The Power of Three

If you want to get things done, think in threes.

The power of three is hardwired into our brains. From fairy tales (The Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs) to literary trilogies (Sophocles, Trollope, Tolkien), three seems the right number. Even the stories of world religions and folk mythology use some sort of trinity — from the Three Magi to the three Fates. Aesthetically, whether arranging flowers or considering the geometrical perfection of triangles in ancient pyramids, three feels balanced and strong. Legendary jazz drummer Clayton Cameron has talked about the relationship between math and rhythm and why the number three “feels great.” We even tend to sort concepts into triads: “mind, body, and soul,” “faith, hope, and love,” and use it as a way to organize (like the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government).

Researchers like Sheena Iyengar have demonstrated that having too many choices can be debilitating. Three is a manageable number, something we can get our head around. Clearly, there is magic in the number three.

There’s a lesson here for people who create or curate messaging. Don’t give people more than three things to think about. We can remember three concepts, three action items, and three goals for change. Try to squeeze in more than that, and we get confused, we lose the thread, and our brains don’t process or retain the information.

I recently counseled a highly effective manager who had taken on a huge assignment that included putting a new team in place to run the business. The team was hand-picked and really delivered. But they reported feeling overwhelmed by everything he wanted to accomplish and then micro-managed when he quashed their attempts to choose which assignment to tackle first. By declaring everything vital to success, nothing was prioritized. Ironically, that manager was feeling overwhelmed by trying to keep tabs on all of the initiatives his team was working on. My advice was this: Focus on the three things that you need to fix first. The team can remember three things. They can accomplish three things without you there to ride shotgun. And when those three things are accomplished, choose three more, and tackle those.

I highly recommend that you learn to think in threes. In fact, we can take a page from Einstein’s Three Rules of Work: 1) Out of clutter find simplicity; 2) From discord find harmony; 3) In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

Bob Priest-Heck