The 2-minute rule, and its discontents

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! 

12 thoughts on “The 2-minute rule, and its discontents

  1. I have a 3 hour rule instead. I’m a solopreneur and work from home. Between 8-9 am I check email and plan my day. From 9am to noon I tackle the morning’s to do list, which usually includes a pretty big project. I don’t do 2 minute tasks, answer the phone, check emails or text messages, and I lock the cat out of my office. After lunch I tackle less intense tasks and return emails and phone calls if needed. Two afternoons a week I escape to The Hivery, https://www.thehivery.com, a beautiful co-working space by San Francisco Bay. While there I write blog posts or work on other projects uninterrupted except by an occasional flock of squawking seagulls.

  2. This has been one of the most useful pieces of advice I received from participating in Tranquility by Tuesday, that is to batch the little things, keep lists of those things so they’re not in my head and I can let go of them, and not to do those two minute tasks that often would end up taking me more than 10 minutes cuz of some unforeseen technical problem or other issue …. and then there went all my energy sucked out of me for the big important thing that’s truly satisfying to complete. Thank you for the reminder Laura.

  3. Do you have any tips for mentally hiding the 2 minute tasks that can wait, but come via email?

    I have a good number of these that are not urgent, but are important, so I can’t just mark them read and then count on myself to hunt them down in my email box again. Usually I let all of them pile up as unread emails and then power through them at low energy times, but I hate seeing so many email “tasks” sitting in my box distracting me from either important emails, or the often more important, but non-email linked tasks.

    1. I would make an email folder, and put them there, archiving once you’ve replied. I like to tackle all that stuff at low energy times, or at times I would have wasted anyways (gaps between meetings, waiting for the bus etc). I normally keep a paper list of admin tasks but I could probably just send myself an email and add it to the folder. It is a good way of clearing your inbox when you are back from vacation etc.

    2. My favorite is to use the “work offline” button for whenever I need to focus on something else. I’d close email altogether but I often need to reference things in there. I don’t mind seeing items unread (for me it’s like a secondary to do list) but getting new items coming in is super distracting and I almost always read it if I see it so cutting off that flow is good. (And I always have notifications off).

    3. @Calee – I read them, but then write the person’s name or the subject on my “punch list” so I can get to it when I am batching things. That way it doesn’t matter if I marked the email as read or left it as unread…

    4. I like Gmail’s “snooze” function for this — I will snooze personal emails I receive during the workday that need my attention but can wait until after work, and will snooze work emails that can (or must) wait until tomorrow morning, or whatever. Gmail offers both default options (which for most of us probably aren’t ideal for the punch-list time that Laura’s recommending) and customization, which is a bit more time-consuming per instance to use.

    5. In Gmail, I use the ‘star’ to mark those that need further action (whether 2 min or longer). They sort at the top of my Inbox so when I’m ready to make progress, I work through those starred items. Then everything in the regular Inbox is new. I do practice Inbox Zero (my mind just works better that way) so I clear that Inbox at least once a day.

  4. When I am teaching, I like to block 4-5 to deal with all those emails and admin tasks. I’m tired anyways so unlikely to get any proper writing done, but I can deal with annoying things. I often find that I can use the same text across multiple replies as well, which saves time replying to each individually.

  5. Yes! I recently started doing this from my own idea during the week. For LOTS of various reasons, I am VERY behind on a lot of personal & family to-do’s. I decided that every weekday from 3:30-4 (if I don’t have a meeting), I was going to work on this list. I’m starting with the most important things first.

    Since I keep my to-do’s electronically on an app, I thought about which ones I could schedule in the future during that slot and on which days. And since the app sees the task is no longer dated in the past, I have a much lower number of outstanding tasks which is awesome!

    It is a bit relieving to know I’m putting tasks during a window designated for them (instead of just hoping that I’ll find the time when my app reminds me about it, because that never works; I ALWAYS procrastinate if that happens). If I need to add another new task to my list, I add it during the same window. It’s nice to know I have a window to deal with these instead of just random tasks reminders popping up ALL the time (which actually gets kind of stressful ).

  6. I sort of wondered about this rule. I have a ‘weekly review’ I do each week that covers both work and personal planning for the week ahead and I often come across these 2 minute tasks, but I find myself taking so much longer to get through my actual review when I stop to do those things. And then the review feels painful and long. So I’ve been trying not to tackle those tasks during the review itself. I just have to figure out some way to schedule a time to do them systematically. I like the idea of batching them.

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