CTO Compass

Mastering the rule of three: How Small Tweaks Can Lead to Big Wins

Just last month, I found myself caught in what I call "perfection paralysis"—I found myself procrastinating on an important project, lured instead by the desire to optimise my note-taking system further.

That’s when I decided to apply the “rule of 3”. Before I delve into the details, let me share a story that illustrates the power of this ethos in action.

Meet Sarah, who’s a digital marketer. She has her Trusted System that keeps her ticking like clockwork. But Sarah started to notice a nagging friction every time she needed to process her email; it was like wading through molasses. Busy with campaigns, she did what many of us do: nothing, hoping it would resolve itself. But all systems, like gardens, need tending.

A reluctant devotee of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Sarah nevertheless couldn’t shake the feeling that her system had room for improvement.

She rightly didn’t want to fixate on improving it instead of getting on with her most important work, but equally, the friction in running through her process threatened to derail her.

Iterate with intention

Adopting a set-and-forget mindset towards your system is a recipe for stagnation. As you grow and change, so must your system. When you encounter friction in your workflow, don’t ignore it—use it as an opportunity to refine and evolve your system. Removing these points of friction ensures that your trusted system stays, well, trustworthy.

The goal is never a perfect system – there’s no such thing – you need something that works well and that you can trust so you can get on with the work that needs to be done. What I’m not suggesting is to fiddle with your system whenever the mood takes you or to use this as an excuse for procrastinating on a difficult task. Working on improving your trusted system might feel productive, and it is in a sense, but the return on the time spent ought to be big enough. An hour of tweaking some minor point that doesn’t move the needle is not well-spent.

Three is the magic number

The common advice is to set up a regular time to review your system. Having a general review like this is a good idea, and your quarterly review period can be a good time for it. However, I advocate for smaller iterations.

In software development, there’s a concept known as ‘refactoring’, which is where some element of the architecture of the system is adjusted to better suit or prepare the system for future changes. One element of this is ‘DRYing’ up your code – i.e. don’t repeat yourself by removing duplicate pieces of code.

Particularly in the earlier stages of a new system development, a common mistake I see is that it’s done too early and aggressively. What looks like simple duplication can be too early in the system’s development to tell for sure.

I have a “rule of three” where I wait until I see several similar pieces of code before I decide if they really are true duplications and should be refactored.

I follow a similar principle in changing my trusted system. If there’s a point of friction. I make a note of it, but I don’t attempt to change it straight away. I will wait until I’ve seen it at least three times before thinking about a change.

Applying the rule

In my note-taking system, I have a “Where to Next” tag which I use to tag occurrences of the friction points. I log what’s going on at the time I notice the problem and why I think it’s an issue. But I don’t try to resolve it there and then, no matter the temptation.

In Sarah’s case, she’d long noticed the problem but hadn’t taken the next step.

On a regular basis (usually every 3-4 weeks), I schedule some time to sharpen my saw to tackle the biggest recurring point of friction. I start by reviewing all the notes I’ve made and see what’s been cropping up most and causing me the most hassle. I’ll only make one change at a time because you need to give yourself time to get used to the change and rebuild your muscle memory.

Plus, if you change several things at once, it prevents you from evaluating whether the change was good or not. Sometimes removing one point of friction causes another change that is a net negative overall.

As I indicated earlier, one thing you should factor into your improvement sessions is how long it takes to make a change. It’s easy to get carried away, but objectively, for something that you do 5 times a day, if the improvement only saves you a second each time, then you cannot afford to spend more than 2 hours to recoup that time over a 5-year period. If you only do it once a day, and it saves you a second, then you can’t spend more than 30 minutes improving it. However, do something 50 times a day, and then you can afford to spend a day optimising a second.

Coming back to Sarah, she would spend 20 minutes a day processing her emails; it would take several clicks per email to file it in her system so she could find it later.

It was well worth her spending an hour to improve this situation. She didn’t need to find a new email program. All it took was for her to learn that she could use a keyboard shortcut to pull up the labels to find and apply them to each email and then archive the email with another shortcut.

Although the change was small, the cumulative effect was massive. It wasn’t that she was saving a lot of time, more that it freed up her mental capacity to think about what and why it was being filed instead of the multiple mechanical steps required to do the filing.

Automaton to Accomplishment

For some people, tweaking their system is seen as a chore while others enjoy the process of refining it.

I will note that if you are the kind of person who loves fiddling and tweaking, as long as you’re not avoiding the real work and you are intentional about the changes you make, it’s fine to do so.

It’s about knowing yourself and managing your tendencies to be sure you know why you’re making a change and not just procrastinating in the guise of optimisation.

Like Sarah, you may find that an hour spent on a minor tweak is the difference between ending your day feeling a greater sense of accomplishment or a mindless automaton. It is an hour invested, not wasted. The time you reclaim can then be spent with your family, indulging in your favourite hobby, or simply enjoying well-deserved peace of mind.

Embracing the iterative process, guided by the rule of 3, allows for intelligent adjustments that actualize your system’s potential. Remember, the aim is a seamlessly functioning system that enhances, not hinders, your workflow.

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

Why not use your Thinking Time this week to do a review of your Trusted System? Evaluate its current state and identify any points of friction you’re already aware of. Start your list and update your process notes to declare how you’ll start tracking these going forward.

At your next scheduled improvement session, start out by reviewing your list and rank them in terms of frequency and pain. Determine if the time or mental hassle you think you’ll save will be worth the time it’ll likely take to improve it, and then choose that one to work on.

Refer to this useful XKCD comic to better understand your time return on investment.