Tame Email with the 2-Minute Rule

Image of Jean's empty inbox

There is a productivity tool that I've been using faithfully for 20 years that I've never written up: the 2-Minute Rule, which I got from David Allen's book, Getting Things Done.  He explains it in the context of processing a paper inbox:

If the next action [on an item in your inbox] can be done in two minutes or less, do it when you first pick the item up. If the memo requires just a thirty-second reading and then a quick "yes"/"no"/other response on a Post-it back to the sender, do it now...

 

Even if the item is not a "high priority" one, do it now if you're 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.

I don't follow David Allen's GTD system, but I use the 2-minute rule as part of my system for processing important email. Even if you get routine and junk emails filtered away from your inbox, there are still a lot of emails that need time and attention. To keep up, I use two passes. In the first pass, I clear the underbrush and discover what's important. Then I schedule time separately to respond to any important, time-consuming emails. The 2-minute rule is a heuristic to use in the first pass to decide whether to take action immediately or defer to the second pass.

It is a simple idea. I disposition any email that can be dealt with in less than 2 minutes. If I can answer it quickly, I answer it. If I need more information from someone, I send a quick request and put a note in my electronic tickler file to follow up. When I can't disposition an email in two minutes, I leave it in my inbox for later. Sometimes I tag important emails — bills or client questions or urgent issues — so I can find them quickly when I come back with more time. If they're really important, they stay in my inbox but they also go on my "to do" list.

The Mental Benefit of a "Quick and Dirty" Overview

The 2-minute rule is critical to getting a "quick and dirty" overview of what's in your inbox. Do the math: If you have only 30 minutes to disposition 30 items in your inbox, you need a 2-minute rule if you hope to get a look at everything that's in there. At most you could handle ten 2-minute tasks. Then you only need a few seconds each for the other emails  — just enough to find out what's in them and delete, file, or tag them for later work.

You need an overview for several reasons.

First, you cannot prioritize without knowing the full context. Until you have looked at each email, you don't know if there is a bombshell in there that warrants changing all of your plans. As you may know, the #1 rule of logic is to hold the full context. Decisions made without knowing the full context are guaranteed to get you in trouble sooner or later.

Second, a quick and dirty overview helps you deal with difficult emails that require thoughtful answers. If you've read the email, you can then percolate on it before you come back to reply. This happens very efficiently in the background so that when you come back to write an answer, you can zip off a reply.

Third, the quick and dirty overview eliminates the mental weight of the unknowns. When all you know is that you have 50 unread emails in your inbox, it's easy to worry in the background about whether there is something important that needs your attention. That distracts you from your other tasks.

Adding a Frisson of Urgency and Instant Gratification

Another benefit of the 2-minute rule is that it gives you a frisson of urgency that helps you clear more email than you otherwise would. When I systematically apply the rule, I push to give a short response rather than wait to send a longer one. There is a kind of a game: Can I answer this email in under two minutes? Sure...if I concentrate and zip it out. In contrast, when I casually scan the inbox to see what's there, I will dilly-dally while replying to unimportant emails.

I get a lot of pleasure in clearing a lot of email in a short period of time. Much of the work that I do is complex and time-consuming. Answering email can provide instant gratification. I can see that number in the inbox going down, down, down.

You want only a frisson of urgency. If you get addicted to clearing email, you can become frustrated by the emails that can't be cleared in two minutes. But those are important, time-consuming emails and they deserve a different process.

How to Stick to Two Minutes

The key to using the 2-minute rule is to keep your full purpose in mind.

As I mentioned in the article on "Be More Productive with a 3-Point Plan,” a purpose can be broken down into two parts: the next action (to disposition the email in less than two minutes) and the reason you are doing it, which is to get an overview. You need to keep both parts in mind to stay on track. By keeping your purpose in mind, you make it easier to make fast decisions.

If you don't hold the reason (to get an overview) in mind, you can easily lose track of the need to see the other emails and bog down in one long reply. If you don't hold the next action (disposition email) in mind, you won't necessarily make a decision about the email. Often it's not obvious what you should do; the path of least resistance is to go on to the next email. But if you know your intention is to disposition the email, you can put in a little more effort. Ask yourself, “What am I going to do with this?"

You may be wondering, how do you keep to two minutes? Should you time yourself? I don't recommend it. The overhead of stopping and starting a timer kills your concentration.

To get a good sense of how much work is involved in two minutes, I recommend running a decision log for a day or two to see how time flies — or doesn't. It's easy to have a distorted picture of how long it takes to write a one-paragraph email. You can write several one-sentence answers interspersed in an email in less than two minutes, but it is nearly impossible to write three objective paragraphs in that time.

What helps me keep to the 2-minute rule is a set of secondary processes that help me move decisions and tasks and communication along. I have a scheduling program for setting up appointments. I have task lists in Basecamp. I have a system for paying my bills. I use an electronic tickler for delaying emails and sending reminders. Taken together, these are what David Allen calls a "trusted system." They form an organizational system that has evolved over time to help me deal effectively with the particular kinds of issues that come up in my inbox.

These little processes help me deal with those time-consuming emails. Often there is a 2-minute "next action" I can take on an email, even if I can't completely disposition it.

I don't claim to be an ideal email correspondent. Yes, from time to time, I do get my email inbox to zero, but I only aspire to keep it under 50 and not have emails over a month old. Unfortunately, the count often pops up to several hundred, because for one reason or another I don't get to it for a couple of days. At the time I drafted this, there were 38 emails in my inbox, 10 of which more than a month old. Then I had a couple of days' relapse and the count went up to 192. I would never get it back down again without the 2-minute rule.

If you already use a process like this, I hope I have helped you understand why it is helpful. If you don't, I highly recommend doing your email in two passes — and using the 2-minute rule to make  the first pass maximally effective.

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