Much productivity literature wrestles with the question of what to do with incoming “stuff.” A task appears. What do you do? There are various systems, often involving acronyms or repeated letters (do it, defer it, delete it, delegate it…). A number of folks suggest that if something takes just a minute or two, you should go ahead and do it right then.* This is true even if you had a general plan to accomplish something else with a block of time.
I am not so sure. While I understand the appeal — you just get it done! It’s not weighing on you! — there are downsides. Among them:
— Are you sure that task is only going to take 2 minutes? Few people are master time estimators. Something that only takes a minute seems harmless enough, but if it winds up being a 10-minute task, that can start becoming a major distraction from what you originally intended to do with the time.
— Are you sure you will immediately resume what you were doing or planned to do with a block of time? Many people cycle through various ease-into-work activities whenever they stop doing something. It occurs to you to send an email. You go do that — it will only take 2 minutes! — but then, hey, look, there are new shiny unopened emails in your inbox….
— Life can disappear into 2-minute tasks. We live in a distracted world, and concentrated blocks of time can be hard to come by. Letting these chunks get chopped up for any reason can limit what you can accomplish.
My general rule is to “batch the little things.” Each week, I make what I call a Friday punch list. This list includes things like filling out forms, paying bills that aren’t on auto pay, signing contracts, responding to emails that aren’t urgent but will require a bit of thought, making travel arrangements, etc. I recognize that many things require a faster response than once a week, but making a punch list of little things for each work day could also work. Designate a time to tackle this list. Ideally, this will be a low-energy time. Maybe it’s the 30 minute before or after a lunch break, or at 2:30 p.m. when your energy dips.
It shouldn’t be first thing in the morning — which sounds like batching, but is better referred to as “clearing the decks.” I see this all the time on work time logs. You have 8 things on your list for the day. One is big and complex and will take a lot of time. The other 7 are smaller. Many might only require a few minutes. So, why not tackle all the little stuff first, so you feel like you’re making progress and everything is getting crossed off the list?
The problem is that we all run out of steam. You start the list of little things at 8 a.m., and by the time you’re done with them, and the various things that result because of them (someone calls you back, or gets back to you with something you feel you should respond to…) maybe it’s 9:45 and oh look, I have a 10 a.m. meeting, and then when you’re done with that at 11:15 you cycle through email checks and other ease-into-work activities, and then you’re hungry for lunch, and then after lunch you’re kind of tired and… Tackle the big thing from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., though, and you might make real progress on that. Then the little things could all get done in that 11:15 to lunch window and during your afternoon slump.
When I suggested the “Batch the little things” rule to my Tranquility by Tuesday project participants, a few people mentioned that if they didn’t do the little thing immediately, it would keep weighing on them. I think as long as you designate a particular time to tackle something, this need not be true. Many people who mentioned this challenge turned out to be keeping a mental list of tasks they needed to get done. Don’t keep the punch list in your head! Write it down somewhere! And give it a time. Most of us don’t obsess about a dentist appointment that’s on the calendar for Thursday morning at 8 a.m. — we know it will probably happen at that time. Same thing for a task. If you know you will fill out that form on Thursday at 2:30 p.m., then you can stop thinking about it until then. There is a time for that form…and now is not that time.
Do you batch the little things?
*This version of the 2-minute rule is different from the Atomic Habits 2-minute rule, which says (roughly) that when you start a new habit, the habit should only take 2 minutes to do.
Photo: From Longwood Gardens over the weekend. We went to the fireworks and fountain performance, which was pretty spectacular!