Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Two-Minute Rule FAQ

by Andre · 4 Comments

The two-minute rule was originated by business consultant Dean Acheson (no relation to the former Secretary of State), then incorporated into the Time/Design (Time/system in the US) methodology and later picked up by David Allen for GTD.

Acheson, who also coined the Next Action technique, would guide his clients through an in-basket processing session by having them ask of a next action, “Is it a short action?” If the answer was yes, the rule was to do it immediately rather than write it down for later review or action. Later, as Acheson came to realize that “short” was overly subjective, he changed the framing question to, “Can this be done in less than two minutes?”

Sometimes it’s important not to apply the rule too literally, and other times it’s better to apply it more strictly. Here are some questions that typically get asked about the two-minute rule.

How do I know if something is really going to take two minutes?

Application of the rule improves with practice and experience. I would recommend erring on the side of going over two minutes at first, then noting which actions are longer or shorter. It’s always better to test your assumptions when in doubt. Many actions that might seem to take longer than two minutes wind up taking less than a minute. If they take longer, all you’ve lost in most cases is a little efficiency.

On the other hand, you do want to notice which actions regularly take longer than expected. I never do “quick” phone calls anymore unless (1) I know I’m going to get voice mail, (2) it’s a non-social call involving a yes-no question or closed information question (e.g. “What’s the registration deadline?”) or (3) I precede it with an informational text message. I also don’t do two-minute actions during weekly reviews, where taking anymore than a few seconds would break my focus. Instead, I keep a running checklist called, “Two Minute Actions,” which I execute immediately after completing the weekly review.

Why two minutes instead of, say, five?

The original reason for settling on two minutes was to keep people from deliberating on the meaning of a “short” action, so in a sense, two minutes is arbitrary. Generally, the busier you are, the more literally you should adhere to the two-minute length.

People are usually more accurate at determining actions that take less than two minutes than they are at ones that take five. Think about how many times someone told you that something would take “five minutes.” Did it? I find that it’s not uncommon for people’s five-minute estimates to be off by 2-3x, suggesting that “five minutes” is determined through guesswork more than thinking.

If you work at home, have come into the office on a Saturday, are on a plane, or are in a generally less busy context, go ahead and extend the rule to five minutes or longer, since there aren’t any consequences to getting behind if that were to happen.

On the other hand, if you’re having an exceptionally busy day, shorten the rule to one minute or even 30 seconds if necessary. But don’t fall into the “busy trap” of skipping short actions just because things are hectic. If you can answer someone’s email about when something will be ready in less than a minute, don’t let the “I’ve got so many things to do” mindset let that reply hang as an open loop; answer it now and keep it from cluttering your mind or your inbox.

If I spend all day doing two-minute tasks, how will I ever get to anything important?

This question contains two fallacies. First, no knowledge worker ever has a day filled with two-minute tasks. When I actually counted the number of two-minute actions I executed each day during a one-week period of work logging, the highest number was 14.

Second, the importance of a task shouldn’t be measured by the time it takes, but what it enables. Getting a transcript to complete a college application can be procrastinated on indefinitely. Without taking a minute or two to go online to at least get the instructions for requesting the transcript, the entire appication process is held back. I recently wrote about my experience with a Meetup group organizer who procrastinated for weeks on committing to a date for the first meetup, despite my repeated requests, because she let my emails sit in her inbox without taking a minute to reply to them as they arrived.

One question to always keep in mind with any action is this: Does this need to be done? If the answer is yes, then by definition, it’s important. If it takes less than two minutes, make it easy on yourself by doing it now rather than redundantly thinking about it or looking at it on your action list.

I’m having trouble thinking of many things that take less than two minutes

The best time to apply the two-minute rule consciously is when you’re processing your in-basket or email inbox. If you try to apply the rule when reacting to an interruption, there’s a tendency to fall into the busy trap and assume that there isn’t enough time to respond with an action that, in reality, would actually take less than two minutes if you thought about it without distraction. When you’re in processing mode, every single item you process and determine the next action for can and should be followed with, “Will this take less than two minutes?”

Some examples of two-minute actions:

  • Writing a thank you note
  • Approving a purchase order
  • Asking or answering yes-no or closed information questions via phone, email or search
  • Filing a document
  • Scheduling a project planning session
  • Reading a short and simple article or post online (if longer, print it for your Read/Review folder)
  • Writing a checklist
  • Filling out and stamping an envelope
  • Purchasing something online that requires no further research
  • Throwing something in the trash

Again, there’s no reason to assume that a rote action is unimportant. Consider, “Scheduling a project planning session.” With some projects, simply defining the successful outcome and the very next action step is enough to get things moving. But occasionally, you need to look beyond the next action and really map out the project’s critical path to get clarity.

If you’re too busy to do that thinking on the spot, just take a few seconds to review your calendar and schedule a planning session for mind mapping or outlining what needs to be done. By not taking a moment to determine when you’re going to nail down the project’s critical elements, the project will hover at the edge of awareness indefinitely.

Why the artificial time constraint instead of just applying “Do it now” to everything?

Two reasons. First, it’s poor triage. If the cartridge on your exotic pen runs out of ink, and it turns out that finding a replacement cartridge online is harder than you expected, you don’t want to spend the next half hour at work surfing the web just to finish what you started when there are almost certainly more important things to do. The search for the pen cartridge might have actually started as a two-minute action, but having the rule in place keeps your attention from spiralling into minutiae.

Once your realize that more than two minutes have elapsed, you can make a judgement call to either continue or to put it on your task list. By putting it on your list, you can review it in relation to other items to see if what you’re choosing to do is the best thing you could be doing.

The rule’s delimiting effect is intentional. If you’re processing an in-basket with 50 items, adhering strictly to the two-minute rule means that you’ll spend a theoretical maximum of 100 minutes processing. Realistically, it will take far less than that, since many actions take seconds: throwing items in the trash, signing documents, making calendar and action list entries, and so on. If you spend much more than two minutes on individual items, you lose the efficiency of batch processing.

Second, the rule prevents you from using triage as an excuse to avoid completing short actions. If an action takes less than two minutes, do it immediately, even if it’s a low-priority item. Otherwise it clutters your list by taking more time to review and do later than it would to have done it at once. You don’t waste time with idle deliberation which, itself, might take two minutes.

What if a two-minute action leads to another one, and so on?

Stick to the rule. If the next action takes longer than two minutes, write it down and do it when appropriate. Otherwise, do it on the spot. The question reflects a “domino effect” assumption that completing one action will cascade into subsequent actions indefinitely. Realistically, you always reach a stopping point where you either run into a longer task that’s better to write down, or you find that you’ve completed the project faster than you expected.

You’re thinking about writing a thank you note. You ask yourself if it will take less than two minutes, and decide that the answer is yes. You write the note, and, horror of horrors, it actually takes 3.5 minutes. What’s the next action? Completing the envelope — done in just over a minute. Next: throwing it in the mailbox — 30 seconds. In just over five minutes, you got something out of the way that you probably would haved “shoulded” yourself about cumulatively for 10 minutes over the next couple of days.

(Photo credit: fdecomite)

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