Have you ever started an action that you thought would be quick and looked up an hour later and you’re either still working on that one thing or have switched to doing something similar to that action without thinking about it?
I’m sure you have.
Sometimes it’s okay that this happens, but it’s incredibly frustrating when you’ve been engaged in some creative work and slip into doing something during one of the natural pauses that happens while you’re in Flow. It’s frustrating because all it takes is a simple 30-second switch and – Poof! – you’re no longer engaged.
In the post on the engagement threshold, I discussed how the switching costs related to changing activities can be much higher than we normally think about. The cost of switching from being engaged in creative work to something else is really high – it’s easy to lose that creative mojo in exchange for something that didn’t really need to be done right then.
GTD and the Two-Minute Rule
One of the things I learned the hard way is that the Two-Minute rule from Getting Things Done (GTD) needed far more tempering than what was presented by David Allen. Here’s what he says about it in GTD:
If the next action can be done in two minutes or less, do it when you first pick the item up.[…] 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. […] Most people find that getting into the habit of following the two-minute rule creates a dramatic improvement in their productivity.
I’ll tell you straight-up: implementing the two-minute rule did help me get more things done. I became faster at checking things off my last and not letting things build up, so in that sense, I became more efficient.
Unfortunately, I didn’t become more effective. I was doing more things, but I wasn’t doing the things that I most needed to do.
If productivity is just about doing more things, it’s not for me. If productivity is about doing the things that we need to do to become who we want to be, I’m all in. Being efficient is different than being effective – and I’d argue that doing more things at the cost of doing the right things isn’t being efficient, either.
The Two-Minute Rule Is Good For Reactive Actions
We have to remember that GTD was written largely for office workers whose jobs require them to react to and process requirements. The Two-Minute Rule is great for people in this reactive context – but we creatives are only in that mode some of the time.
The truth of the matter is that creative people need to spend as little of their time in this reactive context as possible. The most effective thing we can do is to create stuff, and creating stuff is a proactive action. Given that time and resources are finite, we have to keep present the reality that every minute we spend reacting when we could be proactive are precious minutes that we can’t recover.
There are also a few critical asymmetries when it comes to reactive and proactive actions:
- We can only do proactive actions for so long during certain times of the day
- Proactive actions are generally less urgent
- Reactive actions are tangible and rewarding
Each of us get into a creative zone in a few key spots in the day, and outside of those zones, creative work can be tortuously hard – so much so that there’s often more torture than work happening.
A lot of the reactive actions require a different type of energy and much less of it.
The funny thing about proactive actions is that though they’re often the most important things we can do, they also have the appearance of being less urgent. Nobody’s going to yell at you or have their feelings hurt if you don’t create something awesome.
However, if you don’t answer someone’s email message in a timely fashion, they might yell at you or have their feelings hurt. If you don’t pay your bills, there are very serious, urgent repercussions for your inaction.
The fact that there are specific people or consequences on the other end of reactive actions makes them seem much more urgent, and that gives us plenty of incentives to complete those actions sooner rather than later.
All the while, those proactive actions slip. And while we’re working on those reactive, “urgent” actions, we don’t think about the fact that doing them comes at the cost of the proactive actions.
Given that we see the consequences and/or people on the other end of reactive actions, they’re tangible in a way that fits well into one way that we like to think. We like seeing and knowing the concrete ways our actions effect the world.
It’s in that sense that I’m calling them “rewarding.” Paying bills is not rewarding in the sense that you like it, but it’s rewarding in the sense that your specific action has a specific outcome. We’re wired to respond positively to these types of situations, so as much as we might hate paying bills, we’re rewarded by doing so, both cognitively and neuro-chemically.
Proactive actions aren’t nearly this structured. Often times, we don’t know what it is we’re creating, let alone what effect it’ll have on the world. Nothing about being a creative is a sure bet except the consequences of not doing your thing. (Sidebar: I’ve worked with people who were physically, emotionally, and mentally sick because they weren’t doing the creative thing that would make them come alive; the fix wasn’t therapy, medication, exercise, or vacations – the fix was them doing their thing, and the rest started to fall in place.)
It’s easy to see why we fill our days with reactive actions when you look at the nature of them. The Two-Minute Rule can make us ineffective precisely because it can pull us into the reactive actions that are the “easiest” for us to do at the cost of what’s most important for us to do.
Again, the Two-Minute Rule does help you do more things, but are they the right things?
Choosing Not To Fight
David Allen probably has much more self-discipline than I do. On one level, I know when I’m switching actions and I know that I could probably stop. On another level, I like the feeling of getting things done and there’s a reward attached to checking off a block.
It’s possible that I could train myself to implement the Two-Minute Rule without it having a negative effect on my effectiveness, but the truth of the matter is that I’d rather choose not to fight. I know that the likely outcome of implementing the Two-Minute Rule is that I’ll start the Loop, and that outcome is far more likely than the outcome that I’m able to stop checking things off and get re-engaged. (Thinking about this post was also one of the things that made me think and write the post on how to think about possibilities.)
A warrior who steps on the battlefield knows that he will fight. An alcoholic who steps into a bar knows that she will drink. In both cases, it’s possible that they’ll have the self-discipline not to do what they are disposed to do, but the far wiser option for them is to avoid the battlefield or the bar.
In that same way, I think it’s better to avoid the behaviors that would have the tendency to keep you ineffective rather than to try to become more self-disciplined about those things. This is why I don’t recommend the Two-Minute Rule in the same way that Allen does; creative people need to temper the implementation far more than Allen recommends.
What Do You Do With Those Ideas?
What the Two-Minute Rule is designed to handle are those times in which stuff that you need or want to do pops into your head and you don’t want to lose it. Allen’s idea is that it’s not worth the time to capture and process the small items than to write them down. He’s definitely onto something about capturing ideas, but, for reasons I’ve mentioned above, I think there are times in which it’s far better to capture the item and defer it until later.
If you’re in the middle of creating something, it’s better to drop that idea into a trusted, efficient system than it is to disengage and do that item. The key words there are “trusted” and “efficient,” and for the sake of keeping this post from being too long to possibly read, I’ll leave a discussion for what that should look like for another day. (I’ve got more coming on this soon.)
What I will say here is that your system should not be something that is likely to have you disengage from what you’re doing. If dropping it into that system triggers overwhelm because it makes you look at everything else you “should” be doing or if it gets you into reactive mode, it’s not a “trusted, effective” system.
This is where idea gardens come in, too. Having a process by which you can catch those ideas, quickly get them where they need to go for processing, and get back to what you’re doing makes all the difference between you being able to stick with your creative thing and make meaningful progress and you constantly shuffling from one thing to the next.
When And How To Use The Two-Minute Rule
The Two-Minute Rule is incredibly effective when you’re already in a reactive mode and are processing a bunch of different actions.
For instance, if you’re processing email, it makes a lot of sense to get the ball rolling by focusing on responding to those email messages that you can get done quickly. You can’t forget about those messages that need your attention that you can’t do in two minutes, but it makes a lot of sense to just process the messages without writing them down. (I have some more fine-grained recommendations about this in Email Triage.)
Likewise, if you’re doing a workspace dash, it might be better to get things moving by just doing the things that pull at you rather than sitting and listing all the things that you’d want to do. If there’s an item that you’ll know you’ll forget, you can either start on it or write it, and only it down just to make sure it gets done.
If you’re already in a reactive mode, then knock out those two-minute actions. It’s also good to give yourself some room to be in a reactive mode everyday so you can take care of what you need to.
But don’t lose an hour’s creative mojo in two minutes just to get around the process of catching and releasing something that could potentially be done in that amount of time. Focus on being effective instead of being efficient.