Getting nothing done is one of the worst feelings in the world. 

Humans are goal-oriented beings, meaning we love setting goals and milestones and accomplishing things. When we can’t do that, for whatever reason, it can feel like we’re wasting our time or letting ourselves down–doubly so in the context of work.

Thankfully, we’re also a species that loves to devise clever solutions to life’s puzzles, and productivity is no exception.

Enter the 1-3-5 rule.

In this post, we’ll explain what this rule is and how it works shortly. For now, the most important thing to know is that the rule exists to help you manage tasks and stay productive so you can keep achieving your goals and taking pride in your work.

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What is the 1-3-5 rule?

The 1-3-5 rule is all about completing three categories of tasks. The 1-3-5 rule categories and task split-ups are as follows: one major task, three medium tasks, and five minor tasks. 

With this time management technique, the goal is to accomplish the tasks on your 1-3-5 list in a single day — with no more or less tasks added to your workload unless you’ve already finished your nine daily tasks.

Now that you know the answer to the question ‘What is the 1-3-5 method of productivity?’, it’s time to consider why the method works.

Enhance productivity with 1-3-5 rule

Image sourced from itlvn.com

The science behind the 1-3-5 rule

The basic idea of a 1-3-5 rule list is to motivate yourself to make tangible progress while limiting the height of your workload.

Since your 1-3-5 to-do list is a concrete list of tasks that you already know you need to get done, you won’t have to spend lots of time trying to decide what to work on. This helps you be productive because you’ll start each day knowing what you’re going to tackle.

From a psychological perspective, the 1-3-5 rule stops you from over-focusing on your biggest task. It also gets you working on multiple urgent tasks each day, so you can set aside any new and salient task that might come to mind. 

Implementing the 1-3-5 rule in daily planning

Next, we’re going to walk you through the steps you’ll need to take to start implementing the rule in your daily tasks.

Step 1: List out all your tasks

The first step in the 1-3-5 process should always be the brainstorming phase. Simply note any tasks you can think of — no matter how intimidatingly large or trivially small.

The goal here is to simply document your tasks. Don’t get too detailed in your explanation of any one task. We’ll focus on that later. 

Step 2: Separate tasks by size

You’ll want to group your tasks so you have a pool of small, medium, and large tasks.

Examples of small tasks might include replying to an email, reading a short paper, or organizing your desk. Medium tasks are more time-consuming and often more intimidating. Large tasks tend to be tied to larger quarterly or annual projects and goals.

Step 3: Identify the most urgent tasks

Next, highlight top-priority items and create your 1-3-5 plan accordingly.

If you’re stuck between two tasks for your one major task of the day, try drafting a plan for the next day to reassure yourself that both tasks will get done soon.

Step 4: Plan accordingly

Your 1-3-5 plan is in place. The next step is to allocate time to each item, which means you have to think about when you’re planning to work on each task. Remember to stay flexible and plan for the unexpected as you complete this step.

Step 5: Start with the big one

Many people don’t want to do this, but we highly recommend it. Get the biggest task — the ‘1’ — out of the way straight away ASAP. This way, your day (or week) gets easier as time wears on. It’s understandable to want to procrastinate challenging work but resist the temptation. You’ll thank yourself later.

Examples of the 1-3-5 rule in action

Time management skills are often difficult to master, which is why we’ll explore the 1-3-5 rule in various professional contexts. The following 1-3-5 rule examples will help with seeing how effective time management looks in practice.

Example: call center owner

There are plenty of good reasons to acquire a call center for your company–not least of which is the fact that the market is thriving:

Cloud Call Center Growth

Image sourced from financesonline.com

A high-ranking employee in a company that wants to purchase a call center will have plenty of tasks to consider when it comes to their division of time: 

  • Small tasks might include basic research, such as answering the question, ‘How much does VICIdial cost?’
  • Medium tasks could be meetings with other stakeholders and other tasks with a similar average time.
  • Large tasks might include things like creating a shortlist of top call center providers.

Example: team manager

If you manage a team of any size, you can benefit from the 1-3-5 strategy. You might dedicate a full day to active workforce management, for example, and use the strategy to structure your schedule.

  • Small tasks could be emails to answer and sort.
  • Medium tasks might include a one-on-one with a team member or a phone call with a fellow manager. 
  • Large tasks could be things like preparing a major presentation to the team about their goals for the next quarter. 

Example: retail salesperson

Spending your day on a shop floor usually means tackling a lot of chaos in any given period, making efficient time tracking and planning more challenging.

  • Smaller tasks might include checking shop floor inventory levels and arranging displays.
  • Medium tasks might include doing inventory in the stockroom.
  • Large tasks might be a major restock order coming in, which will happen at a fixed time and take up all their attention during that period. 

Tools and apps to support the 1-3-5 rule

Tracking your progress can be much easier with a 1-3-5 rule app for increasing productivity. Plenty exist on the market, so all you have to do is find the one with the UI that best suits you.


It’s like choosing call center scripting tools. In both cases, you need to find the digital tools that best support your specific personal needs and preferences so you can do what you need to do as easily as possible.

Customizing the 1-3-5 rule for different needs

A major advantage of the 1-3-5 framework is customizable and easy to adjust. You can tailor it for your personal productivity style, as well as any professional requirements you aim to meet.

Here are a few examples of ways in which you can customize the rule.

Long-term planning

If you’ve got a major project coming up, you know that mastering both short and long-term planning is key to meeting deadlines and performing well.

While the 1-3-5 method is best suited to dividing up everyday tasks, you can also use it to make more long-term to-do lists. You can adjust it by keeping your big task, medium task, and small task in proportion to one another. In other words, you’d simply add one big task and three medium tasks for every five small tasks that go on your to-do list.

Spontaneous planning

Completing a task every day is harder when you don’t use formal to-do lists, yet many people prefer a spontaneous, off-the-cuff planning style.

The 1-3-5 productivity rule works for those people, too.

Spontaneous planners will need to be able to look at any one task they’re trying to accomplish and determine its relative size and importance. Then, they can compare that to the other tasks they want to (or already have) performed that day to determine if the new task will get done today, too. This lets them preserve the 1-3-5 ratio.

Uneven task distribution

Not all productivity hacks suit all kinds of workloads. That said, the 1-3-5 rule is quite flexible.

For example, let’s say you only have one medium task but a lot of smaller tasks. You might be tempted to discard the 1-3-5 format, but instead, consider bending the ratio a bit to turn it into a 1-1-10 approach first.

In other words, you can simply replace any one task with more tasks in the next size down.

Challenges and solutions in applying the 1-3-5 rule

Lastly, we’ll be covering some of the most notable challenges people tend to face as they work to implement the 1-3-5 rule. We’ll share practical tips and solutions for overcoming each challenge as well so you can master the strategy in no time.

Challenge: prioritizing properly

Even when you know that your larger projects need to take priority over your smaller tasks, it can still be challenging to know which project to put first. The easiest solution would be to rely on project management software, but what if that’s not available?

Solution: create time blocks

Creating time blocks is one of the best time management techniques for this problem.

For example, you might block out an hour between 3 and 4 p.m. to get your five smaller tasks done one after the other.

As you block out time, remember that not all tasks are equally important. Neglecting a single small task is often more of an inconvenience than avoiding your big, priority task, which is a major problem.

Time blocking vs. time batching

Challenge: getting distracted

As great as an office’s social environment can be, the occasional office chit-chat may start eating away at your working hours. This is one of the major cons of offices.

Solution: avoid multitasking

While you can’t always avoid common office distractions altogether, it helps you stay focused when you exclusively perform one task at a time. If you’re having a chat, make it into a proper break! But when you’re focused, let coworkers know you’re unavailable to talk.

By avoiding multitasking, you can make your in-office and remote work plan more efficient.

Challenge: burning out

With so much to do every day and only so much time to do it, you might find yourself running on empty. Burnout is a real and constant threat in the modern workplace, with about 72% of employees claiming burnout has impacted their performance. 

Solution: plan breaks–correctly

Be sure to rest to protect yourself from burnout. That means taking scheduled, proper breaks.

Eating lunch while you work on a presentation is not a break. Wandering away from your desk for two hours on a whim is also not a proper break.

What you want is to schedule breaks throughout the day, of different lengths. And during those breaks, you are not working, so don’t try to accomplish anything else.

Challenge: adding to your To-Do list

It can be easy to keep adding new tasks to your to-do list—especially if they’re given to you by people you respect and admire. But when these tasks pile up, you might soon find you’re not doing one big task but six.

Solution: practice saying no

To get out of that rut of endlessly adding to your to-do list, you need to be very clear about both your daily and long-term goals. Then you need to turn down items that don’t fit with those goals.

We’re not saying you should be rude to your boss. Rather, you should communicate that you’re at capacity and can only accept new important tasks for tomorrow unless something is urgent enough to replace a task for today. Protecting your time keeps your workload realistic and manageable.

Struggling to say no? Fortunately, you can lean on data-driven insights to help prove your point. Hubstaff Insights gives you real-time updates on utilization rates, meetings vs. focus time, and more to eliminate the guesswork of maximizing productivity. 

Challenge: productivity stagnation

Picture this: You’ve implemented the 1-3-5 rule, and suddenly, you become more productive. Now you want to keep that positive trend going, only… you’re stuck. It feels like you’ve already struck gold.

How can you continue to boost and enhance your daily productivity?

Solution: combine the 1-3-5 rule with other strategies

The answer lies in other strategies that you can combine with the 1-3-5 rule.

For example, you might use the Pomodoro technique, a type of time budgeting rule that asks you to work on your to-do list for 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break. Instead, every fourth break should instead be a longer break.

Try plenty of strategies because most work with the 1-3-5 rule. By figuring out new combinations, you can keep increasing your productivity and getting more out of your workday.

Final thoughts

The 1-3-5 rule helps you get more done every day while preventing you from overdoing it or overloading your to-do list.

It’s a great rule if you need more structure in your workday. It’s also highly compatible with other productivity strategies like the Pomodoro technique, Eisenhower Matrix, or Eat the Frog

Perhaps the best thing about the 1-3-5 rule is that it helps remind people that they’re making progress. That psychological boost helps with morale, which, in turn, helps employees increase productivity and rack up completed tasks.

Category: Time Management