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The Two-Minute Rule for Getting Unstuck: Q&A With David Allen

Many people operate in an emergency mode, creating a backlog of actions that are often small. According to author David Allen, training yourself to solve the quick actions on the front end can not only save you time and energy, but also create the headspace you need for strategic thinking.
Independent journalist and freelance writer, Tollefson Creative Solutions
October 04, 2017

In his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, David Allen introduced the now-famous idea of the “two-minute rule." The concept is simple: If an incoming action can be done in two minutes or less, do it rather than putting it on a to-do list, because it will take up even more time to organize and review it later.

Allen's Getting Things Done (or GTD) work-life management methodology and other training programs have earned him global recognition as a productivity expert. Allen has also worked as an executive coach, helping managers and CEOs at many major companies and institutions.

Why does the two-minute strategy work?

My mentor, Dean Acheson, taught me the two-minute rule back in the early '80s. He was a coach in organizational change and he found that many times, the executives avoided making action decisions and created this huge bottleneck because they wouldn't sit down and decide what was next to move something forward. So he had figured it out as a way to unstick the executives' thinking.

It gets people to make an action decision. Something comes in and you need to get rid of it real fast. Make a decision about it and move it on, whether that's delegated, handed off, completed right then or whatever.

The head is for having ideas, not for holding them.

—David Allen, productivity expert

When you're dealing with input, you have to train yourself to determine the action on the front end. Most people make that decision when the heat or pressure forces them to do it. It's more efficient to just do it than it is to organize and review it later. It takes less energy.

Some people may struggle with this concept because it's not just about high-priority actions. How can they overcome that?

It's simple. When you don't give appropriate attention to what has your attention, it'll take more of your attention than it deserves. So, that “not-so-important thing," if you have to look at it twice, think about it twice, or five times, you just wasted your energy.

A backlog may still be unavoidable; what's the strategy for dealing with it?

I want my backlog as minimal as possible. So, when I'm not doing anything else, I'm cleaning up backlog. And it takes most people somewhere between 30 to 90 minutes a day just to stay current with new incoming stuff.

Many executives I've coached start their first hour or hour and a half with no meetings so they can clear the deck before the insanity of the day lands on them. What you don't want to do is keep looking at it and avoiding it. When it's time to clean up the backlog, sit down and do it.

So cleaning up the backlog regularly works in tandem with the habit of making action decisions?

It does help to batch your activities. Once you get really good at this, you can spend 10 minutes cleaning up and then 30 minutes doing something else. Then come back and spend another five minutes cleaning up and then go do something else.

You can switch back and forth, but it's helpful to get into just processing mood and cleaning-up mode. It helps to get going while you're in that frame of mind.

The whole point is to get to the bottom of your in-basket. That is, to get your backlog clarified and organized as soon as possible so that you can then feel more comfortable about your decisions, about what your priorities really are. If you've still got a bunch of unprocessed, undecided, unclarified, unorganized stuff hanging around in the in-basket, every new thing feels like a pain.

The problem with executives, they become the bottleneck. Things get stuck uphill, not down, in organizations. If you're just cranking widgets, it's pretty easy to know what your work is, and you're probably not avoiding cranking the widget. But if you have to implement diversity among 5,000 widget-crankers, it's easy to avoid making a decision about what's next.

So it creates a bottleneck in the thinking process?

Exactly. With all the executives I've coached over the years, I've never seen one who did not have at least five or six significant things that were hung up because they were avoiding the next action decision about it. It's understandable because issues can be ambiguous and decisions are consequential.

But no matter how sophisticated stuff is, it comes down to an email to send, a conversation to have with your partner, some sort of action. So you have to train yourself to get that stuff down to the mundane.

What kind of changes in productivity should someone expect after using the two-minute strategy over time?

Productivity goes up hugely. Not only just in terms of the output that you create, but also the space. You need room to think, room inside your head. If you're distracted and all this stuff is nagging at you because you've been avoiding decisions or haven't organized the results, that's a huge waste of your time and energy.

But the real productivity gain is in the quality of your thinking and how more strategic you can be because you've got a clear vision about what things are, and what the whole game is.

My main admonition for all my coaching is that the head is for having ideas, not for holding them. It just wasn't designed to remember, remind or even prioritize. It's your intelligence and your intuition that does that.

Photo: Getty Images
Independent journalist and freelance writer, Tollefson Creative Solutions