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The Two-Minute Rule

One of my personal heroes, productivity expert David Allen, talks about something he calls the two-minute rule in his excellent (and essential, in my opinion) book “Getting Things Done.” The two-minute rule is a piece of the puzzle that comes into play when you are beginning to organize everything that’s been dumped into your “in” basket. According to Allen, anything that appears in your “in” box that can be dealt with in two minutes or less should be handled as soon as it comes up.

I certainly agree with this rule and apply it in my own life and when coaching my clients on a daily basis. Using the two-minute rule takes a bunch of items off the mental to-do list and moves your projects forward — these really small items should really never even hit your official paper or digital to-do list.

However, variables have come up for me, and for my clients too, that make further examination of this rule worth, well, longer than two minutes of your time.

I’ve found that the two-minute rule works best for those highly productive people who have already done a major bulk of their personal and professional organizing. I really experience the beauty of this rule when I am already so on top of things and in the zone that several criteria for success in its implementation have been met: My contacts list is completely up to date; my calendar is up to date; my paper files are organized; all the syncing between devices is seamless; my phone and other devices are charged fully; and my computer and other digital devices are working perfectly.

Let me explain a little further: When you have a phone call to make that for all intents and purposes should take only two minutes, how long does it really take you? If your contacts list is not up to date, you will probably have to look up the number or scroll through your emails to find it, or rifle through an old file or a stack of business cards. You get the picture. Pretty soon five or 10 minutes have ticked by.

If you need to do something on the computer, such as email a document to a colleague or a photo to a friend, it will only take two minutes or less if your computer files are in order and you have the person’s email address at your fingertips.

Often a simple task, such as looking up a movie time on a phone app like Fandango, or sending a message on Facebook Mobile, can take much longer than two minutes if your app has not been updated, your phone is not charged or — and this is one I see all the time — you’ve forgotten your password and the whole process comes to a screeching halt while you try to retrieve it. Big sigh. Running into technical difficulties while trying to accomplish a seemingly simple two-minute task can mean an hour or more on the phone with technical support.

So what’s the moral of this frustrating story?

Basically, the first consideration for the two-minute rule is truly knowing what will take two minutes for you, and this takes a lot of practice. I encourage you to simply tackle anything that is even a potential candidate for two minutes or less, and if it ends up taking five or 10 or even more, so be it — you are inching closer to sanity with every item you cross off your list. You will eventually get to the point where you can readily identify the quick and easy tasks and have yourself set up to make sure you can accomplish them effortlessly.

The second consideration is to constantly ask yourself how the task could have been made more seamless, more efficient. If you needed to look up the number, take the time to enter it into your contacts list. Now that most of us have digital contacts lists, there is no reason not to add any number that has even a remote possibility of being referenced again.

If there are technical issues, handle them as soon as you can so that more and more tasks down the line can be quick and easy. If you finally find an item in an overstuffed file, take the time to organize and purge the file folder before putting it away so that the next time your task is less frustrating.