Two minutes might not seem like much, but appearances can be deceiving. There’s actually quite a lot you can accomplish in a two-minute window if you develop the habit if asking yourself if something takes two minutes or less. This habit was codified by consultant Dean Acheson (not the deceased U.S. senator), and later David Allen, as the Two Minute Rule.
The Logic of the Two Minute Rule
According to the Two Minute Rule, if something occurs to you that you determine can be done in two minutes or less, do it immediately, even if it’s a low priority item. Putting it off means spending more time thinking about the something than doing it, since you’ll either have to mentally remind yourself about it, or enter it on a last, review it, and reevaluate whether or not to do it.
Cluttering your to do list with two minute actions increases the size of your list with each line item. That might seem trivially obvious, but consider that if half of the items on your to do list are two-minute tasks, your perceived workload when scanning your list appears twice as large, despite a vast disparity in time commitments. Items like “Complete April sales report” and “Confirm dinner with Amy” are given equal psychic weight, even though there’s probably a 10-20x difference in time to completion.
Does It Matter a Little or Matter at All?
I’ve seen plenty of critics resist the Two Minute Rule based on untested assumptions, the most common of which goes something like this: “If I spend all of my time doing two-minute items, when will I ever have time to get to the important items?” This question is loaded with two assumptions: (1) that there’s an infinite supply of two-minute tasks to be done, and (2) that short tasks are unimportant.
Completing an under-two-minute action (lest we forget that many will be 30-second or one-minute actions) either leads to another one or a longer task. If the subsequent task is longer, you can put it on your to do list and evaluate it against all of the other items you’ve written down. If, in fact, the subsequent action does take less than two minutes, then you’ve spend a maximum of four minutes completing two items that would have otherwise lingered. Even in the unlikely event that you would have five of these in a row, that would consume a whopping 10 minutes out of your work day.
The notion that short tasks are unimportant is a curious one. Paying a bill online takes less than two minutes, but the consequences of not doing it can be quite serious. Yet many people will sit on a bill the moment it arrives, even when they know they have sufficient funds, because they inflate the task in their head. Sending a “thank you” email may not be serious, but if you’re going to send it at all, it would have more impact if you sent it the moment you thought of it than sending it four days later when you feel mentally pressured to do so.
The real question isn’t whether or not a short task is important enough to do now, but whether or not it should be done at all. If it should be done at all, and it takes essentially no time at all, do it now.
Does It Really Take Two Minutes?
One slightly less untested assumption is that many tasks end up taking longer than assumed. This is actually true, which highlights an important semantic distinction: we’re asking, not assuming. The object is not to assume that a relatively short task will take less than two minutes, then leap into indiscriminate action, but to consciously ask ourselves if it will, and actually think about whether or not it’s likely.
“Will this take two minutes or less?” is a disruptive question, designed not only to get you handle short actions immediately, but to prevent you from getting lured into potentially longer actions. Think of how many people check email without spending enough time to actually answer the messages they get. What’s the point in looking for email that can’t be answered? Why look at messages now that you’ll have to reexamine later? If it takes longer than two minutes, either schedule email processing for an appropriate block of time, or put it on your list.
Two minutes is actually arbitrary. When Acheson coached his early clients, he had them ask themselves, “Is it a short action?” After finding that “short” was too relative for some clients, he changed it to two minutes for clarity’s sake, but don’t get hung up on the length. The point is to discriminate between actions that are too short to put on a list and ones that are too long to start without becoming sidetracked from higher priorities.
During a busy weekday, the two-minute norm is probably ideal. If you happen to have more time — for instance, if you’ve come into the office on a Saturday, you might decide to immediately do anything that takes less than 10 minutes instead of two. The point of the rule is not to follow it blindly, but to make consciously question whether or not you actually have enough time. There’s usually more time available to do things than people assume.
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