It seems obvious. The way to accomplish more is to slack off less, right? Nothing could sound more self-evident, but according to Slack, the classic productivity book by Tom DeMarco, this understanding of time management can actually cause you to end up accomplishing less

Jam-packing your days, DeMarco insists, makes you brittle. Overfull days leave you no flexibility to adapt to the inevitable bottlenecks and unexpected tasks that crop up in our lives. Slack allows you not only to adjust to the unexpected, but also to make the sort of long-term investments in learning, thinking, and tinkering that tend to pay off handsomely down the line. You end up accomplishing more in the long-term if you end up aiming to do less day to day. 

That's a thought-provoking idea and one many entrepreneurs who spend their frantic days running to put out fire after fire will sense might be right. But it opens up another question: If you shouldn't try to cram as much productivity into your days as possible, what should you aim for? 

Try the 3-3-3 

Oliver Burkeman has a suggestion. The best-selling author has made a career out of writing books that turn the usual productivity and life advice upside down (as I've written previously, I'm a big fan). He often shares tidbits of advice in his email newsletter The Imperfectionist, and the latest contained a particularly useful suggestion that effectively fills in some of the details of the "slack more to get more done" approach to work. 

Burkeman calls it the "3-3-3 Method" and claims he uses it himself, though he's not dogmatic about the details. If you "object that this method won't work for you," he writes, "make up your own rule! What really matters here aren't the details, but the principles embodied by the approach." So feel free to customize his method to suit your specific circumstances, but to get you started, the basic thrust of the 3-3-3 Method is that every working day, Burkeman says, he will:

  • "Spend three hours on my most important current project, having defined some kind of specific goal for the progress I aim to make on it that day"

  • "Complete three shorter tasks, usually urgent to-dos or 'sticky' tasks I've been avoiding, usually just a few minutes each (I count calls and meetings here too)"  

  • "Dedicate time to three 'maintenance activities,' things that need my daily attention in order to keep life running smoothly" 

Maintenance activities is an intentionally broad category, he further clarifies, but includes things like journaling, clearing out his inbox, and exercise

Why it works 

The beauty here is the simplicity. The framework is so bare bones it takes mere seconds to consider and implement, yet it provides a firm scaffolding around which to build your day. It also encourages the "slack" so celebrated by DeMarco. 

Three to four hours of concentrated work, as Burkeman and a host of other experts have asserted elsewhere, is about all the human brain is generally capable of, so the first "3" nudges you to stay within your realistic biological boundaries. The other "3s" push you to move forward on all the diverse tasks that pile up in life and business without heroic (and impossible) expectations you'll ever actually manage to fully clean your plate of them. 

As Burkeman says, when he follows this method, "I don't embark on each day as if on a tightrope walk, needing everything to go exactly right in order for me to make it through the plan."

I'll confess it appeals to me personally. My longstanding if crude time-management approach has been to give myself three substantive things to accomplish each day (one of which is nearly always to write one of these columns) and to sprinkle admin, chores, and hopefully a handful of workouts a week on top of that. Burkeman's approach seems like an elaboration on the same theme but one that's not so elaborate I'm likely to give it up in a matter of days. 

How does his approach strike you?