In a previous series, I laid out a five-step productivity process for leaders, which I then turned into a productivity blueprint and subsequently into a book. (See my bio for how to access it.) This post dives deeper into the third of the five steps, doing tasks for maximal productivity.
Blocking out time on our calendar is great for diving deep into specific tasks. But you might be thinking, what about the many tasks on our plates each day? You know, the ones that require but a few minutes, that you can knock out in around two minutes? What should we do then?
Author and productivity consultant David Allen is famous for his “Two minute rule.” The rule is that if it takes less than two minutes, do it now. The reason for this is simple. For many of these tasks, like replying to an email or calling someone back, the effort needed to keep remembering them, or even to write them down in a way that you’ll actually remember later, exceeds just getting them out of the way.
Think about it. How many times have you thought of a quick something-or-other that you needed to do but before you got around to the task, it disappeared from your mind completely? Sure, you were only pushing it off so that you could do more important things. However, there were consequences for not following through.
These mini tasks are governed by what’s known as the “one-touch rule.” This rule states that if a task can be completed right away and quickly, it should just be done. If it is important for you to do and you have the time to do it, then get it done straight away. Postponing important tasks often leads to procrastination or feelings of anxiety or stress, which will only slow you down.
There are other benefits in knocking out two minute tasks. One is that it helps you build momentum while enhancing your mood. Studies have shown that crossing off even small tasks from your to-do list gives you a boost of momentum that in turn boosts your mood. By simply recognizing it’s is a “two minute” task that we can get done quickly, we stop planning, engage in less ruminating about the task, and just get it done. We’re training our brains to think less and do more (but not in the irresponsible sense of the term.)
The 2-minute rule is also helpful to de-clutter your mind as well as your workspace. Instead of holding onto all these potential tasks you need to do at some point, you clear them out of the way so you can focus more on what really matters. By quickly disposing of smaller tasks, we can prevent things –both physical, like forms, and digital, such as email– from accumulating around us, which is helpful for stopping procrastination and improving productivity.
Sounds simple enough, right? But there’s an obvious problem.What if the two minute task is completely unrelated to what you need to be doing right now? Worse, what if it interrupts you or you simply choose to tackle it at just the wrong time? And, we also know that many “two minute” tasks take more time, either inherently or because something else comes up suddenly.
Even if we do manage to complete them in the allocated time, they can lead us down a path of diversion that pulls us away from what we were working on. Getting back on track from a two minute task can be harder than many of us might think.
So, where does that leave us?
For Allen’s two minute rule to work, we need to set some limits.
1. Only work on two minute tasks that relate to the larger assignment you’re working on (when relevant). An example of this would be to respond to emails pertinent to the project that you’re involved with.
2. Set aside a larger time block for your two minute tasks. Dedicating time for all other unrelated tasks will allow you to focus on your current work and mentally satisfy the urge you’ll feel to address them sooner.
3. Immediately decide on your next steps. This might include designating a time on your calendar to focus on the report or quickly review the document and place it on a visible part of your desk to drop it off the next time you step away. Drag and drop emails into marked folders.
Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is an executive coach who helps busy leaders be more productive so that they can scale profits with less stress and get home at a decent hour. Get his new book, Becoming the Productive Boss, on Amazon.