The Survival Rule of 3 for Prioritizing Work Tasks

A classic survival tip for how to prioritize when you find yourself in a life-threatening situation can be surprisingly helpful for prioritizing work tasks.
Matt Talbot
Matt Talbot
CEO of Superchart
April 12, 2023
Productivity Hacks for Quickly Determining Task Priorities During Overwhelm

If there is one thing that we can all agree on, it’s that there are 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 or effective tools for prioritizing tasks rely on your ability to understand how each task maps to your main objectives.

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

How to Organize Tasks and Projects at Work

Before we get into the survival Rule of Three, let's start with the basics. Organizing your work tasks and projects is essential for a productive day. There are many tools and techniques available for organizing your work tasks and projects. The most effective way to organize depends on the individual and the type of work they do. We're going to suggest one method, but it won't work for everyone.

However, there are a few basics that hold for everyone. The first step is to understand your main objectives. What are the most important things you need to accomplish today? How are they linked to my objectives or goals? Once you know what your goals are, you can start organizing your tasks in a way that will help you achieve them. If you're unclear on your objectives and goals, it's going to continue to be hard to understand what to prioritize.

What is the Survival Rule of 3?

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 survival Rule of 3 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 to survive.

First, make sure you can 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 protect you 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 survival 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 can help you think even in a very risky situation.

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

What makes the survival 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 survival 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

As 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 your 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, obviously don’t cut the task without communicating with the person that made the request. It can be easy to forget as you're flying through tools for task prioritization and making quick decisions.

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.

Additional Methods for Prioritizing Tasks

If the modified survival Rule of 3 is not your favorite method, or if you're less familiar with other ways to organize tasks and projects at work, here are some other honorable mentions:

Eisenhower Matrix: One of the most popular tools for prioritizing tasks at work is the Eisenhower Matrix. This simple tool can help you quickly identify which tasks should be your top priority and which ones can be put off until a later date. It uses a simple two-by-two grid that categorizes tasks into four different categories: Urgent and Important, Not Urgent and Important, Urgent but Not Important, and Not Urgent but Not Important.

One easy way to use this tool is simply to scan your task list for tasks that fall into the first quadrant: urgent and important. Once you have these tasks identified, you should move quickly to address them in order of urgency. This can be a very effective way to quickly get ahead on your work without feeling overwhelmed by the number of tasks you have on your plate.

ABCDE Method: Another useful tool for prioritizing at work is the ABCDE method, which was developed by Stephen Covey in his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". Using this method, you categorize tasks based on three different criteria: A refers to important tasks, B represents important but not urgent tasks, and C is neither urgent nor important tasks.

With this method, you can quickly identify your most critical tasks and focus your efforts on completing those first. You can then use the time freed up by focusing on these important tasks to address other tasks that are important but not urgent. This can help you to keep your focus on the most important work and avoid getting bogged down by less important, but more urgent, tasks.

Additional Tools for Prioritizing Tasks

When you are overwhelmed with too many tasks and projects, having tools that can help you prioritize is essential. The tool is only as good as the strategy, but the tooling still matters. Luckily, there are hundreds digital tools available to help you get organized and make decisions about which tasks take precedence. Here are a few tools for prioritizing tasks that we have used and like:

Todoist: It is a very simple tool, which makes Todoist a lovely user experience. In particular, it's great at helping you manage your tasks across both personal and work endeavors. You can use it to make a list of the tasks you need to do and then organize them by priority. It's also free to start, so you can try it out with little obligation. With a great mobile application, mobile-optimized website, desktop application, and integration with popular calendar/email tools, Todoist is great at capturing tasks from anywhere.

Monday: Monday is a powerful software platform that enables teams to easily coordinate, plan, organize, and manage their workflow. It is focused on providing tools that help teams stay organized, efficient, and flexible. It also allows you to make a list of the things you need to do, and then organize them by priority. Compared to Todoist, Monday is much more focused on teams. The features of Monday provide users with an intuitive and straightforward way to manage tasks and projects at work. With the use of boards, lists, and cards, you can easily prioritize your tasks and keep yourself organized and focused on the most important work.

Trello: Trello is a visual task management and productivity tool that help teams coordinate and organize tasks. Trello has a bunch of individual users as well because it is so configurable, customizable, and easy to use. It offers users the ability to create boards and lists to easily track tasks. Trello allows users to quickly visualize their workflow and prioritize tasks by importance. This makes it easier for team members to collaborate and stay on top of their work

ClickUp: ClickUp is a powerful task management tool that was designed with both individuals and teams in mind. Unlike tools like Trello and Monday, ClickUp provides users with an extensive suite of tools for customizing their workflows. It allows users to create tasks, projects, checklists, and subtasks, as well as assign tasks to different team members. This makes it easy to prioritize tasks and quickly break large projects down into manageable pieces. It also allows you to integrate tools like Google Drive, Dropbox, Slack, and more for increased efficiency and productivity. Whether you are an individual worker or part of a team, ClickUp is a great tool for prioritizing tasks effectively.

In Conclusion

Using a simple, modified survival 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.

Sometimes visualizing the work behind you or in front of you is important. If you want to visualize task data with an Airtable visualization or chart on Google Sheets data, be sure to try Superchart for free.

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