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.
Oscar - freestyle mind says
I completely agree when you initially analyze how the 2 minutes rule does not improve your efficiency. You could spend the whole day walking through the office talking on the phone by doing this, but that doesn’t mean you had a productive day (at least by my standards).
Regarding working in a proactive mode, I would suggest taking a look at the pomodoro technique. I’ve talked about in on my blog, but it’s definitely something that I did not invent. It’s basically a technique where you focus for 25 minutes on a task, and then take a 5 minutes break (in reality is more than this).
I tried that technique I while ago and it really helps me to concentrate on those tasks that requires my attention.
.-= Oscar – freestyle mind´s last blog ..The Law of Attraction =-.
Matches Malone says
I’ve never seen this quantified before, and it explains why I’ve never been as effective in a as you say proactive job setting…. The need to create is overwhelming, sometimes…. All this time I thought I had ADD 🙂
.-= Matches Malone´s last blog ..My Number of Naysayers Has Doubled…. =-.
Archan Mehta says
Well, Charlie, this is, once again, a great post. Here’s my contribution. Creativity is your mistress. Unfortunately, she has a nasty habit of flirting with other men. For example, you might be working on a project/assignment that demands the best from you. Suddenly, you are interrupted by a phone call or a noise in the distance that annoys the heck out of you. Within no time, the creative idea goes out the door–poof, up in smoke, never to return. Creativity can leave you in a jiffy and staying loyal is not part of its make up. Dogs can be loyal but creativity will elude your grasp every time. Our lives are filled with distractions and detail complexity, such as filling out forms, paying the bills, doing the laundry, etc. However, when you are in the realm of creativity, time seems to flow. That’s why you tend to lose track of time when you are in the creative flow.
I think it is also important to move to a place where you are not likely to be disturbed. Switch off, plain and simple.
Become invisible. Go for a leisurely stroll in a part of the woods where nobody is ever likely to bump into you. Go there when the weather is shiny and bright and you are likely to be in a good mood. This can enhance your creative mood.
And for God’s sake, carry a small note-pad in your pocket and a pencil or pen. This will enable you to capture random thoughts. Creative people sometimes “receive” ideas organically. And these ideas need to be captured immediately. Otherwise, like the mistress, creativity will search for greener pastures; she may never return to your humble abode. Over time, millions of bright ideas have been lost by creative people because they never took the time to be proactive and were stuck in reactive, daily routines. Thanks.
This post reminded me of a book I read a while back called, “Ron Carlson Writes a Story.” http://www.amazon.com/Ron-Carlson-Writes-Story/dp/1555974775 (not an affiliate link!)
His central point is that to do creative work, you’ve got to stick around and do the work. A phrase that stuck with me is, “a writer is someone who stays in the room.” He/she doesn’t go into the kitchen for coffee, get lost researching the meaning of names online, or any of the ‘productive’ distractions that are so easy to fall into. The writer sticks around through the uncomfortable bits until the story is done.
Your point about the ‘2 minute actions’ often being more rewarding is well taken. There is a certain satisfaction in ticking those things off the list. Creative projects don’t lend themselves to so much ticking!
.-= Liz´s last blog ..Plans, Planning and Control =-.
Dave Doolin says
I’ve written on distraction as something breaking the creative flow.
What I’ve found is that waiting on computers to do some mundane task is where I get enormously distracted.
Like compiling code, or waiting for a render, or even waiting for Open Office to save a document.
That stuff seems to take forever… so I “just check email” and boom, there goes 30 minutes.
Didn’t have this problem before computers.
Nowadays, I’m more inclined to meditate while waiting on the computer. Think about what I need to do next, rather than get distracted.
But it’s hard.
.-= Dave Doolin´s last blog ..Website In A Weekend: Friday Evening – Off to the Races =-.
Steven | The Emotion Machine says
Very, very informative and interesting post. I thought it was really neat when you mentioned “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,” because this is something I have believed in for awhile – the importance of a creative endeavor – which is exactly what my last post was about. Coincidence? Destiny? Haha…
.-= Steven | The Emotion Machine´s last blog ..Everyone Needs A Creative Endeavor =-.
Ali Hale says
I found that really interesting too — particularly as I work alongside a bunch of writers on my MA programme, and so many of us have mentioned how much *better* we feel when we’re writing regularly.
.-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..Why I Blog =-.
Mike Stankavich says
Charlie, thanks for another great post. Here’s my restatement of your idea: Add your potential context switch cost (or immersion time if you prefer) to return to what you’re doing to the time required to resolve the new task or idea. If the total is greater than two minutes, then capture and defer.
The key is the immersion time, which is almost always greater than two minutes for creative work.
.-= Mike Stankavich´s last blog ..How to Securely Access Your Home or Small Biz Network From Anywhere in the World (Part 1) =-.
Ali Hale says
Charlie,thanks for this one — it’s been a timely reminder!
One quick question – if you’re ever short of post ideas (haha…), could you expand a bit on what you said in the intro to this one: “during one of the natural pauses that happens while you’re in Flow.”
That happens? I mean, it’s OK and normal that it happens? I was convinced that I never got into “Flow” during writing because I naturally stop and pause and can be very conscious of the process. I tend to listen to (instrumental) music when writing because it gives my brain enough to do in those pauses that I don’t instantly go checking Twitter…
How do pauses fit in with flow? How can you take advantage of them and not let them become distractions and state-breakers?
(For what it’s worth, I always thought I get a better “flow” when I’m doing website code — I lose track of time more easily and find it hard to pull myself away — but now I’m suspecting that it’s just a slightly different type of flow state? On the whole, I prefer writing to coding, too!)
.-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..Why I Blog =-.
Rebecca Leigh says
The cost of even a 30 second sidetrack on the computer, when I’m in the midst of writing, is enormous. Basically, it has the potential to completely blow away my most creative morning time.
As a result I’ve gone so far as to avoid using the computer altogether in the mornings. Core creative work happens with pen and paper. It’s a bit cumbersome but short of being able to ‘lock’ myself out of internet access during those times, I haven’t found a way around it.
I’m also very interested to see more on “trusted, efficient systems” for catching ideas (:
Archan Mehta says
Ali, you have asked some interesting questions here..allow me, please, to address some of your concerns about flow+creativity. Charlie, of course, should feel free to leave his own comments, and I look forward to reading about his views…
Those who are attuned to music (have an ear for music) and those who are involved with aesthetics in any shape or form will tell you…it is but natural to pause, to reflect (sometimes, maybe) even when you are in the state of flow. It works differently for different people at different times, and that is why creativity is both a process and mystery. The pause can cause me great annoyance, for example, but can also be responsible for a breakthrough. I can be fully engaged with “stream of consciousness” writing when, all of a sudden, I have to perforce attend to a kettle on the boil which is fuming and fretting over my lack of attention. This can make me mad, but also lead to an eureka or a-ha moment. For example, my engagement with trying to turn off the gas can work as a metaphor and remind me of certain permutations and combinations, analogies, etc. that I need to incorporate into my plot.
On the other hand, sometimes that same interaction in the kitchen can actually disturb my creativity and I may find myself just attending to a trivial, mundane task.
I like to believe we have all had such experiences from time to time. Thus, there is no magic formula pertaining to creativity and the flow experience. It is an interactive dynamic and process we struggle to grasp.
Above all, creativity is based on an encounter…good or bad depends on your situation or circumstance. And it is unique and different for each and every individual. What floats my boat can easily sink your boat. Also, some creative people have reported a seamless state of flow, whereas others achieved peak experiences with several pauses; taking the time to reflect, etc. Archimedes had his eureka moment (if memory serves) while sitting in a bath-tub brimming over with water, and he danced through the streets butt-naked, overjoyed that his subconscious mind had provided him with a solution that had evaded the grasp of his conscious mind. In my case, for example, I experience the flow state when I am playing sports or walking through a garden: that bliss can lead to the writing of a poem, but even if I turn into a temporary moron, the sheer experience of being in the lap of mother nature is a joyful wonderland. I feel I am in a state of flow either way. Again, that’s just me, and this may not be the case at all with other people.
Michelle - Taming Time says
Long time reader, first time caller (so to speak!).
Really interesting article. When I am truly absorbed in something, I do not notice anything else around me and I need no incentives to continue with said task. What you described as the “Flow”.
However with the day to day (boring) things that need to be done I find using a similar method to the one described by Oscar. I use a timer to help keep me moving forward, and to remind myself to take breaks.
I like how you applied the principle of the 2 minute task to email. To me it sounds like the way that is both effective and efficient. I am a big fan of effectiveness over so-called efficiency. Often people are so busy, yet at the end of the day they can’t say what they really achieved.
.-= Michelle – Taming Time´s last blog ..Jan 15, Free Time Management Tips: Learn Time Management Skills and Techniques =-.
This post is strikingly in tune with my thoughts of the past few days. In noticing my own patterns in recent weeks and thinking of those alongside the reactive nature of things I see in the news, I can’t stop thinking about how dangerous the reactive mindset is, if only because it’s the easy way… the easy way rarely bodes well for innovation and creating solutions. You’ve added more fuel to my thoughts… off to ponder more!
.-= Zoe´s last blog ..On Dentists and Maya Angelou =-.
Hey Charlie. I’m with you on the general idea of maintaining creative flow, but I think you should re-read GTD.
The 2 minute thing is for processing inboxes and notes. Just like you, Allen suggests writing a reminder and tossing it in the box while you’re working, not stopping work to do 2 minute actions.
I have found the “distractions” list from the Pomodoro technique very helpful for my work (reactive and proactive). It’s great for folks that work at the computer. I am able to cross off distractions that would have broken the flow because I don’t care about them 10 minutes later.
Thanks for the great work. I really enjoy your blog and watching your life’s changes. Keep at it.
I’ll definitely reread the relevant sections – it’s been long enough since I’ve read it in its entirety that I may have conflated the commentary with the content. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
SallyBeam | Self Help Friend .com says
Wow! Thanks for highlighting WHEN to use GTD in 2-minutes.
And your post reminds me of 7 habits of highly effective people, one of best self help books in my opinion “Do the right things, or do things right.”
Thanks Charlie, another great post. I too had Covey flashbacks, especially around “Proactive actions are generally less urgent”: This goes back to “Habit 1 – Be Proactive” in Seven Habits, and “Quadrant II – Important, Not Urgent” in First Things First.
Great to see productivity tips. My personal tip would also be to time yourself on certain”to do” tasks. I use a web based timer but anything will do. It really focuses your mind on getting the job done in a short space of time!