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Two Minute Distraction

I am a longtime advocate of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology and have mentioned aspects of it frequently and lovingly in past columns. Like most methodologies, as we become more adept at them we find ways to customize them. For me, the GTD “Two Minute Rule” is one of the tenets of the program that doesn’t always serve me well.

The Two Minute Rule states that when going over a To-Do (or Action) List or when cleaning out the In Box, it is easier to just handle anything that will take two minutes or less rather than write it down, file it or track it. It is a fantastic tip for achieving a sense of accomplishment when you are neatening up your desk or doing a Weekly Review. Not only do you gain peace of mind from tidying and going over your week, you also get to knock out a few easy wins, for example, pay an online bill, make a few appointments, write a quick e-mail, etc.

I have found, however, that the Two Minute Rule can become an excuse for interrupting work on something boring or a distraction from creative or other productive time that for some reason scares us.

The Two Minute Rule works best when it is part of a planned session of getting through a stack of unidentified paper, a few dozen e-mails, or a review of our calendars, action lists and project folders. Otherwise it just offers another shiny object—and almost acts like an addiction—to take our power and focus. The first Two Minute Distraction can take us on a ride down a rabbit hole that we “wake up” from with regret.

One of the easiest examples of the Two Minute Distraction is encountered during computer work. When trying to write a report, invoice or letter or working on a project, distracting thoughts might float through our minds like wispy little squirrels in a dog’s dream. If we are connected to the internet, it is all too easy to follow a thought like, “I wonder if Naomi Watts has had a nose job?” or “Is it true that high waist gaucho pants are back in style?”

Even though it will take less than two minutes to see before and after photos of Naomi’s nose, there is a 99.9% chance that you will be tempted to click on other photos and headlines and not get back to the task at hand for an hour or more.

Most writers and famous creatives say that their success is mostly a matter of showing up; as the old saying goes, “Success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Notice that “information” is not part of the adage. Another Two Minute Distraction that we need to watch out for is looking stuff up, whether in books and paper files or on the internet.

Writer Camille Dungy, recently in town for the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference, shared in her lecture that looking up facts and figures when writing on will slow or possibly permanently stall your progress. She suggests leaving blanks or question marks in the places where you need to look up a fact and just keep going so that you don’t lose your flow. Once you’ve finished you can look up the details you need to fill in.

The computer is not the only place we tend to interrupt ourselves. Organizing projects in general are easy to be distracted from. We might want a drink of water, a snack, an antihistamine. We might think we need to call our sister to see if she wants the sofa in the barn, or, after a sneezing fit in a dusty attic, decide that we’d better go downstairs and make an appointment with an allergist. But I suggest planning in advance for these bodily needs and epiphanies: have water, snacks and supplies at hand ahead of time along with a pen an pad of paper handy for writing down things like “call sister re sofa” and allergist appointment” that occur to you.

It may seem like tiny two minute phone calls or internet searches won’t derail you, but they definitely can. The Two Minute Rule only works if it is used in the proper context, not as a distraction from productive flow.