The Two Minute Rule
Will Bamberg | Updated
When thinking about healthy habits and self-discipline, some of the first areas of life that come to mind are exercise, diet, and sleep. While these are certainly important domains to build healthy habits in, it can be difficult to successfully stick to habits in these areas. I think most of us can recall attempts to start a new exercise routine or sleep schedule that ended after just a few weeks—as well as the ensuing losses of motivation! For that reason it can be a good idea to practice building “smaller” habits to improve your overall self-discipline. I suggest the Two Minute Rule, a useful tool for knocking out small tasks and avoiding procrastination.
When trying to change a behavior, creating rules is a great way to remove a lot of future decision points that can easily become slippery slopes (I’ll just skip this time...). The Two Minute Rule is simple: any task that will take two minutes or less, do immediately. For example, sending a quick one-line email, tidying up a cluttered surface, or picking up the clothes you left strewn about the night before. This rule is effective because it’s very easy to implement. Two minutes of effort is a low enough barrier that you can almost always muster the mental willpower to push past it. Then with the hard part of starting—overcoming your internal resistance—out of the way, the task is easy in comparison.
Following the Two Minute Rule significantly cuts down on the background noise of tasks and messes that individually are small, but together build up into a much bigger mental block. Just compare the effort it takes to hang up a single shirt or throw away some trash with the effort it takes to deep clean your room after a week of clutter has accumulated. The built-up mess looms much larger in your mind (ugh, I have to clean everything) and drains a disproportionate amount of energy. With the Two Minute Rule you knock out these tasks almost as quickly as they appear, keeping them from piling up into a bigger chore.
I try to apply the Two Minute Rule as soon as I notice that a task needs to be done. For example: when I realize I left dishes in the sink I try to load them into the dishwasher right then instead of mentally adding that to my backlog of chores. In other words, as soon as you notice your procrastination reflex activate (I need to wash that, ugh, I’ll just do it later) divert your attention to the Two Minute Rule. I find that just reminding myself that a chore will take a tiny amount of time is enough to diffuse most of my procrastination reflex. Even if procrastination wins and you do put the task off (which happens!), just try again the next time you think about it. It will get easier to adhere to the rule the more you follow it, and eventually it will become a habit.
The Two Minute Rule is a great habit to build self-discipline with because it’s easy to adhere to and can be applied all the time. Self-discipline is a muscle that gets stronger the more it is exercised. Consistently working your self-discipline muscle over the long term is how you build habits and change your behavior (the topic of a whole other blog post). Because the mental activation energy of committing to a two-minute task is so low, the Two Minute Rule is much easier to stick to in the moment than something more time or effort-intensive like a workout routine or a strict sleep schedule. This makes it an excellent way to get in a lot of self-discipline “reps”, which will improve your ability to stick to more challenging habits and lifestyle changes across your life!
Ultimately, one of the best benefits of the Two Minute Rule is how much it reduces your daily mental load. I don’t think we give enough credit to how much of your headspace gets occupied by the constant struggle to keep your monkey mind in line: combatting thoughts of laziness and procrastination and instant-gratification. Depending on how you’re feeling on a particular day, even wrangling yourself to get up and do the simplest tasks can be a big energy drain. The Two Minute Rule is a tool that can minimize how much time and energy and thought you waste every day attending to menial tasks that are minute in the grand scheme of things. You have to do this stuff anyway, might as well practice spending less energy agonizing over it!
I want to note that I didn’t invent the Two Minute Rule! I first heard about it from productivity guru David Allen in a podcast interview. Also, the Two Minute Rule is especially applicable to household tasks, but that’s by no means the only area it can be applied! Finally, it can easily be modified to suit your personal preference, e.g. the One Minute Rule or Five Minute Rule.