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Back to (GTD) Basics: The Two-Minute Rule

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When you’re deciding what needs to be done next on a project, or in response to an email, or about that flashing light on your car’s dashboard, how do you decide if it’s something to do right away or something to put on your list for later? Do you have a bunch of emails sitting your inbox that you keep meaning to respond to but you haven’t managed to get around to them yet? The two-minute rule might help.

In Getting Things Done, David Allen’s now-classic productivity guide, he offered the “two-minute rule”:

Even if the item is not a “high priority” one, do it now if you’re ever going to do it at all. The rationale for the two-minute rule is that that’s more or less the point where it starts taking longer to store and track an item than to deal with it the first time it’s in your hands — in other words, it’s the efficiency cutoff. If the thing’s not important enough to be done, throw it away. If it is, and if you’re going to do it sometime, the efficiency factor should come into play.

This is part of what Allen calls “processing,” the second phase of his 5-step workflow: Collect, Process, Organize, Review, and Do.

Processing is when you go through all the incoming “stuff” –ideas you’ve jotted down, meeting notes, your physical and digital inboxes, etc and decide whether to Delete, Do, Delegate, or Defer the item.

The two-minute rule is especially valuable when you’re going through your inbox — a lot of messages can be quickly answered in under two minutes, more quickly and easily than if you file them and create a to-do item in an action list for each one. Or, what people do more often, just let the email sit there in your inbox as a reminder of something undecided. Those undecided emails can create small bits of friction each time you open your email, since you not only have new messages to process, but also these older things lurking in a half-way state. Allen’s two-minute rule (like his whole method) helps minimize the number of “open loops” in your workflow and in your environment, freeing up your mind to do your real creative, intellectual work and your truly satisfying play.

Do you know what two minutes really feels like? Try using a timer the next time you’re processing email. You might be surprised how quickly you can process email when you’re giving it your full attention. The two-minute rule is also great for organizational tasks or household chores that might otherwise get put off too long.

If you frequently process email on a mobile device (not just glance at it and leave it in your inbox for later) you may find that two minutes isn’t the correct efficiency cutoff. When I’m processing from my phone, if I can’t manage the reply in 30 seconds, the message gets put into my to-do queue for processing when I’m on a computer. It’s just not worth the time it takes me otherwise. (As I’ve been returning to the two-minute rule with increased attention recently, it’s dissuaded me from doing much email on my mobile at all, except when traveling.)

How might the two-minute rule help you process your inbox? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user Mark Spencer]

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