The Problem with the 2 Minute Rule


Life comes at you pretty fast.  My morning began with getting up for my morning routine by 5:30am, waking my daughter for work by 6:15am followed by my wife at 7am.  After dropping off the teenager at work, I began my own work as a director of a national non-profit.  The morning was filled with email, project lists and a few phone calls.  By the time lunch came around at noon, I was ready for a break.

Some of our work demands that we tackle it right then and there:

  • The realtor calls with an offer for your house.
  • Your son is sick and needs to be picked up from school.
  • The water bill needs to be paid by Friday.

You know something urgent when you see it.  I bet your list is much the same.  Different items but a healthy variety of whatever makes up "life" for you.  

A question that I often think about is whether to address tasks when they show up or is it better to schedule them at a time when you can more fully engage with them.  

The former approach is probably most linked to David Allen's famous Two Minute Rule.  In other words, deal with it when it shows up rather than when it blows up.  Allen once told Success magazine the following about the Two Minute Rule, "If you determine an action can be done in two minutes, you actually should do it right then because it’ll take longer to organize it and review it than it would be to actually finish it the first time you notice it." (Source)

I understand this approach but the older I get, the more I'm uncomfortable with it.  Even further, the more I work the less I want to use the Two Minute Rule altogether.  

Let me explain, the Two Minute Rule sounds really good and there is something good about getting things off your plate as quickly as possible.  It presumes that you are in an interruption-rich mindset and that you don't mind being taken off task.  Think of it as "knowledge work" triage- a few tasks related to this and a few related to that.  Keep it all moving, etc.

Where The Two Minute Rule becomes a problem is when you are trying to find blocks of time to do uninterrupted work.  Think of Cal Newport here, i.e. “deep work”.  How can I be truly immersed in my work if I'm allowing myself to be interrupted here and there to practice The Two Minute Rule?  

Two Different Approaches

If you don't want to use The Two Minute Rule, I suggest the following as alternative mindsets for work:

1. Consider theming your days.  I've used this approach for years and it's a game-changer.  By giving each day a distinct "theme", you are creating containers for your work.  Tim Uhl of the Catholic School Matters podcast and I talk about it here.

At work, this means that I'm creating content on Monday and focusing on constituents on Tuesday.  Each other day has a theme as well.  At home, this applies to some of our administrative asks as a family.  I don't like to process the mail more than once a week.  As a result, each Sunday, I go through the mail as it's been put into a pile during the week.  This way, I don't have to deal with it on another day when it might throw me off my game.  I’m doing the mail when I want to do the mail.

2. Schedule Interruptible Blocks During Your Day.  If you can't use option one (day theming), you might be able to schedule some smaller blocks during your day.  As an example, your morning might be dedicated to focused and uninterrupted work but you know that some things need to be addressed before day's end.  To do this, you could schedule 1-2pm for those Two Minute Rule kinds of tasks.  Then, the rest of the afternoon could be given back to your focused work.  

However you work, whenever you work, do it in a way that works for you.  Instead of giving in to the most urgent tasks, schedule them when you want to deal with them.  That’s a form of productivity on your own terms.