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The two-minute rule in GTD

If there’s something you can do right away in under two minutes, and it’s something you know you want to do, do it right away instead of having to schlep out your entire system.

Don’t miss out on this super good speed hack.

It saves a lot of overhead.

When you’re sorting or clarifying and you come across an inbox item that’s under two minutes? Do it instead of sorting it in.

When you’re out and about and doing stuff and you come across something to do that’s under two minutes? Do it instead of capturing it.

Having to fiddle with apps or phones or notebooks or folders for every little thing is not reasonable. “Oh, mom forgot to put away the salt earlier. I’d better make a nine step project for that.” No thanks.

That’s what I mean by “overhead”, by the way. Fiddling with systems and calendars and lists is actually work too, it doesn’t take zero seconds to do all that. I refer to that part of the system—everything outside of the actually “doing” part of it—as “overhead”.

Don’t get me wrong, I love GTD, it has saved my life on more than one occasion, but hacks like the two-minute rule can make it run a lot more smoothly.

Be deliberate, even for two-minute tasks

Only do things you know you want to (or need to) do. GTD is supposed to help you make deliberate decisions on what you do.

“But how can I make that kind of deliberate decisions without schlepping out my whole system to get an overview?” some of y’all might ask. Truth is, you’re gonna have to do a li’l guessing & winging in this regard, which is why it only applies to two-minute tasks and we:

Don’t do everything right away

Why not always do everything right away no matter how long it takes? That’s no good, at least it isn’t for me, since I’m so prone to getting sucked into new projects and new ideas and start new things. I’ll miss important things, I’ll miss stitches in time that might save nine.

Schlepping out the whole system does have some value and that value is that it helps me make sure that not only am I doing things, I’m doing the right things.

Uh, how long is two minutes? I’m not a clock

I’ve seen some people buy timers and stuff for this but to me that sounds like that just add more overhead. I’ve always take the “two minutes” to be pretty figurative. If I had written GTD I probably would a called it the “three second” rule since that’s my standard phrase whenever I mean a really short duration.

If it’s something that you can do right away, it applies. If it’s a bigger thing, it doesn’t.

If you really truly have a bad sense of “can do it right away” means, and if you have a wrist watch on, or a clock in your workspace, you can look at it before and after you do the thing. And if at first you accidentally do some fifteen minutes, ten minutes things early on as you calibrate & find your sense of this, that’s fine.

This rule is supposed to help you, to be a speed hack for you, not to be an additional constraint on your work. It’s meant to make GTD better for you, not fiddlier or stricter. Whenever the two-minute rule, or two-minute hack as it probably would’ve been called these days, doesn’t help you, just ignore it.

The rule is context-specific

I’ve sometimes seen people misunderstand the two-minute rule as if it ignored the time and cost of getting into the right context. Like “Sure, it takes me less than two minutes to put an apple in the basket at the grocery store but you are forgetting about the three-hour drive there!” They believed that GTD was asking them to drive to the grocery store, buy the apple, then drive home, but that’s a misunderstanding of how GTD works.

Ah, no, the two minute rule means including all that context switchery. Let’s say it’s about making a two-minute call and you’re already next by your phone even though you have your GTD stuff out. Then that’s fine.

But if you’re in a meeting and in no way able to make a call then it’s absolutely not appropriate to make any calls no matter how short they are.

That’s how these “two minute” things arrived in the inbox in the first place, too, by the way. Perhaps placed there in the middle of the night when there’s no polite time to make calls.

The two-hour rule

If you really wanna cut down on overhead, here is a hack of the hack. Don’t blame upstream GTD for this one, this “two-hour rule” is something I made up.

The idea is that if you have a core focus in your life right now, like homework for a student, you can change the two-minute rule to a two-hour rule but only for things that fall squarely into that category. You already know you want to do it. If it’s more than two hours it can be worth breaking it down (or even if it’s already atomic “deep work”, it can be worth schlepping out the system to see what other stuff you’d be postponing.

Why I use the word “schlepping” too much

I’m Swedish and I struggle to find English words to explain what an utter Sisyphean soul-crushing burden every single thing in my life is.