Updated September 10, 2021
This is a popular refrain I hear over and over from productivity experts: “Stop procrastinating by using the ‘2 minute rule’ of time management.”
The problem is that typically this “2 minute rule” isn’t used correctly. Millions of people are using this popular tip to stop procrastinating without realizing how it’s hijacking their attention and derailing their productivity.
The 2 minute rule is often misinterpreted to mean that if a task can be completed in 2 minutes or less, go ahead and do it when you think of it. This interpretation of the rule leaves out two key elements: Take 2 minutes to complete the task only during processing time, and only if it’s related to the task at hand. If you apply the 2 minute rule at the wrong time, you risk decreasing productivity.
Let’s take a closer look at the 2 minute rule, how it originated and when it can be applied properly to help you stop procrastinating.
What is the 2 Minute Rule?
I first encountered the two minute rule in the 1990s, when I worked at Time/system International and learned the foundational principles of personal productivity. I was taught that the two minute rule can be effective when applied as part of a comprehensive workflow management system.
At the time, I worked alongside David Allen, who helped develop the company’s productivity curriculum. Later, in the year 2000, David published a bestselling book called Getting Things Done. This book popularized the 2 minute rule.
Allen explains, “If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it’s defined.” The reason is that it will take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it.
Allen says that the 2-minute rule should be applied during processing time. This is the key that many people who repeat the rule fail to mention.
And if used at the wrong time, the 2 minute rule can actually derail productivity.
What is Processing Time?
David Allen describes processing time as “deciding what actions to take on stuff.”
To me, processing time is time dedicated to assessing a specific collection of information. Examples of processing time include going through the pile of paper on your desk, assessing your list of projects to determine how to move forward on each of them, or clearing out your email inbox.
Going further, let’s look at ‘processing’ email. Processing email means taking a block of time to review the messages in your inbox, one at a time, decide what action to take on each, such as to delete it, file it, or move it to your task list. It’s not always important to begin or complete the task that each email requires right in that moment, whether that’s writing a thoughtful response or completing a request.
What’s the Purpose of the 2-Minute Rule?
A benefit of David’s two-minute rule is that it just helps you knock things off your to-do list. By simply recognizing that we can get the task done quickly if only we take action, we stop planning to do the task, dreading doing the task, and ruminating about the task. I refer to this as training our brain to a “bias for action.”
Taking action on information when we can prevent “stuff” from accumulating around us, whether that’s physical stuff (like mail on your kitchen counter) or digital stuff (like emails in your inbox). This bias for action helps to eliminate clutter, which is helpful to stop procrastination and improve productivity.
Why Can’t I Use the Two-Minute Rule Whenever I Want?
Here’s how the 2-minute rule, when taken out of context, can derail your productivity. The second caveat, besides being used during processing time, is that the two-minute task needs to be related to what you’re actually doing.
Take the email processing example above. It’s true that if you come across an email that requires an action that will take 2-minutes or less, instead of leaving it until later, you should just take the action and delete or file the email. Your goal was to “process your email,” so dealing with a quick email in your inbox serves that goal.
However, here’s another situation that could come up, a version of which I hear from my clients all the time…
You sit down at your desk and think, “I know I have important messages in my email inbox that I haven’t dealt with. I’m going to spend the next hour working on clearing out my email inbox.” (In other words, “processing” your email.)
A wandering mind derails your plans
So you look at the first message, but then an unrelated thought pops into your head: “Ooh, I need to remember to run some errands after work, so I should put a note about that on my calendar so I don’t forget. Putting that appointment on my calendar will take less than two minutes, so I should do it now!”
So you switch out of email and over to your calendar to add the appointment for 6pm, And then you think, “Wait, I think it’s going to rain. Let me check.” (Because that will also take less than two minutes.) So you pull up the weather app on your phone, and you’re greeted with their video screen, which reads, “Deadly tornado tears through Oklahoma.”
Here’s your progression of thoughts from there:
“Oh my gosh, I have relatives in Oklahoma, I better watch the video to see where the tornado touched down, and if there were any casualties.” (It’s only 2 minutes and 37 seconds long, so that counts, right?)
After the video ends you think, “Phew, it wasn’t near my relatives, and no one died.”
“But that reminds me, I haven’t spoken with my cousin Steve in a while, and I know his daughter Lauren went to the gymnastics finals. I should call them and see how she did.”
“Maybe I’ll take a short break, grab a cup of coffee, and go for a walk around the building. I can call Stephen for a quick check-in while I’m walking. (Taking a break, and knocking a phone call of my list—look how efficient I am!)”
On your way back in the building, a co-worker stops you and says, “Hey, do you have a minute?”
“Well, if I don’t talk with you now, I’ll forget to follow up with you later,” you think, so you say, “Sure, what do you need?”
That leads to a bigger conversation, where you actually end up in the conference room with three other people to discuss this issue that was only going to take “a minute.”
The two-minute rule applied incorrectly can sabotage productivity
Finally, an hour later, you sit down at your desk, two hours after you made the decision to process your email. Your email is still open, 20 more messages have arrived, you had two big projects you were planning to tackle that day that you haven’t even started yet, and it’s almost time to head into the meeting that actually was on your calendar for today.
The goal when you sat down two hours ago was to process your email. You actually processed ZERO emails, got 20 messages farther behind, made NO progress on those important tasks, and two hours in your day seemingly evaporated.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
The problem with using the two-minute rule any time
If you follow the “two-minute rule” any time, then you end up flitting from task to task all day, at the whim of your thoughts, instead of in a logical, prioritized manner.
As a human, our minds jump from idea to idea, from task to task, from project to project, and from unrelated thought to unrelated thought. If we use the 2 minute rule whenever a two minute task enters our minds, our plans and intentions will be constantly derailed.
And I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with a big project, I can think of two-minute, unrelated tasks all day long! So instead of creating a bias for action, the two-minute rule actually becomes a procrastination tool.
To Stop Procrastinating, Use the 2 Minute Rule Correctly
If you always give in to the “whims” of your brain, you’ll never be able to stay focused, you’ll create a habit of procrastination, and you’ll spend your days doing things that are quick, but not the best use of your time. You’ll be busy, but not productive.
So, remember to use the two minute rule properly:
- Only during processing time.
- Only when it will advance the task of processing (not when it’s unrelated).
If you follow these guidelines for using the two-minute rule, it will help you create a bias for action, which will help train your brain to stop procrastinating. But if you use the two-minute rule any time you think of a task that will take you less than two minutes, then the two-minute rule actually becomes a tool that promotes procrastination!
To learn 6 more important ways to stop procrastination, read How to Stop Procrastinating and Improve Productivity.
Getting Things Done: Time Management Isn’t the Solution
The two-minute rule is an example of time-management advice that is challenged by the digital age we live in. We’re now constantly bombarded by incoming messaging explicitly designed to divert the 24 hours in our days. Notice how the video in the weather app in the example above played right into our own internal distraction, and prevented the important work that needed to be done.
That’s on purpose. The placement of the video, and the ominous headline, were both designed explicitly to steal the attention of the user. And while in that example, the weather app was the culprit, it could just as easily have been one of dozens of other distractions brought to us by our ever-present smartphones.
Instead of adhering to time-management strategies of the past (especially when they’re easily corrupted, like the two-minute rule), what’s more important now is that we learn how to manage our attention.
Stop Procrastinating with Attention Management
By mastering attention management, you can calmly focus on your most important tasks and stop procrastinating. I created a four-quadrant model of attention management that you can apply to your work.
When you know which type of attention you need to use for optimal productivity, you give yourself the best chance to complete your work with joy and creativity, and you’re less susceptible to being diverted by an unfocused brain.
Read: From To-Do to Done!
A More Comprehensive Solution Than the 2-Minute Rule
The workflow management process I share with my clients is called the Empowered Productivity System, and the foundational component is attention management. The additional five are:
- Action Management
- Communication and Information Management
- Meeting Management
- Behavior Management
- Culture Change Management
The 2 minute rule can help you stop procrastinating if you do it correctly. However, if you want a more comprehensive solution for increasing productivity, decreasing stress and burnout, and living a life of choice, rather than a life of reaction and distraction, consider a comprehensive workflow management system based in attention management, like Empowered Productivity.
If you have a team that could benefit from these skills, contact me here for a free consultation.
If you’re an individual, you can take my online Empowered Productivity training course. This self-paced, video-based course will help you improve your productivity and decrease your stress in just 10 minutes a day.
But I only open registration a few times a year and only for a few days. If you’d like to get notified when registration opens, fill out the form below. You’ll be the first to know!
Serious question: how is it any different during processing time than any other time of the day? If anything, it seems like the cascade will be worse because it will interfere with getting your other tasks written down. Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but knowing myself, this sounds to me like I would end up spending all day in processing time and never getting any longer tasks down at all.
Thanks for reading, Lauren, and for your question. During processing time is when you are adding things to your list anyway. But if you allow longer tasks to distract you, then the “processing” is never finished. If you follow the “two-minute rule” anytime, then you end up flitting from task to task all day, at the whim of your thoughts, instead of in a logical, prioritized manner.
You’re right and wrong. David’s clearly stated his rule as exactly as how people are referencing it – if it’s less than 2 minutes then do it. He also however talks about processing as a completely different notion and that the ability to identify what tasks you should be doing probably is equally as important as getting things done.
You can see a transcript of him explaining the 2 minute rule in this PDF and he clearly states the 2 minute rule as something as a rule to follow to get things done. http://www.bishophouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/1-on-1-David-Allens-Two-Minute-Rule.pdf
Thanks for reading and commenting, Andrew! I’m sure you’re right about David Allen’s perspective on the matter. But if that’s the case, then I disagree with him. Similar to what I wrote to Lauren (below), if you always give in to the “whims” of your brain, you’ll never be able to stay focused, and you’ll spend your days doing things that are quick but maybe not as important. You’ll be busy, but not productive. When you’re immersed in another task (or *trying* to get immersed in another task), I believe it’s better to push other thoughts out of your mind, no matter how long they’ll take. If it matters, you’ll think of it again at another time. In my experience, this leads to better attention management. But you should do whatever you feel works best for you!
I like the dialogue that your article has started.
I’d like to add that while doing a project that takes a longer time but has higher importance that focus is very valuable.
One of the ‘problems’ with getting into the state of flow or really getting into something is that it opens up my mind to other things I may like to do or need to do. Many times, they have nothing to do with the project at hand!
If those spur of the moment ideas aren’t captured, many times they are lost, even if they would have only taken 2 minutes or less to initiate.
Since I know this about myself, I’ll lose some of that creative flow and attempt to use my brain to remember that idea instead of just work if I didn’t do something else.
What I’ve found to work for me is to actually break the 2-minute rule and simply write the idea on a sticky note and get back to the task at hand; to then process it at a later time.
Steven, I think you are absolutely right! When other thoughts intrude on your focus, it’s a great idea to quickly capture them for later. I don’t think that’s “breaking the rule.” Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!
Don’t forget about the matter that flew into your brain, I not it down on a “brain dump” list that is at the very front of my ff (Filofax), just my way of keeping my brain clear of “storage items”.
Yes, good point Chris!
Thanks for clarifying this, Maura. That makes perfect sense! I’m working to get into ‘flow’ more often, and it’s clear that using the 2-minute rule then would disrupt more than the thought itself.
Oh, so glad it helped you, Jan! Thanks for reading and commenting, and I’m so excited for you to be more intentional about flow. I look forward to hearing about your results with that!
I enthusiastically agree with you Maura, I’ve been a GTD devotee since 2000 and drank all DA’s kool-aid and still use it extensively but refined it with other methods. But at that point in history his book was primarily devoted to people still using paper planners — he has rewritten his book for the digital age, but not really — i have found his GTD for teens book to actually be a bit more enlightening for today’s world than the GTD revision.
Because he was looking at physical tasks, the two minute rule was easy for him to say “do it anytime you find a task you can do in two minutes” not just when processing. Examples–I have a piece of paper, i can either file it in two minutes or i can put in a file it later pile. I have a salt shaker on my desk that really belongs in the kitchen. I can log into the library site and renew a library book (maybe more than two minutes).
However in dealing with today’s mostly electronic world, there are tons of things bombarding you real time that can really be done in two minutes and you can spend all your time going down two-minute rabbit holes. So i have to timebox processing email time or yes you will get distracted to death.
Some two minute things will keep a ember from growing into a fire but too often they are those urgent but not important things that can really make you feel like you are accomplishing things but like a bike in really low gear — lots of pedaling but little progress.
Some people have expanded it to “five-minute rule” but that defeats the purpose as you are now doing rather than processing.
The tricky thing is yes — you are processing email and yes i can reply to this email in 2 minutes and if that’s all it takes — you can do that but you have to use discretion as that can become distracting if that’s not really the end of that task even after you hit send. I get 150-175 emails a day. Even if most of those are “newletters” or BACN to read later and i can dispatch in 1 minute or less, that’s still almost anywhere from two to three hours of “processing time” that can be wasted if I’m not careful.
So i think DA’s 2MR advice was perfect when most of our work was physical but has to be managed in today’s digital world or you’ll never get to the big important stuff
I am almost of the opinion that in today’s digital world dealing with email — it should be a 30 sec rule to get all the processing done
Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Jesse! I think the problem with the “two minute rule” is that many people “learned” it out of context, and it just became another “time management tip.” So that’s why I wrote the article, to provide more context. And I agree that it needs even more context since times have changed so much. Thanks for reading!