The Power of Three-mes

Over the years, I've spent a good chunk of time experimenting with (and writing about) various productivity systems. Methods to try and set myself goals and get things done. None have ever really stuck. Several were never even properly implemented before life got in the way and saw them abandoned (which is always most embarrassing when I've already blogged about them 😅). But the need – and the desire – has always remained.

Well, 2023 was a year that demanded a certain level of increased organisation and productivity. Between the Big Day, multiple international trips, several major birthdays and social events, Alison's return to student life, and quite a few poorly-timed (particularly given the current economic situation) renewal processes, I found myself needing some kind of system to track broader goals and upcoming deadlines. I've simultaneously found myself exposed to several new ideas and productivity systems that have wriggled into my brain and actually stuck around, for once.

First on that list is theme journaling, which I first came across years ago. This is a technique made popular (and arguably improved on) by Myke Hurley and CGP Grey (who made an excellent explainer video on the topic) – they've even designed a notebook specifically for tracking your theme progress, which I currently own[1]. They specifically advocate for a specific framework they refer to as the Theme System. But despite how much I like the idea of their Theme System – and how much I enjoy listening to Myke and Grey discuss their yearly themes – I've been reticent to properly give it a go. I've tried plenty of annual systems, and I consistently find that life is too unpredictable to make them stick. To their credit, the Theme System is specifically designed to allow you to flex and twist in the winds of time, but it still feels hard to commit to. My interest is certainly piqued, though, and with each year of listening to the Cortex podcast, my interest has grown stronger.

Sometime at the start of the year, Alison and I were chatting about this issue, and about theme journaling in general, and she made a good point: a year is just too long, but a month might be better. We were on holiday up in the Trossachs, feeling particularly relaxed, and hatched some overly ambitious scheme of living our lives alongside "monthly themes". The plan was that each month we would agree on some specific area of interest, and then every decision would try to incorporate that theme. I remember one of her suggestions was "The Month of Romans"[2], for which we might try and take a trip to a Roman archaeological site; watch some Roman-related TV documentaries or series; cook a couple of Roman-inspired meals; maybe read a book set in Ancient Rome; and so on.

It sounds great, but in practice would likely be, well, impractical. In many ways, it inverts the benefits and concerns of a yearly theme: rather than trying to rigidly stick to one large theme for far too long, we would be trying to pack a lot of content into a short time span, and then switch completely onto something new only to repeat that intensity, again and again. Life rarely gives you the flexibility to hyper-focus on a single topic like this. Plus, if experience has taught me anything about these types of "systems", the moment you start skipping days, weeks, or months, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

Needless to say, once we were back home and returned to our regular routine, the whole "monthly theme" plan melted away. I brought it up recently and Alison didn't even remember talking about it 🤷‍♀️ But something about the idea stuck in my brain, niggling away, waiting for the right moment to re-emerge.

A few months later, I was watching a YouTube video[3] and another idea jumped out at me. The argument is simple enough: a person can only meaningfully prioritise one thing at a time, but permanently prioritising one specific goal is a very common cause of burnout. The solution presented was to pick three focal areas. Order them into a rough priority list. And every time you have a spare moment or are trying to work out what to do next, consider that list and act upon the highest priority task that you currently feel up to. A focus area can be broad or narrow, it doesn't matter. They can be strict and require a specific goal or timeframe, or they can be loose and consider any progress to be positive.

Having three focus areas is a fairly simple pattern, and provides the space to shake things up fairly regularly. Once an area is no longer relevant – either because it's completed or because life has forced a reprioritisation – you can just swap it out for something else. I began experimenting with this system quite a bit, and broadly really liked it. It fits the way my brain works.

There are definitely some gotchas to watch out for, though. I noticed early on that whilst having broad, undefined topics was useful, it could create a classic to-do list issue: tasks that never ended. For instance, some of my first focus areas were "Wedding Planning" and "Health", but after a couple of months I realised that these two priorities were dragging down my morale. They simply couldn't be completed. That meant I wasn't getting the dopamine rush of striking something off my list, and it left me only one slot for everything else!

Around the same time, we found ourselves heading out to Mallorca on a family holiday with my parents. As that ramped up, I became frustrated that "wedding stuff" was even on the list; I needed more slots for other things – like packing and organising flights. Planning a wedding just wasn't my priority right now! I knew that I could shift it off my list, but this raised some new questions/concerns: when should it come back? Where should I track it in the meantime? And when I did reprioritise it, would it make sense to make the theme more granular (e.g. "sort florist") or keep it broad? What could I learn from this frustration?

During that break, I realised two things:

  1. I needed somewhere else to track long-term goals, break them up, and store ideas, so that I could actually focus on my current priorities.
  2. I also needed to more regularly review the focal points that I'd chosen, to ensure I was still focusing my time in the right areas.

It was whilst I was mulling over these two issues that I had the aha! moment. I realised that the three systems – theme journaling, monthly topics, and focus areas – were all dancing around a better pattern that might actually work for me. Why not pick three themes for each month? These can be carried over from the prior month, or taken completely new, but should be reviewed and reprioritised regularly.

I've come to think of the new system as my "threemes" (y'know, Three Themes; appalling, isn't it 😅).

At first, these "threemes" looked quite like my previous focus areas. For March, my themes[4] were "Mallorca, Camera, Health"; for April, they became "Wedding, Birthday, Health"; and so on. I still kept them roughly prioritised and fairly broad. But as time went on, that system evolved. I started adding more theme-like priorities. Ideas like "Get Organised" began to creep in, which borrowed heavily from the "broad but specific" camp of theme journaling – a topic that I could slot lots of little ideas and subtasks into, and bend to make fit my needs at a given time. I'd still have three of these, but they'd be more unlikely to get "completed" by the end of a month. Instead, as the calendar page rolled over, I'd consider if this idea was still a priority or not, and replace it, simplify it, refocus it – whatever was needed.

Each month I would take a moment to refocus my priorities, with the full knowledge that this new structure only needed to last (at most) 31 days. I often find that next month's themes start to take shape around week three of the previous month, as certain goals become increasingly clear. Old goals, or things that need to be focused on in the future, get filtered onto a to-do list or placed into future monthly themes.

This system of "threemes" has been working really well. My current triplet are: Spring Cleaning, Thanks, and New Year, New Name[5]. The aim isn't to complete every subtask in each theme, but rather to prioritise some of my larger to-do list for a month, and then review the progress at the end. Sometimes progress is made in ways I didn't expect; sometimes I choose to roll a theme over the month boundary and keep plugging away at it. Crucially, I've often found myself looking at a set of subtasks and thinking "y'know, this isn't a priority right now and deserves more focus than it would get, so I'll stick it in a theme in a future month" and I'll tell you, being able to block out some future time and just move things there has helped keep list-fatigue low and productivity high.

If you're thinking that this sounds like it would require a lot of additional admin, you'd be partially correct. I've definitely needed to train myself to take the time to actually consider my themes, prioritise them, define them, move them around, etc. But after nearly six months of using this system, a lot of that has become second-nature. It will likely come as no surprise to those that know me that WorkFlowy has formed the backbone of this system, but I've found it fascinating how finally finding a fairly successful and long-term productivity pattern has forced me to really deep-dive into the software and discover a heap of additional tools I didn't know it had available. That's a topic for a whole other blog post, but suffice to say that I now have a yearly calendar, optimised for setting three themes every month, with subtasks dedicated to tracking that progress, all built into my bullet system[6]. It's working great, and it makes that additional admin extremely quick and low-effort, so hopefully it sticks in the long term.

It's certainly been the stickiest – and most successful – task-management/productivity framework that I've tried so far! I'll be interested to use this post as a touchpoint to return to and remind myself how the system is supposed to work, or as a comparison to track its evolution. Hopefully the mere act of blogging about it doesn't kill it off like those that came before 😅 And who knows, maybe you'll find that setting some threemes are useful for you, too.

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  • <p>A look into my most recent productivity framework: every month set three, roughly prioritised focus areas. It's not novel, but it's been a slow-burn journey over the past twelve months or so and seems to be working well.</p>
  • Murray Adcock.
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