Is the two-minute rule actually productive?

Written on 
May 26, 2020

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In the struggle to become more productive, we’re faced with a ton of conflicting advice. Should we work in short bursts, or long, unbroken stretches? Should we meticulously structure our day, or sketch it loosely to leave space for creativity? Should we get small tasks out of the way first, or start with our largest?

This last point seems to have been answered by the “two-minute rule”: the idea that if a task takes less than two minutes, we should do it now. But should we trust its popularity? Will blasting through small tasks make us more productive? And if not, how should we approach all the small to-dos on our list?

What is the “two-minute rule”?

The two-minute rule comes from David Allen’s bestselling book, Getting Things Done. The premise is simple: if you have an outstanding task and it’ll take two minutes or less to complete, do it now. Almost all of us procrastinate, even though the things we keep putting off can often be finished in just a few minutes. We do this in our personal lives as well as professional; how many of us have put our dirty plates on the side to wash up later instead of doing it now? How many of us have starred an email to reply to later rather than sending a quick response now?

The goal of the two-minute rule is to overcome procrastination and idleness by taking quick action. It’s about getting those small wins in, and believing that if you achieve something productive, no matter how minor it is, you’ll feel more motivated. The two-minute rule allows us to capitalize on small windows of time and make good use of those periods when we’re low on energy. When we do these quick jobs we feel empowered to do more; it builds momentum and declutters our mind.

Of course, we shouldn’t read “two minutes” too literally here. The main point Allen makes in his book is that if the effort of remembering to do a task later is more effort than actually doing it, just do it now – get it done! If you flag an email for later, but can’t quite get it out of your head, it might be better just to deal with it right away. When we leave tasks hanging or incomplete, we fall victim to the Zeigarnik effect – jobs nag at us and consume our attention until we can finally complete them.

The problem with the two-minute rule

It all sounds pretty good, right? But this rule is not exactly bulletproof – one of its biggest problems being that it flies in the face of some of the most highly-regarded productivity strategies. These strategies may have different names – like Eat The Frog and MIT (Most Important Task) – but they all share the same idea: you should always prioritize your most important task.

Other productivity principles incorporate this idea too – for example, the 80/20 rule. This theory suggests that not all units of work contribute the same amount, and we make the most progress from just 20% of our efforts. If this is true, we should surely be trying to focus our efforts on the most important tasks – the work that drives the majority of our results. In stark contrast, two-minute jobs are rarely the ones that helps us reach our bigger goals. Since our attention is a finite resource, it would make more sense to always put our important tasks first.

It could also be argued that the two-minute rule is a form of precrastination. If you sit down to work on something important, but right before you start, choose to tick off a few two-minute tasks to get the ball rolling and feel like you’ve achieved something, you’re depleting valuable energy and focus. Seemingly small tasks can also quickly mutate into complex ones; responding to one short email can open a Pandora’s box of new ones, all masquerading as “urgent”.

So prioritizing small, low-value tasks doesn’t just waste productive energy on low-value wins; it pushes much more important work back.

How to apply to the two-minute rule

That’s not to say the two-minute rule is completely worthless – it just needs to satisfy a few caveats to be effective. Here’s how to apply the two-minute rule for best results:

  1. Ensure the two-minute task you do is actually one of your priorities

The problem with replying to emails is that often you then get flooded with other people’s concerns and priorities. Don’t get pulled into solving anyone else’s problems; reply to that email only if it’s something you personally can tick off your list.

  1. Make sure the job really does only take two minutes

If you have any doubt that it’ll take longer, don’t do it. If it’s a recurring task you’ll have to do repeatedly, it might be worth using a timer so you know for future if you can accomplish it in two minutes.

  1. Reserve low-value small tasks for dead time in your schedule

Small time windows trapped between meetings, or the few minutes spent waiting for others to join meetings are ideal for unimportant two-minute tasks. Save the rest of your schedule for the tasks that have value and meaning, and help you achieve something. If a two-minute task threatens that in any way, put it on the backburner.  

➡️ Not all small tasks are worth your time – automate the unproductive ones

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