The two-minute rule often blows up on me. I frequently find that what I thought would be a two-minute task takes longer than two minutes. For example, I’ll open an email and think I can respond quickly by just confirming one thing, but when I check that one thing, I discover an issue that requires a deeper dive. Should I stop what I’m doing, put the email on a “to do later” list, and move on? Or should I keep going—since I’ve already started on the task—even though it will take longer than two minutes? This feels like a silly question to ask, but it happens to me often enough that I’d like suggestions on how to proceed.
Two Minutes or Bust
Dear Two Minutes,
Great question. Let me share some thoughts for both people familiar and unfamiliar with the two-minute rule. For many people I train and work with, this rule has totally shifted the way they process email. In fact, we recently surveyed people who attended Getting Things Done® Training several months ago, and 42% of respondents said they process 20% more email per day when compared to before training. Given my experience, I believe much of their increased productivity can be attributed to this rule.
What the Two-Minute Rule Is
When you’re processing your email or physical in-tray and you encounter a task or request that can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. If an email requires only a quick reading and a quick response, read and respond immediately. If you can browse an agenda in just a minute or two to see if there might be anything of interest, browse away—and then toss, route, or reference it as inclined. Even if a task is not of high priority, but you plan to do it eventually and can do it in two minutes or less, do it immediately.
The rationale here is that there’s a point where storing and tracking a to-do requires more time than dealing with it the first time it’s in your hands. In other words, what’s the efficiency cutoff? If a task is not important enough to be done, disregard it. If it is important, and if you plan to do it sometime, ask yourself whether you’d be more efficient to complete it immediately or put it on a list or calendar for later completion.
What the Two-Minute Rule Is Not
The two-minute rule is not a rule by which to live EVERY moment of your life. The rule is not suggesting this: “every time a task comes into your world that takes two minutes or less to complete, do it right then.” That would be bad. You’d be going from small task to small task. You’d be perpetually switching tasks and not taking ample time to focus on work that requires more time. The rule works very well when you are in processing or clearing-out mode—like when you’re processing emails or going through that pile of stuff on the kitchen counter. When you’re in family-dinner mode, however, forget the two-minute rule. When you’re in creative-writing mode, forget the two-minute rule.
If you are reading an email and you think you can process it and its accompanying tasks in two minutes or less, get started. But if you discover after two and a half minutes that you’ll need eight minutes or 15 minutes or even longer—STOP! Don’t go on. Going down a rabbit hole on a single task will prevent you from getting current on that inbox. Put the task on a list or calendar, along with ample details, and get back to processing your inbox.
Distinguish Work Modes for Greater Efficiency
There’s a reason you shouldn’t let a task hijack your email-processing time. It becomes clear when you understand the three different kinds of work you can be engaged in:
- Doing predefined work: You focus on completing tasks from your to-do lists and calendar that you previously determined important and as requiring more than two minutes.
- Doing work as it shows up: You work on things ad hoc—tasks unsuspected and unforeseen that show up consistently.
- Defining your work: You process your inbox or physical in-tray or other requests and clarify vague inputs into next actions.
You must help yourself by not constantly switching from one type of work to another. What I mean is this: when you’re in email-processing mode, process email. When you’re in focused-work mode, focus. Don’t glance at your email during that time. Your performance drops when you fail to compartmentalize your work modes.
Most people don’t think of their work as falling into three modes. As a result, they spend their time disproportionately and experience an imbalance in life. Learn to make time for all three work modes and recognize when you’re in one mode so you can work in THAT mode effectively.
When you allow yourself to get distracted by a time-consuming task while processing email, you blur the lines between types of work. You then end up with an incomplete list of predefined work (that remains unfinished), a partially reviewed inbox (but still overflowing), and an exhausted mind because you ran around in circles all day.
Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.