A Quick Rule of Thumb for Prioritizing Tasks When You Are Overwhelmed

A classic survival tip for how to prioritize when you find yourself in a life threatening situation can be surprisingly helpful for prioritizing your work tasks. Read on to see how you can use it when you feel overwhelmed.
Matt Talbot
CEO of Superchart
November 15, 2022

If there is one thing that we can all agree on, it’s that there are often times when it feels like there is simply too much to do.

It can be overwhelming walking into work and seeing an ever growing task list that seems impossible to tame. This type of overwhelm can lead to high stress levels which will ensure that you are not delivering your best work. 

But often in the fog of a long task list and a busy week, it can be hard to know which tasks you should tackle first. At the end of the day, any task prioritization strategy relies on your ability to understand how each task maps to your main objectives. 

Even though work (for most of us) isn’t a matter of life and death, a classic survival technique called the “Rule of 3” can help us prioritize the most important tasks that we must accomplish. 

What is the “Rule of 3” that is used in Survival Training?

This rule of thumb that is used in the survival community spells out some basic rules to keep in mind when you are in a survival situation. 

The rule sets the following guidelines: you can survive without air for 3 minutes, without shelter for 3 hours, without water for 3 days, and without food for 3 weeks.

The helpful part about this rule is that it prescribes the most important tasks you must accomplish in order to survive.

First, make sure you are able to breathe! You cannot survive very long without air to breathe, so first things first, you must take action to ensure you have breathable air.

Second, you should take care of your shelter. Especially if conditions are rough, you need a place that can provide protection from the elements. 

Third, make a plan or seek clean and fresh drinking water. Humans can’t survive without water for very long, so after you have ensured you can breathe and that you have shelter, it’s time to take on the task of finding drinking water.

Finally, after you have air, shelter, and water, you should focus next on finding a source of food. We can go a surprisingly long time without food, but you do still need it to survive of course, so this is the next task to tackle. 

Notice how the Rule of 3 can give anyone caught in a life or death survival situation a playbook for what they should focus on first. This type of simple rule of thumb can help you think clearly even in a very risky situation.

How Can I Apply the Rule of 3 to my Work Tasks?

What makes the Rule of 3 so memorable is that it’s simple and visceral, which is important for any rule that you want to use during a period of duress.

Even though work is admittedly not as scary or as consequential as a life or death survival situation, being overwhelmed with too many tasks can make you nervous and stressed out nonetheless.

Since work is a little different from an intense survival situation, we propose a slightly modified “Rule of 3” that can be used to prioritize work tasks. 

First, what tasks must you accomplish in the next three hours? These tasks are typically tasks that have an important deadline that is extremely imminent. An example of this could be filing a certain document or returning an important phone call. 

Second, what tasks must you accomplish in the next three days? You have a little more time to process these tasks and get ahead of the request, but in most cases, three days is not a ton of time to get something done, especially if the task is more complex. 

Third, what tasks must you accomplish in the next three weeks? These tasks have plenty of time left, so you can safely punt them for a few days. This is a good opportunity to review the tasks to make sure you have what you need to get them done, but you don’t need to take action at the exact moment. 

This simple process lets you bucket tasks into three distinct priority groups which should help you feel more in control of your day and more confident that you have prioritized the most critical tasks.  

A Few Caveats

Like we mentioned at the beginning of this post, the most important part of any prioritization process is making sure that the tasks you are taking on align with your core goals and objectives. 

If you have tasks on your plate that do not align with you goals and objectives, the action you need to take is to eliminate them from your list! There are of course expectations: you may be required, by law or by a manager, to do something that doesn’t align with your goals, so you can’t eliminate those tasks, but any task that is not important to your goals should be an easy cut from your list. 

Second, if the task on your list is a request from someone else but it doesn’t align with your goals, please don’t simply cut the task without communicating to the person that made the request. 

Finally, there are times when the urgent will take over the important, and that’s ok. But if you find yourself constantly in a state of dealing only with urgent tasks, you should rethink your workflow or the tasks you are committing to do. Perhaps you have too much on your plate or you are under-resourced. Either way, examining whether your task list aligns with your goals is a great practice to make sure you are making progress at work.

In Conclusion

Using a simple, modified Rule of 3 can help you quickly allocate and bucket tasks into groups that help you feel in control. Further, by prioritizing based on when you need to deliver a result, you can ensure that you are completing the most important tasks first. 

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