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Productivity Principle #8
This is part 8 of a multi-part series exploring the principles of personal productivity, with the goal of making it the last thing you’ll ever need to read about the topic. If you missed it, you can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, part 6 here, and part 7 here (once all parts are published, I’ll create a proper index).
Generally, you want to batch similar tasks together in order to do them all at once. The exception to this is if that if a task takes less than a minute to do, you should do it and get it over with.
This is adapted from David Allen’s 2-minute rule from Getting Things Done. Allen’s argument is that if a task is that small and can be done quickly, it would take more time to capture the task in your system and process it into a to-do list than it would to actually do the task. For example, if you see a piece of clothing lying on the bed (or on the floor), it’s more efficient to hang it up, than it would be to make yourself a note to put away the sweater.
Applying the Principle
While the example might seem absurd, I invite you to try implementing this rule for three days. You will be astounded at how many things you unconsciously (or consciously) put off that can be done in next to no time. In addition, chances are, you’re probably not actually capturing these tasks either. So, it’s not so much that you’re wasting time processing tasks in your productivity system, but rather, you’re letting all these tiny tasks take up space in your head. So, while this may seem like an exception to the principle about batching tasks, it’s actually an extension of the principle of keeping tasks out of your head.
There is a risk with this principle that you start doing many short tasks, and end up spending hours doing nothing but a series of tiny, meaningless tasks (busywork), rather than doing the more meaningful work that requires getting into a state of flow. It is very easy to use the 1-minute rule to justify replying to every email and Slack message as it comes in. “Answering this email will take less than a minute, so I’ll just do it now. Oh, a Slack message. Answering this will just take a minute. I’ll do it now. Hey, filing this document should take less than a minute, let me file it before I start working on the next thing.”
And so goes an entire afternoon.
There are two safeguards against this risk. The first is the notion of scheduling your batched tasks. By setting aside a specific time to deal with things like email and instant messages (and not dealing with them at any other time), you minimize the risk that these interrupt your flow of meaningful work, and avoid the temptation to deal with these as they come up.
The second safeguard is the time limit. The reason I revised David Allen’s rule from two minutes to one minute is because I’m terrible at predicting how long something will take. If I think something will take two minutes, it’ll probably take closer to five minutes (by the way, according to fascinating research conducted for the military, most people are just as bad at making estimates as I am, so you probably are too). As soon as I do two or three of these 5-minute tasks, I’ve now wasted a significant amount of time that I could have used doing something meaningful. However, ONE minute is so short a time period, it’s kind of hard to get it wrong. Even if I do underestimate by half, then at worst, I’ve used up two minutes (and I’m back at Allen’s suggested number). Basically, I’ve whittled this rule down to only those tasks that will take nearly no time at all.
Tasks that will take some time, but not much, are best scheduled and batched.
What Comes Next
By now, I've shared the most important principles involved in becoming more organized and improving personal productivity. The goal has been to avoid prescribing a specific system (which you likely won’t stick to), and instead give you the principles that will allow you to adjust or create a system best suited to your own needs.
However, whether it’s a system you take from a book, or your own original system, the most common point of failure in productivity systems are related to the ongoing maintenance of said system. That’s why the last set of principles we’ll look at are all about keeping it going.