The trouble with the 2-minute rule, and what to do instead (more on Rule #8: Batch the little things)

This week the Tranquility by Tuesday project is focusing on Rule #8: Batch the little things. Designating a small window for the small tasks of life keeps them from taking over the rest of your schedule. This can free up time for deeper work or relaxation, and can help reduce mental load.

During the week, I keep a “Friday Punch List” where I write down all my non-urgent tasks. I then get to all of them in one fell swoop on Fridays. It’s kind of fun to do 20 little things in a row. I feel like a machine as I cross them off! If things can’t wait until Friday, I’ll aim to do a (very) small window in the afternoon on another day (as mornings tend to be my most productive time).

When I’ve explained this rule to people, a few have brought up the “2-minute rule.” The particular version of this rule they’re often referring to is that if a task will take less than 2 minutes, you should just do it when you see it. In other words, the complete opposite of batching the little things.

And on some level this makes sense. If it occurs to me to ask someone about test taking skills programs in my area, it would be reasonably quick to just do it when I think about it. It might take me the bulk of 2 minutes to get in the mindset of sending a text on that topic if I push the task forward and do it later. Well, perhaps not me since I tend to make quick transitions (the subject of an upcoming BOBW podcast, incidentally…), but many people.

However…there are problems with this 2-minute rule. First, am I sure this is a 2-minute task? Texting someone about the test skills program might lead to a conversation about something else. I might also see another text I haven’t responded to yet and feel like I should answer that. Or I might note that there is now a higher number on my email icon on my phone and so I should check those messages. And distractions aren’t the only problem; sometimes the tasks themselves turn out to be bigger than expected, and humans in general are terrible at time estimation. Even me! Getting an address changed for something the other day turned out not to be a simple online matter, but involved calling the customer service line and getting a form filed. Not 2 minutes!

And second…how shall I put this…I think that perhaps some folks advocating the 2-minute rule have fewer personal small tasks on their plates than many people reading this blog. If someone else in your life is filling out all permission slips/yearbook order forms/cast party food contributions forms, and being the recipient of the texts about changing times for kids’ tutoring/therapies/private lessons, and doing camp sign-ups (with the associated medical/contact/etc. forms…), or none of those things are germane to your situation, then one might be more free with the limited number of tasks that need to be done. Those of us who do have a lot of small things on our plate have to be careful or they will literally consume our entire lives.

(And I say this as someone who has outsourced A LOT, professionally and personally.)

There is one useful aspect of the 2-minute rule, which is the truth that if you don’t do the task immediately, it might keep weighing on you. You want to write the Great American Novel but you need to buy cat food, and so you keep thinking “cat food! cat food! cat food!” Or you forget about the cat food and then remember it at 3 a.m.

But! Here is another truth. You will not be perpetually bothered by your lack of cat food if you write “order cat food” on a list that you know you will look at, and that you know you have a set time for completing.* If you schedule a dentist appointment for 8:30 a.m. next Thursday, you probably wouldn’t sit there obsessing about it as an “undone” task (even though the appointment hasn’t happened yet). It is a defined task, assigned to a set time, and so you’re good.

Done well, a Friday Punch List (or an any day Punch List!) can serve the same purpose. Whereas going off to do 2-minute tasks whenever you think of them is a recipe for getting very little of substance done.

*Actually this is a bad example as stuff like maintaining the cat food inventory should be automated.

In other news: Add this to this week’s task list! My Best of Both Worlds podcast co-host Sarah is hosting the first ever Best Laid Plans LIVE session in Ft. Lauderdale this fall. It will be November 2-4, and she’s going to be guiding us through planning 2024 to make it the best year yet! I am signed up and looking forward to it — and looking forward to meeting other BLP listeners/TheSHUBox readers in person. Hope to see you there!

21 thoughts on “The trouble with the 2-minute rule, and what to do instead (more on Rule #8: Batch the little things)

  1. Laura- You nailed it ! I am so glad you just said what a lot of us are thinking:

    “some folks advocating the 2-minute rule have fewer personal small tasks on their plates than many people reading this blog”

    You are readers are wearing so many hats right now, For me, I am batching things based on category of my life. Thursday afternoon is now my slot to handle the “little things” for my elderly grandmother (mostly appts and bills). I had to separate it from the normal batch of stuff for daughter’s preschool & my personal stuff. My volunteering is also getting tricky but it needs its own slot. Not to mention the house project. But what I can batch, I do!

    When I first started reading your work, I was not skeptical of you because you weren’t a semi-retired dude giving out advice. At the time, you had a non sleeping infant and 3 other kids, a business, a social sphere, a choir, marriage, work travel and more! I immediately trusted you and thought, this is the guru to follow!

    1. @Nicole – thank you! Yep, many of the folks around here are wearing a lot of hats and batching is one of the best ways to not feel like we’re overwhelmed by all of them. (But thank goodness I am mostly out of the non-sleeping infant phase!)

  2. This made me laugh out loud. I bet a lot of male time-management experts wouldn’t have a clue about managing all the small tasks that make up ‘life-ing’ as an expat. My work tasks batching happens on a Saturday (I work a Tuesday to Saturday week so Tranquility by Tuesday is more like Calm by Wednesday for me and I have to mentally keep adjusting the days!!) and the real game-changer is that my life tasks happen on Tuesday evening. That’s the day I’m home early enough to be able to call the UK if there are issues with the bank, my landlord is around to fix things and the internet is pretty fast. I can’t say I’ve quite hit tranquility yet but in general I am a lot more zen than I was.
    Thanks for the great advice!

        1. @Sonna – I think I had that on my long list of titles ha ha. Or maybe Wellness by Wednesday. Thriving by Thursday was definitely in there….

  3. Such a great reminder, Laura. Even for the items we outsource, because my husband is away so much for work, I handle the logistics for just about everything. I complete school forms and book appointments and just generally manage the house and kids. There are a lot of plates in the air (and I only have two kids!). It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking: Oh, I’ll just handle this one thing quickly and then get back to my work tasks. But it snowballs and before I know it, I’ve lost hours of productive time to little tasks.

    My approach is a bit more fluid than batching everything on Friday: I have a column in my weekly planner page where I write down things that should happen at some point in the week…but could happen at any time. When I have a concentrated period of time where I could knock some things off quickly – but not enough time to get engrossed in work (say a 30-minute swing between kid activities) – I’ll flip to my planner page and see what I can cross off in the time I have available. It’s SO helpful to get it out of my head and on to the page. If I don’t get to all the tasks by the end of the week, I just transfer them into a column for the following week. (I do this on Sunday afternoon).

    I also have a repeated monthly “punch” list of 15 things that need to be done close to the start of each month. Most items don’t need to happen on a specific day, but when I’m in the middle of the month thinking: I really should change the sheets or I should reach out to my friends from college. I now know that I have that as a recurring to-do item for early the next month.

    1. @Elisabeth – yep, one thing can become many things…I can see how a monthly punch list would work well for those sorts of tasks. I wind up having some of those things happen on the first or last Friday of the month because they just wind up on those punch lists…

  4. I think of this as a variation of the Sunday Basket that your BOBW guest Lisa has as part of her organization plan. I’ve started just pinning or flagging emails that need attention or have a task associated (bills, paying for field trips, benefits claims, kid activities, etc) and then go through those pinned email at some point on a weekend and clear out what I can then. This is supplemented with a little weekly task list that is mostly a clear out sort of list.
    Though, this did flag for me work-wise that I use these little tasks to procrastinate and need a way to do the same thing for work – like logging vacation days and other administrative tasks.
    I don’t see anything wrong with the 2-minutre rule at home in the evening where it is a way to just sweep up those little tasks before bed but agree it’s not all that helpful in the middle of a busy day and way too prone to complete distraction.

    1. @Jen – yep, the Sunday Basket is absolutely a version of batching the little things. You keep a running list (in the form of the physical basket) and then do it in one fell swoop. I mention Lisa and this idea in chapter 8 of TBT 🙂

  5. I haven’t done enough reading on the “rule” that this rule responds to, about 2-minute tasks, but it seems to me that the nature of the task could vary widely. I’m not talking about clearly urgent matters that demand immediate response, but things that fall between. Like, if I decide not to answer any email because it will likely take less than 2 minutes I might be creating a backlog worth of several hours; that may or may not be worth doing. Batching those annoying small home tasks that take longer than 2 minutes, but less than an hour each, makes a good amount of sense to me, and I have a similar approach. That is, I’m not really disagreeing with anything you say but for myself would want to think very carefully about WHICH tasks make the most sense for this “rule.”

    1. @gwinne – yep, we all have to figure out which small tasks work for this, but it may be quite a few. With email I’ve been trying to get into the habit of doing an email triage, which amounts to batching the non-urgent stuff. I answer what does need to be responded to quickly, let the others sit and then every few days plow through – I can often get through a lot of it in not a huge amount of time — and this reduces the mental cost of flitting in and out too frequently.

  6. I hear the “two minute” rule a lot when people talk about keeping the house clean and tidy. For example, if it only takes two minutes to put that item away, or wash that dish, or wipe down the bathroom counter… do it right away. But then I find it just becomes a tool for procrastination to keep doing the two minute tasks. I’ve found it’s much more efficient for me to let the dishes pile up and wash them all at one time, or have a dump basket of things that need to be returned to their locations and do it all at once or just ignore the toothpaste on the bathroom counter.

  7. YES YES YES to: “some folks advocating the 2-minute rule have fewer personal small tasks on their plates than many people reading this blog”

    I try my hardest to follow this rule and am currently trying to figure out if dedicating an hour every other day (as opposed to weekly) is the way to go. I try to batch everything up and do it weekly but find that backfires because too many things are time-sensitive!

    1. @Elisa- it definitely can take some experimentation to find the best rhythm for batching. I could see someone with a ton of time sensitive little things doing a late AM batching window and a late PM batching window. Twice a day sounds like a lot but it’s still more efficient than flitting in and out of a lot of things.

  8. Batching vs. 2-Minute Rule – an interesting debate. I think it all depends on context – and points to the value of some self-awareness.

    If you aren’t super busy – then maybe you can lean more toward the 2-minute rule, BUT are you using the 2-minute rule to procrastinate (as @Diane has pointed out)? I definitely should batch my email processing – I use it now to procrastinate and to give me a false sense of accomplishment – that little dopamine hit from pressing “reply” and/or “delete”.
    Similarly, if you are super busy – are you putting things on a to-do list for batching purposes that could be more efficiently done with the 2-minute rule?

    I think you can ask yourself – why am I wanting to do this task now? Am I procrastinating? Why do I not want to do this task now? Will it actually take longer by putting it off? Could it be easily “batched” but right now? (like putting away dishes while the kettle boils).

    All of the rules are so great in part because they encourage mindfulness, intentionality and self awareness!

    1. These questions are great, Cynthia. I think a lot too about what Cal Newport describes as “context switching”; some of the batching is helpful because it can help group similar tasks / contexts. If it’s a bunch of disconnected “quick” things it might not make a lot of sense….

  9. In David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology, the 2-minute rule applies only when you sit down to process your inputs (not when you are collecting them). So that is basically batching. Not sure where this rule came from originally, but perhaps it got misinterpreted along the way.

    1. @Anna – that would make a lot more sense. I imagine it got misinterpreted because on some level there is good reasoning. It does take some amount of time to transition back to doing something vs. when it was in your head the first time. But when the volume of 2 minute tasks rises, it can become unmanageable to allow for this pulling in other directions.

  10. I’m a homeschooling mom of 6, and tried the 2 minute rule briefly a few years ago, but quickly realized that I could literally spend the entire day doing 2 minute tasks (like picking up things that were where they weren’t supposed to be–that’s a never-ending job for sure). Even stopping to do a one-time 2 minute task like calling to schedule an appointment can disrupt our routine, probably because my kids are NOT quick at transitions so if they run off to play instead of doing schoolwork, for example, while I’m doing that 2 minute task, a lot of time is used up trying to get everyone back to what they should be doing. Batching and waiting for a good time definitely works better here.

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