask myself every day: if I only had the energy to do one thing and had to stop working afterwards for reasons beyond my control, what would that one big thing be? This meant that instead of focusing all my brain power and time on smaller things –non-urgent emails; errands; social media; sorting the week’s lunches and dinners – I prioritised that one big thing.

That one thing could be working on an aspect of a major project for university, meeting a same-day deadline for something, or preparing for and attending a client meeting to win new business.

It can help you structure your day, flexibly

We need list-making techniques that are adaptable – not just in an “stick it onto the end of the list of 20 things” way. What’s great about the 1-3-5 technique is that I was able to leave gaps for when I genuinely wasn’t sure what my one big thing for the day would be.

I instead focused on figuring out what my medium and small priorities were. Small things can then turn into medium thing or even the one big thing. Like Tetris, the best list making techniques should allow you to swap things around to find the best fit.


It’s a lifesaver for when you go into panic mode.

Sometimes stress makes your brain turn to scrambled eggs, or you can be struck by brain fog. In these cases, the 1-3-5 technique can be used to help you decide what’s within your control in the midst of chaos. You have the ability to contribute individually as part of a larger situation.

It’s also useful to estimate how long you think it will take you to do something. For example, if something that looks like three hours of work only takes ninety minutes once you actually start doing it – or the opposite, something that was a twenty-minute job turns into two hours, you can swap around their categories, and make a note for next time whether it should be a big, medium, or small task.

If paired with apps or browser extensions, your efforts can be bolstered

One of my favourite apps is the Prioritab extension for Chrome. Having my list pop up whenever I open a new tab on my web browser helps as a persistent visual reminder of my goals for the day.

Another app I really like is Be Focused, which adapts the Pomodoro Technique for focus and concentration.

Combining my list-making preference with technology I use every day means I’m more easily able to track to-do lists and tasks.

It doesn’t work unless you do

We can teach ourselves every list-making technique ever invented (or make up our own), but the truth is that it’s not a magic spell to never missing a deadline, or getting everything done.

Most of us don’t want to come across as unfocused or unreliable to those depending on us, but life isn’t always as simple as ticking something off a list.

That’s where your own common sense and ability to differentiate between importance and urgency can be useful tools to bring into the mix. It isn’t about getting all the things done – sometimes what’s most important is being clear about your goals, boundaries, and what projects (or people) deserve your most valuable time and energy. And that’s something you can feel really good about, even if you can’t literally tick it off a list.

Nathania Gilson is a writer, video editor and snack enthusiast based in Melbourne. You can find her on Twitter @unicornology

Graph image by Liana Finck, for Topic.