Updated July 15, 2020
“Stop procrastinating by using the ‘2 minute rule’ of time management.” This is a popular refrain I hear over and over from productivity experts. The problem is that often this “2 minute rule” isn’t used correctly. It makes me imagine millions of people using this 2 minute rule to stop procrastinating and not even realizing how this popular tip is hijacking their attention and derailing their productivity.
The 2 minute rule has been interpreted to mean that if you think of a task that 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 learned the two minute rule when I worked at Time/system International in the 1990s. There I 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 dedicated to assessing a specific collection of information, for example, going through the pile of paper on your desk, clearing out your email inbox, or assessing your list of projects to determine how to move forward on each of them.
Let’s take processing email for an example. To me, processing email means dealing with each message and deciding what action to take, 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 contains, whether that’s a thoughtful response or to complete some other request.
But it is important to have a firm grasp on all the actions you’re responsible for that are lurking in your email inbox—otherwise you aren’t really on top of your workload. In my Empowered Productivity System, I teach that your email inbox is for receiving and processing emails, not for storing them, so the goal of deciding what action is required is to move the message out of your inbox.
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 Just Use the Rule When a Quick Task Pops Into My Head?
Here’s how the “2-minute rule,” when taken out of context, can actually 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 example 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. Well, 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, your 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 Two-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.
Time Management Is Becoming Obsolete
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.
Attention Management Is A Critical Skill for the Digital Age
By mastering attention management, you can calmly focus on your most important tasks. 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.
The Empowered Productivity System
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.