The 2 Minute Rule changed my life

Egg Timer

I was discussing my mailbox processing rules with a member of my team yesterday and she said to me “you’d have to pretty organised to have a system like that. She was surprised when I responded:

“But I’m not a very organised person.”

Fact is, I’m a mess when left to my own devices and I’d quite happily chase my own tail all day if I didn’t have a productivity system to keep me on the straight and narrow.

One principle in particular has changed my life: the 2-minute rule.

Above all other techniques, asking this question when I’m processing tasks is the most valuable thing I do. Applying it has transformed my todo list from a sprawling spaghetti mess of tasks to a streamlined view of my more important tasks.

Not all tasks are equal

Many people (me included) intuitively think in a very linear fashion. We compile a mental ‘todo’ list and then attack each one in sequence. If we’re smart, we prioritise the ‘important’ stuff first (though many of us get confused between what’s ‘important’ and what’s ‘urgent’.)

The thing is, sometimes doing the ‘most important’ or ‘most urgent’ thing isn’t the smartest use of your time. These items could be difficult, time-consuming or simply not possible given your current location/frame of mind etc.

The “2-minute rule” is a neat way of busting through a bunch of quick items to get your list down to a manageable size and prevent it from ballooning to a size where simply reviewing it will stress and demotivate you.

Get stuff off your pad quickly

The principle is simple: When you’re working through any kind of inbox – email, tasks, collected items – for each item ask yourself

“can I complete this in under two minutes?”

If the answer to the question is yes, Do it and move onto the next task.

A few points to note:

  • Some people like to increase the time -5 minutes seems to be a popular limit
  • If you have a particularly long list of items to process (shame on you!) and quite a few of them are doable in less than two minutes, you’ll quickly find you’ve spent a chunk of time ‘doing’. In most cases this is great (well done! you’ve completed a load of things you needed to do!) but if you’re tight on time you may wish to constrain your ‘doing’ time (e.g. to 30 minutes) and ‘defer’ any tasks left after your allotted limit.
  • You tend to underestimate the amount of time it takes to do something, so when you start out it can be worth tracking how long each “2-minute” task is really taking. Over time you’ll develop an intuitive sense of whether a dask is “do now-able”

Don’t get stuck on bigger tasks

As you’re going through your ‘inbox’, be sure not to miss anything but don’t dwell on any item that doesn’t pass the two-minute rule. Simply file it under:

  • Defer: I’m going to do this later (this also applies to something which is a high priority or ‘next action’)
  • Delegate: I’m going to assign this to someone else. In most cases the act of delegating it will involve an email, which can be done in under 2 minutes and you should execute immediately. If the act of delegating it requires a longer phone call or face to face action, you should file that action (“delegate [ACTION] to [Person]”) under “Defer”.

Maintain inbox zero

The purpose of this approach is twofold – it helps keep your ‘inboxes’ clear – which will give you a better view of what tasks you haven’t processed yet and will also reduce the risk of hitting a mental brick wall – and it also helps to reduce your to do list down to a more manageable – and less scary – size.

It sounds a little geeky but I get a real kick out of getting my inbox to zero each day and it’s helpful to see my actions list come down from 50 to 30 in a 30-60 minute blast.

Process regularly but not constantly

The key to make this work is to review your inbox regularly, but don’t get distracted every time a new item (email or otherwise) comes in. A daily review works well; you may wish to review certain inboxes (like work emails) two or three times per day.

It’s important to capture things immediately, but your capture should involve no more than getting the bare minimum of information you need into your inbox ready for your next review.

Taking this approach will mean that after each ‘blast’ of 2-minute actions, you can move onto the highest priority items on your ‘defer’ list, such as your next actions if you’re using GTD.

Build a processing system that works for you

Most of my routine is built around GTD, and I find that works for me. I see no reason that you can’t implement Capture, Process and 2-minute Rule philosophies using other methodologies, though I’m not best placed to advise on the specifics of how to do it.

What I would say is that the most important thing is to find something that clicks with you – don’t force a system onto yourself that you can’t get on with – it will only make you less productive.

Protect your next actions

Every action that meets the 2-minute rule can be immediately actioned and goes straight to the ‘done’ pile (or trash can if you prefer). This keeps your Next Actions list streamlined for the things that are most important and deserve your attention. A list that is clear of the ‘small, quick’ jobs is easier to process to determine which more meaningful tasks you want to complete that day.

Has the two-minute rule changed your life? Or have you struggled to make it work? Join the conversation and add your comment below.

I’m experimenting with sketchnotes. You can see “the 2-minute rule changed my life” sketchnote here

Cover image © Lertsnim | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images



  1. I’ve never used it before but might try it now. What activities usually require less than two minutes for you? I generally have longer tasks on my to-do list.

    1. Work tasks are often short and sharp. Few examples include:
      – Email requesting I confirm that I’m not planning to request overtime approval for my team
      – Requests for updates on an open issue
      – Approving timesheets/expenses/office equipment requests
      – Delegating a task (forwarding an email with a quick request)
      – Booking a meeting

      and so forth…

      Don’t forget that one of the key aspects of this principle is *not* starting things that are more than 2 minutes until you’re ready…. do all your processing (and the 2-minute stuff) before you get stuck into the meatier things.

      Thanks for your comment – let me know how you get on!

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