The 2-minute rule and why you should spend more time getting the easy things right

If you’re interested in personal productivity, you have more than likely at least heard of Getting Things Done (GTD)—the productivity system designed to move every task, idea, and project that’s currently in your head (where they’re prone to stressing you out and bubbling up when you’re trying to focus) into an organized outside system.

While the entire GTD system is worth diving into, it contains one often overlooked strategy that can massively improve your productivity, focus, and time management: The 2-minute rule.

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What is the 2-minute rule in productivity?

To understand the power of the 2-minute rule, we first need to understand how it fits into GTD.

We’ve written before about the basics of the GTD system, but in a nutshell, the system comes down to 5 steps:

  1. Capture. Write down everything you need to do in one central repository. This could be a piece of paper, Google Doc, or a project management tool.
  2. Clarify. Break down each task into an actionable next step. In other words, what is the next thing you need to do to get closer to this goal?
  3. Organize. Move each of those actionable tasks onto a specific list:
    • Action: Things to do next
    • Waiting For: Tasks or projects you’ve delegated or are waiting on other people for
    • Projects: Larger tasks that you break down into multiple next steps
    • Someday: Tasks you’re interested in but are a low priority right now
  4. Reflect. Set time aside to re-assess your priorities and update your lists weekly or daily.
  5. Engage. Start working through your Action list in order.

There’s a lot more to GTD than just those 5 steps. However, what we want to focus on right now is Step 2. During the clarification process, Allen suggests that “if [a task] takes less than two minutes, then do it now.”

Why is that?

Two minutes is mostly an arbitrary number. What Allen’s really suggesting is that if the effort to keep remembering a task is more than just getting it out of the way now, then do it.

While this might seem like an obvious statement, there’s a hidden power in it.   

The power of getting the small things right

small things

Other than giving you permission to blast through emails or catch up on errands, the 2-minute rule also helps to de-clutter your mind.

We already know that human beings can’t multitask. And that it takes us upwards of 23 minutes to get focused after switching between tasks. But what we don’t think enough about is what’s actually causing us to try and multitask.

Think back to the last time you got distracted while doing meaningful work. Interruptions aside, it was most likely some small, seemingly urgent task that popped into your head and pulled your attention away.

Instead of holding onto all these potential tasks you need to do at some point, you get them out of the way so you can focus more on what matters.

Clearing lingering items off your to-do list gives you more mental space to truly focus on the task at hand. Learn how to supercharge your productivity with the 2-minute rule. Click To Tweet

But more than just helping you focus, there are some additional benefits to finishing small tasks:

  • Fixing things is empowering. There’s a reason we feel such satisfaction from doing simple tasks. According to Consultant and author John Brubaker, our confidence increases or decreases based on our ability to make progress. The more things we do, the more confident we become and the more we see ourselves as “productive people.”
  • Any progress builds momentum (and your mood): No matter how small the task is, studies have shown that crossing it off your to-do list gives you a boost of momentum and enhances your mood.
  • Small steps turn into habits: When a task is easy to do and quickly completed, it’s much easier to turn it into a habit. As Atomic Habits author James Clear explains, “Once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is much easier to continue doing it.”

The hard thing about small tasks: What if you don’t know how long something will take to do?

Of course, this is easier than it sounds. Humans are notoriously bad at estimating how long a task will take to do even if we’ve done that task before (psychologists call this the planning fallacy).

When you’re trying to implement the 2-minute rule, you might find yourself spending hours on that “easy” email you wanted to write. While this is something you can get better at with time, there are a few ways to help you more accurately estimate how long a task will take to do.

First, you want to switch your mindset by using what psychologists call “Reference class forecasting.” This is basically a fancy word for changing your approach from asking “how long has this taken me in the past?” to “how long does this type of project take people like me?”

Next, to keep yourself honest, you can use a tool like RescueTime to tell you exactly where your time goes each day.

Your Applications & Websites report in RescueTime can even break down your digital time by the specific apps, websites, and even document names and windows you’re using (so you can see how long you’re spending on specific projects or emails).

2-minute rule - Blog and Trello
The RescueTime Applications & Websites showing time spent on individual tasks and projects.

(And don’t forget the smaller tasks as well. We’ve written before about you can identify and work through your “long tail” tasks. These are the things you only spend a few minutes a day/week on but add up to a large chunk of time when batched together.)

3 small things you can do right now to give you more mental space and focus

relax

Fixing small things is one of the best ways to clear up your mind, give you more space to focus, and even build your confidence, momentum, and mood.

As AirBnB developer Jonathan White told us:

“The more you look into the most productive people, the more you realize they don’t just work hard, but they start off by optimizing the small things they do every single day.”

Here are 3 small things you can do right now to build habits that will give you more space and time each day.

1. Answer the “why” and “what” for each of your regularly scheduled meetings

Meetings are one of the “necessary evils” of most workplaces. While the intentions of the meeting-setter are usually good (i.e. keeping everyone up-to-date). The outcomes don’t always match the effort, time, and energy they take away.

In fact, according to the British Psychological Society, unproductive meetings account for a whopping $37 billion in losses for US companies every single year. Luckily, you can help solve the issue of unproductive meetings in less than 2 minutes.

Here’s how Michael Lopp, VP of Engineering at Slack explains it on his blog. First, glance at your calendar and ask: “What is the value being created by each meeting?”

In a second, you should be able to answer that question. If you can’t, there’s a good chance that meeting should be canceled or turned into something else (like an email or phone call).

Next, for each meeting, write three questions that you’d like to get answered. This should take less than a minute and achieves two important outcomes. As Lopp explains:

“First, it frames my goals for this meeting. What is top of mind for me and what am I going to ask when given a chance?

“Second, if I am failing to come up with three questions, I ask myself, ‘Why am I going to this meeting?’ Meetings are a virus. They infect and they multiply. The longer they exist, the more likely the humans forget why the meeting was called.

If it takes more than 30 seconds to think about my three questions or if I can’t think of a single question that I want to ask, I decline the meeting with a clear explanation.

2. Set office hours for interruptions, emails, and conversations

Just like you can use the 2-minute rule to get through small tasks and free up your time and focus, a quick scheduling change can do the same for meetings, interruptions, and distractions.

When we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users about interruptions at work we found that 98% of people can’t get through the day without being interrupted at least a few times (with 52% saying they’re interrupted frequently!)

However, only 13% had even spoken with a boss or co-worker about this issue.

Instead of being at the mercy of unexpected interruptions or complaining about them without a solution, why not take a few minutes to set a specific time aside for them each day?

Think of this as your personal “Office Hours”—times during the day or week where you’re available for anything that isn’t your core work. When someone reaches out to you during the day with a request or wants to “quickly chat about an idea,” send them a link to your office hours.

Not only will this save you dealing with unexpected interruptions during the day, but you’ll know exactly how to deal with any request that comes in without it derailing your focus.

3. Clean up your desk (and your desktop)

We’re incredibly influenced by our surroundings. And while few people think of upgrading their work environment as a viable productivity hack, some simple changes can have a profound impact on your ability to focus and get things done.

First, consider your physical location. According to neuroscientists at Princeton University, physical clutter in your surroundings competes for your attention and can lead to decreased performance and increased stress.

This doesn’t just mean cleaning up your desk. But being mindful of what reminders you’re placing in your direct view each day. Is there a stack of books you’ve been meaning to deal with? Or sticky notes to remind you of tasks?

As Michael Lopp writes, taking a few minutes to “fix small broken things” can help you in the long-run.

“There are five more small broken things on my desk that – in less than 10 minutes – I could fix. These are small broken things I’ve been staring at and stressing about for a month, and in 10 minutes that compounding guilt is better. That 10 minutes made standing at my desk more joyful.”

The same de-cluttering advice applies to our digital devices as well:

  • How many tabs do you currently have open in your browser?
  • What about tools you switch back and forth with each day?
  • Are your desktop and downloads folder filled to the brim?

Spend a few minutes to reduce your digital clutter and focus your working environment. If you need help, RescueTime can give you an accurate picture of the tools you use each day and what’s taking your attention away.

You can change your life (and your productivity) in 2 minutes

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the small things don’t matter. But not every major change to your daily schedule or path needs to be a huge effort. In fact, sometimes it’s the tiny changes that have a far-reaching and profound effect on how we work and live.

So take a few minutes and see where you can apply the 2-minute rule to your own life. You’ll be surprised how much time and mental energy you can save by continually fixing small things.

What small changes have positively impacted the way you work and live? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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