Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > things come in threes

things come in threes

It’s an old expression and folks use it in terms of things both good and bad and sometimes, quite often even, it is true, but there is another rule of three that works every time if you use it.

As I have got older I have become aware of just how many things I have been taught that really didn’t register too well at the time, but later in life they have come back to me, usually after I have learned the lesson again, this time the hard way. That is very true of the rule of three that I’m talking about this week.

I was probably about thirteen at the time it was first explained to me by my dad’s boss. He was the head gardener at the country estate where my parents worked, a wizened old country man probably in his late fifties, but who looked ancient to my young eyes. It was half term and I was being pressed into service. I may have been just a boy, but life in the country decrees that if you can do something you do it and there were always jobs that I could do that freed up an able bodied adult for the more rigorous work. As might be expected a teenager has their own agenda and priorities and these did not include jobs like weeding or sorting bulbs; I was far more interested in learning to use some of the machinery.

That is where the rule of three was explained to me; you start each day with a list of three things. The first is something that you have to do that day, it might not be a job that you can complete, but you set a target of getting so far with it. The second is something that you ought to do, perhaps something to prepare for one of next week’s jobs or to read up on something. The third item is a treat, something that you enjoy and you do that when you have completed the first two jobs on your list. It is a variation of the stick and carrot theory.

Despite them using the rule of three on me very consistently during the next three or four years I didn’t really grasp it. Perhaps I still resented the necessity of having to do boring or difficult things before I could have some fun, but life moved on and I started work after leaving school and it was around twenty years later that I remembered those lessons from the potting shed. By now I was a project manager running the national roll out of a computerised system and juggling so many things that there were days when I doubt that I could remember what they all were, but I was coping and one of my rituals each evening was to write down three things to do the next day. I had been doing it for months before I was interrupted in the middle of writing another list one evening by a telephone call from mother. She told me that Bill Tullett had died and I was instantly transported back to that potting shed for it was Bill who had first taught me that rule of three and as I looked down at my day book it all came flooding back.

When I had started to use the technique it has seemed as though I had had a great idea and I had been really pleased with myself as I made it work for me. It was a way of working that I had jealously guarded as a secret from colleagues who were struggling to meet their deadlines while I seemed to cruise by mine and got all the plaudits, but mum’s call had reminded me just where I had got it from all those years earlier. Since then I have tried to repay the debt to old Bill by sharing it freely with anyone.


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