What’s the Magic Number..?

Sep 4, 2012   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon, Articles  //  No Comments

Magic Top HatIN SHORT: There is a ‘magic number’ that governs our productivity and focus, our ability to achieve and our stress levels too. Read on to find out what it is..!

“Busy-ness and productivity
are not the same thing.”



(~1044 words, approx. 5-8 mins to read)

Back in 1990 jazz hip-hop trio De La Soul proposed that “Three is the magic number.” But today, based on research and experience, I can exclusively reveal that they were wrong, but only slightly.

Before we get to what the magic number actually is, I realise that a little extra information might help everyone understand exactly what I’m talking about here, so let’s back-track a bit.

I spent the better part of a decade working in various roles for a global FMCG company (that’s Fast-Moving Consumer Goods for acronym non-geeks). One of the problems we decided needed addressing was how we could maximise the overall performance of each team member by making sure their time wasn’t spread too thinly across too many projects.

So, obviously, that meant we needed to know what actually counted as ‘too many’. I now work with a number of business, public-sector and individual clients who also ask that question. And it’s a very important question too, since the answer has an impact not only on project planning in business, but also on our individual and collective time management, our stress management and whole-of-life balance – in fact our personal productivity in total.

Well, with some research from a variety of sources, backed up by subsequent experience, we found the answer:

Two and a half.

Now I can guess that some of you will be wondering what on earth ‘a half’ means, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

What the research turned up was that if you are being asked to make a continual and significant contribution to a project, you are at your most productive when you have two and a half to work on.

This might seem to go against what seems like common sense which would suggest that focusing on a single project would mean you’re at your most productive, but in the real world of working and home life, no project is without its delays and breaks. And while it’s probably arguable that focusing on a single project might improve your productivity *for that project*, your total productivity *as a person* is harmed.

This is because having a second project to divide your time between means that when when one or the other needs input or help from someone or somewhere else, or there’s a hiccup outside your control, you’re not sat twiddling your thumbs because you have something else to work on. Since we tend to get bored doing the same thing all the time, and even the best intentioned of us do, having a second project means there’s something else you can do, rather than nothing.

The ‘half’ a project comes in as something that you’re not required either to make as continuous or significant a contribution to, but can step in to when required and step out again without anything too detrimental happening in your absence.

You could think of it instead as the magic combination being two major projects and one minor one. The half or minor project often appears in the workplace as something you might contribute to as an adviser or expert, or share a role equally with several other people, but you aren’t involved in its day to day execution. Or it could be something you’re using as a learning or development opportunity.

What this means is that if you are being asked to be a serious part of three or more projects, you are starting to be over-stretched, and that means one or more of the projects will begin to suffer as you seek to prioritise whatever you consciously or unconsciously perceive to be the two ‘major’ projects.

And in case you’re one of those who think they can multi-task effectively, research over the last couple of decades shows that true multi-tasking is in fact a myth and attempting to do it actually makes you less and less productive on each project and has the same effect on your performance as being mildly drunk, or reducing your IQ by around 15 points!

What’s really interesting is that this rule of two-and-a-half works recursively, that is, it applies equally to every layer of life.

For example, let’s start with your whole life. If you’re employed, you have a work-life ‘project’ and a home-life ‘project’. You may also have a community-life ‘project’, e.g. running a sports club, youth group, local choir, etc. Since no-one else can run your work life or home life, those make the two major projects, and the third takes you to, and possible beyond, the limit unless it’s a minor project.

Let’s go a layer deeper: In your work life, we’ve already discussed how two major and one minor work projects is the limit of good solid productivity and contribution.

However, the same applies in your home life; you may be in a serious and committed relationship with someone, so that’s one ‘project’. You may be a parent, so that’s two. If you have a serious hobby or other interest, that’s three projects on the go, again taking you to and possibly over the limit of good, solid continuous contributions, unless one can be classed as a ‘minor’ project.

I’ve lost count of the number of stressed employees and managers I’ve worked with, relationships I’ve seen damaged, stress-related problems and breakdowns, or careers sidelined because people either tried to make every project in their life a major one and found they didn’t have the time, ability or energy to keep it up for long. Either that or they relegated what should have been a major project, e.g. their family life, to minor status, often without realising it, and the knock-on effects came back to bite them.

Many of you may already be wondering how those people who seem to have a finger in every pie and juggle many different projects, way beyond the ‘two and a half’ actually do it.

So next time we’ll talk about how!

For now though, remember, the ‘magic number’ you need to hold on to, the one that governs our productivity and focus, our ability to achieve and our stress levels too, is 2 ½ – two major and one minor project. Any more and you start to lose the magic…

Until next time,



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