Are you having trouble getting started with a creative project or figuring out how to keep momentum with it? Try using the two-hour rule.
One of the reasons people get stuck with creative projects is that they make a conscious or unconscious plan to spend a full day or week working on something. Reality check: most of us will never get full days to work on something, and when we do, we can’t work for that long anyway. Our creative energy won’t last that long.
The flip side of the coin is that most creative, daring projects are hard to do in 15- and 30-minute chunks. Most projects like this have an engagement threshold that requires that you have enough time to set up and sink into the Flow. Since it’s frustrating to not finish and hard for most people to pick up where they left off, the natural response is that we don’t start. Better to vacuum, check email, or stay up to date with the YouTube meme of the day. (Because such things matter.)
Lastly, it’s often very hard to tell how much to chunk your projects down into smaller pieces, when you do think about chunking them down.
Enter the Two-Hour Rule: chunk your creative work down into two-hour increments. (Click to tweet.)
Two hours is long enough that you can make significant progress, but not so long that it becomes a Thing to manage.
Here are a few reasons why the Two-Hour Rule works:
- It tracks with the reality of our creative energy and circadian rhythms. Though each of us has slightly different patterns, most of us go through a creative/circadian cycle about every two hours. Peak-performing creatives in ideal environments can normally sustain that energy for only 4–6 hours – most of us just can’t maintain that level of focus and get diminishing returns after 2 hours.
- Most people can step away for two hours without things burning down. A counterproductive belief that many creatives have is that they need to be plugged into what’s going on at all times. Granted, they don’t tell themselves that overtly, but their actions say otherwise. If you can’t carve two hours out of your day somewhere, it’s a sign of other, more pressing issues than your creative work (over-commitment, co-dependency, poor expectation management, etc.). (This post is written from the perspective of creative knowledge-workers who have some autonomy over their time but choose to fritter it away. If you work in an organization that has poor communication practices and even worse expectations, then you may not be able to keep your job and step away during your workday. Similarly, if you have a customer service job or another primarily reactive job, you may find it harder to firewall your time; to be reactive well is to be productive in that context.)
- It’s surprisingly simple to find two hours in your day to repurpose for the things that matter most. Trim a TV show or two. Get up a little earlier. Get your kids to bed earlier. Rather than batching chores and household work, spread them out over the week in the evenings when you’re tired and can’t do anything creative anyway; then use the afternoons you would’ve been doing chores to work on your project. Eliminate a social activity that’s not serving anyone. As Gandhi said, “Action expresses priority.” If it matters to you, you’ll find a way.
- Most of us know about how much we can get done in two hours. Compare “how many words can you write in two hours?” to “how many words can you write in a day?” Substitute your creative thing for “write” and you get my point.
- It helps us think in the more native blocks of time rather than in artificial hours. This one’s subtle but still important. Hours are a relatively recent way of slicing human existence, whereas part of the complex of features that make up self-awareness is the recognition of blocks of time. The fact that we have psychochemical rhythms (mentioned above) gives us an unconscious unit of experience. But there’s more to it than that: it simplifies both our daily planning and our project planning. Once you get it, it’s easier to say “that’ll take me four creative blocks” rather than “that’ll take me eight hours” precisely because you know what you can do in a creative block (two hours).
The next time you’re thinking about getting started on a project or wondering how to chunk it down, use the Two-Hour Rule to make it more approachable. Sneaky tip: sometimes you have to give yourself two hours of time, at the same time that you tell yourself that you have to do only 10 minutes of whatever needs to be done. More often than not, you’ll create for two hours if you give yourself the boundaries on both sides.
The Two-Hour Rule works well unless, of course, you’re shuffling or lying. Watch out for those two as well.
Oh, and one last thing. Our planners have this line of thinking already baked in. Happy planning and project-completing.
Charlie, I LOVE this article. It resonates as 100% true for me. Critical, high leverage work must be dedicated to these two hour chunks where we’re super focused.
I think of it like tokens. We each get a small amount of focus tokens each day and they need to be spent wisely.
Charlie Gilkey says
I appreciate you commenting, Dustin. I’ll be discussing a similar concept to your focus tokens in the next few weeks. (This not posting every day thing is going to be hard.)
I’m looking forward to the post about focus. It’s good to know that other people do this as well. I used to just push myself through slumps in my focus but I finally learned it was way smarter to use that time to enjoy something else.
This is great. There is some research on academic writing by Robert Boice that has a good suggestion for the leaving it and getting back into it problem.
Don’t go right to a sensible “stopping point”. That increases the inertia you need to overcome to get back into it. Better to stop in the middle of an idea (with writing, even a paragraph or sentence). It seems weird but some of my clients have tried it and find that it is so much easier to pick it back up again if you are clearly in the middle of something.
The other trick I learned from Boice is that when you stop, make a list of the things you would do next if you could keep going now. You may or may not use that list to get started again but at least you have it and you aren’t wasting any energy trying to hold onto those ideas
Charlie Gilkey says
You (and Boice) are dead-on. I’ve been meaning to write a piece about leaving “breadcrumbs” for a long time – I think I’ll get on that in the next couple of weeks.
It’s not that it’s the stop that is so challenging, but that it’s the hard stop. There are ways to intentionally stop that set you up for a better start next time.
Carole Pivarnik says
Often, the nature of the work determines how long I can spend on it before my brain starts to get tired. Some things simply take more mental energy than others. Once I dig in, though, I can usually count on getting lost in my work for far longer than I intended. Still, I have to stay alert to signs that my brain is fatigued–easily distracted, rushing the work, skipping steps in my process, etc. When I notice that happening, I just set my brushes down and take a break. Sometimes for an hour, sometimes for the rest of the day. The work will still be there when I come back to it.
Charlie Gilkey says
Welcome, Carole! You’re absolutely right that the nature of the work is a huge determinant – I touch on that in the piece about engagement thresholds. From a planning and commitment POV, though, 2 hours is a good guide.
And, very good point about paying attention to those signs and taking a break when needed.
Anwell Steve says
I would definitely agree. Two hours is a long span to make progress in your creative projects. But if you really need to exceed on that time I would suggest to take a break for 5 minutes every hour. It’s a great way to refresh your mind again. It’s also essential to increase your energy level in order for you to become productive throughout the day and would have better results in your projects.
Charlie Gilkey says
100% agree. The 2 Hour rule is about use – obviously, if you have more capacity to use, then you can get better. I will say, though, that there do seem to be some limits, even with increased capacity.
Janna G. Noelle says
Hi Charlie, I really like this article, especially your reference to the “engagement threshold”. This is something I regularly experience in my efforts to write my first novel (my first one I believe has any chance of being GOOD, that is). I’ve always felt guilty that I was being lazy for not trying to squeeze more words into an those unexpected 15- or 20-minute breaks that arise throughout the day, so I’m relieved to see my reluctance to do so acknowledged as a THING.
I already try to work in 2-hour intervals, but you’ve offered some additional reasons for doing so I wasn’t aware of (#1, #4 and #5). Really interesting, useful read!
Charlie Gilkey says
Yep, it’s totally a thing and not just you. I’m glad it eased your creative soul. 🙂
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francis porter says
Excellent post, I think it’s vital to manage projects effectively, I love the sound of the two hour rule, There has been many of times when I have become non productive due to spending too long on a project and becoming burnt out! thanks for sharing. Francis
Roving Jay says
With 5 hungry blogs to feed with content, and one e-book under my belt and another one brewing, I constantly felt like I was always playing catch-up. But I found extra time in my day, and even though my days are longer … my workload in now manageable. I started getting up at 5am instead of 7am, and that two extra hours in the morning has made me so productive. I’m able to rattle off some e-book content or a blog post, and still have time to answer emails and attend to a little Social Media.
Stephen Lahey says
Good idea! If I’m doing creative work, then 2 hours is good, but 90 minutes is often better.
Anne Mentz says
This article is one of those instances of being reminded of what you know, but forget to implement, forget why it is such a powerful way of achieving what you set your mind to, and a reminder of getting back to the “basics” of those really effective productivity propellants. Apart from the two-hour rule I have some 30-minute rules. On Saturdays I tidy my office – only 30 minutes, otherwise it becomes an excuse! and when I have like a book to design, with several pages, I get to a point where I start spending more time than necessary on some pages and not enough on others. 30 – minutes per page does two things. It makes me work faster because I want to achieve a certain result before I have to (committed to) move on, and it creates balance of creativity dedicated to each page. I can repeat the exercise, but when I’m at that point where this “system” becomes necessary, 30-minutes works it’s magic time and again. Thanks Charlie for reminding us again!
Charles Brady says
This is so true. I have learned after many years that I have a creative sweet spot that starts about 1pm and can go for 2-6 hours IF uninterrupted. It is amazing what I can accomplish during this time. My biggest problem after working at home all these years are training my family to give me that space uninterrupted and it is a constant struggle. For one year I moved my work to a vacation home in the mountains and most weeks I’d go up by myself and work 3-5 days then come back home. It worked so well. But after a year the trips got tiring and it was getting more expensive to maintain two workspaces. I wish there was a nice way to get family to respect that just because you are at home they think of you as always available. After being married over 38 years my sweetheart still doesn’t get it and with 4 grandkids its getting even harder to focus…. I need a quite cave….