The framework for a perfectly balanced to-do list

/ 8 min read
Eliza Frakes

If there’s one thing the internet isn’t short on, it’s productivity hacks. It seems like every day there’s a new trend designed to transform you into the Platonic ideal of efficiency.

The truth of the matter is that there is no “hack” that can give you more than 24 hours in a day. There is no “hack” that makes it easy to juggle being a worker, a friend, a parent, an entrepreneur, a home chef, and a good partner. Sometimes, you’re just busy.

That’s why we’re more interested in finding ways to support the challenging, rewarding, stressful reality of being a working adult in 2023.

The 1-3-5 rule is one of those ways. It won’t help you do a week's worth of work in two hours, but it is a real, tangible method for creating to-do lists that reflect your uniquely busy life—and help you manage it.

TL;DR

  • The 1-3-5 rule is a time management technique that involves breaking down your to-do list into 1 big task, 3 medium tasks, and 5 small tasks.
  • This provides a clear framework for organising and prioritising tasks, reducing overwhelm and increasing productivity.
  • By balancing long-term goals with daily tasks, the 1-3-5 rule promotes a healthy work-life balance.
  • To get the most out of 1-3-5 rule to-do lists, you should: properly delineate big and small tasks, tackle the most difficult tasks first, be realistic with your goals, write your list at the start of the week, and use digital to-do list apps to simplify task tracking (Todoist, Google Tasks, and Trello are all good examples).
  • Enter your email in the form below and we'll send you a downloadable template to help plan your own 1-3-5 Rule to-do lists.

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What is the 1-3-5 rule?

The 1-3-5 rule is a way to organise your to-do lists. It suggests that most people can complete nine tasks a day:

  • One big task
  • Three medium tasks
  • Five small tasks

The idea is that by organising your tasks in this way, you’ll be more realistic with what you can‌ accomplish in a day, which will make you more productive overall.

The concept was developed by Betty Liu, the Executive Vice Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. Coming from such a fast-paced environment, she needed a way to create to-do lists that really worked.

"Just the act of writing something down makes you obligated to do it,” Liu told Business Insider. “And when you have the satisfaction at the end of the day of checking off that last item on that list, you feel so much better, as if you really completed the day.”

It frees you up mentally to turn off your phone, sit down and relax, enjoy time with your family because you don't feel that guilt, that lingering guilt that you should have answered that email or you should have had that one more meeting.

Using the 1-3-5 rule to manage work and life

The 1-3-5 rule is a great way to be more productive, but the real magic happens when you use it to integrate your work and home lives.

Most people call this “work-life balance,” but we’re not huge fans of that phrase. Work-life balance is misleading—it suggests that your job lives in equal opposition with your life, as if the two pillars would sit evenly on a scale.

On the one side: work. On the other: parenting, being a good partner, taking care of your health, pursuing hobbies, travelling, and, going through every other aspect of being alive. It’s not exactly a realistic split.

Work-life integration is more realistic. It reflects what's already true for most of us: that every day you're presented with many important tasks, not all of which happen to be related to your job.

The 1-3-5 rule can help you dip your toes into the world of work-life integration. Holistic to-do lists help you prioritise your ‌tasks in the way that feels most right to you, so you can get that weekly report out and finish your kid's costume for the holiday show and pat yourself on the back for doing both.

The 1-3-5 rule in practice

Wondering how to delineate tasks? The best way to categorise them is by time and effort. Your big task will take the most time, which is why you can only realistically do one each day. A small task, on the other hand, might only take a few minutes.

Task TypeDescription
Big tasksTake upwards of two hours to complete
Affect multiple people
Are time sensitive
Medium tasksTake around one hour to complete
Are pressing, but not always immediately time sensitive
Are often part of a larger, ongoing project
Small tasksTake between 10 minutes and an hour to complete
Can be done without too much effort
Aren't necessarily time sensitive

Following this framework can help you avoid overwhelming yourself with an impossibly long to-do list. And once you tackle that big task, you’ll be motivated to smash the smaller ones. It’s a pretty intuitive system.

Take this sample to-do list above. It’s broken down using the framework: one large task, followed by a handful of work and non-work-related smaller tasks organised by time and effort.

While work-related tasks will probably take up most of your 1-3-5 list, including personal tasks gives you a more accurate representation of how much time you have. It also helps you recognise the tasks you mightn't even realise you’re doing, like shuttling your kids around, or cleaning the house.

Ironically, workers who honour their personal lives actually do better at work. Studies show that not valuing work above all else and fostering a ‌social life outside of work boosts productivity and worker satisfaction. Diversifying your tasks has also been shown to boost productivity across the board.

5 tips for getting the most out of the 1-3-5 rule

Here are five actionable tips to help you start using the 1-3-5 rule to make to-do lists that get to-done.

1. Properly delineate large and small tasks

A big task is one that requires the most time and effort to complete, while a small task should require comparatively less.

While big tasks should be the most time-consuming, take care not to pick something that can’t reasonably be done in a day.

For example, if you’re rebranding your entire company, don’t list “rebrand” as your big task. Doing so would be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Instead, you might list “create Asana board to organise the project” as your big task, and “email a graphic designer” as a small one.

2. Eat your veggies first

There’s a reason we tell kids to eat their veggies first, and it’s not just to get good marks from your paediatrician. When you eat the part of the meal you like the least up front, you’re left with all the good bits to finish off.

You may have heard of this concept as “saving the best for last.” The idea is the same. By doing the thing you dread the most first, you get the worst part out of the way and free yourself up for ‌less miserable tasks.

Maybe you’re dreading planning that all-company meeting. So many schedules to coordinate. So many conflicts to manage. You really don’t want to do it. But, it’s on your list, and come hell or high water, it has to get done today.

Just do it! Eat your veggies first, and start scheduling that meeting. Once it’s finished, the rest of your tasks will feel easier in comparison.

The veggies will most often be your big task, but it could be a particularly dreaded small or medium one, too. Wherever it is, the best way to kick-start your day and keep yourself motivated is to check that task off first thing in the morning.

Important: If the veggies are really terrible, consider breaking it up into several small tasks, so you have the satisfaction of completing each part to motivate you across the finish line.

3. Underestimate yourself

Yes, you read that right. It sounds weird, but intentionally underestimating yourself at the beginning can be a useful motivational tool.

Start small, and build yourself up with time. You’ll be more inclined to keep up with your new to-do list routine if you feel the satisfaction of completing all nine tasks.

By creating to-do lists you know you can achieve at first, you help form a positive association with the lists themselves, which in turn makes you more likely to keep making them.

Here’s the catch: you can’t keep underestimating yourself. Once you’ve completed several 1-3-5 to-do lists, it’s time to start upping the ante.

Try to complete a few more challenging small tasks before venturing your way up the list to medium and big tasks. Don’t add more than nine tasks—just make the tasks themselves more challenging.

Important: Remember that the goal of a to-do list is to help you. If completing the 1-3-5 list starts feeling like yet another dreaded responsibility, you’re much less likely to keep using them.

4. Make your list the night before

Studies show that making your to-do list the night before can help you sleep better and wake up more prepared for the day ahead. In fact, it’s an even more effective way to promote calm than journaling or going over the tasks you’ve done that day.

Looking ahead the night before helps you let go of the day that’s passed, and get ready for the one to come. Plus, making your 1-3-5 lists in advance saves you time on the day, so you can hit the ground running first thing in the morning.

5. Stock your digital toolbelt

Writing your 1-3-5 lists in a journal is great, but if you intend to use them as a daily practice, you might consider investing in some digital tools to support you.

By using an app, you can access your lists from your phone at any time, check off tasks from any device in real-time, include links to other resources, and keep your lists live and up to date no matter where you go.

There are hundreds of to-do list apps to choose from. Most work in a similar way, and it usually comes down to individual taste. Paperform integrates with popular options like Trello and Notion, or you can connect to just about any to-do list app with Zapier or Make.

When you connect Paperform to your to-do list you can generate tasks based on form submissions. This saves you a bunch of time and allows you to automate parts of your business or daily life so you can spend less time creating lists, and more time getting stuff done.

Ready to level up your to-do lists?

Paperform can help.

A no-brainer for better to-do lists

The 1-3-5 rule is a powerful method for creating balanced, realistic to-do lists that help you stay on top of work and life. By narrowing your focus to nine diverse tasks each day, you can increase your productivity without creating more anxiety.

Remember: don’t lose yourself in the sea of toxic productivity hacks. Your to-do list should help you stay on top of your busy and wonderful life, not transform you into a machine. Make something that feels valuable to you, and your efficiency will increase naturally.


About the author
Eliza Frakes
Paperform Contributor
Eliza Frakes is a freelance copywriter. When she’s not writing for the Paperform blog, she’s probably writing a play (or acting in one), swimming in the ocean, or taking her very cute dog on a hike.

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