Have you ever heard the advice: “If it takes less than two minutes, do it now.”? If we all followed this advice, how could we ever decide when to stop doing?
I’ll teach you when to stop doing when to start adding items to your to-do list and then move on to whatever else you want to do with your time. (Like baking gourmet cakes, or extreme ironing, if that’s your thing.) If you are familiar with Getting Things Done, most, if not all, of this advice plays on Steps 1, 2, and 4 (Capture, Clarify, and Reflect).
I totally disagree with David Allen where he suggests in the Clarify step (Step 2) to do immediately any activities that will take less than 2 minutes to accomplish.
The reason is that if you did every task that would take less than 2 minutes to accomplish that presented itself, you would probably be able to continue doing these tasks indefinitely and be stuck in a loop of 2-minute tasks because:
(1) Some larger tasks (and even “smaller” tasks, such as doing laundry) are broken down into smaller and smaller parts almost indefinitely, which can trick you into continuing with these “2-minute” tasks;
(2) Who on earth does not realize that they have many small tasks they need to get done the more they think about all the things in the world they need to carry out (such as is what happens in Step 1—Capture)?; and
(3) People love short, easy tasks, and the effort of any particular next 2-minute task looks just as onerous as any another task, including those that might be more important (think important, but not urgent from Eisenhower matrix).
Thus, it’s difficult to decide when to stop performing tasks that will take less than 2 minutes to finish and move on (and put it on a list instead).
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So how do you decide when to stop “do[ing] now” and do something else entirely?
In short, the three steps are to:
(i) Plan to block out time to do activities that you have captured in a batch with other like activities to lower costs associated with switching between different types of activities.
(ii) Capture all tasks that you cannot (or will not) do now or that you delegate to others;
(iii) Do now all tasks that:
(a) Batch with what you were already doing, and
(b) The marginal “costs” of which are less than switching to an alternative task.
Thus, it all pretty much starts and ends with PLANNING—this includes planning at the beginning before you have taken action to batch similar activities, and then taking all the activities you have deferred (captured) for later and batch them during the right time.
But before I can talk about planning, I need to counterintuitively start with a discussion on cost-benefit analysis.
Basically, if you decide the benefit of an alternative task (minus the cost of switching to that type of task) is less than the benefit of performing the extra “2-minute” task in front of you that moment, then do the 2-minute task.
For example, it might be proper to stop mopping the floor to open the mail when you walk by the table with that day’s mail if you are expecting a particularly important letter. (Like if that Nigerian prince is finally mailing you a check for millions after you sent him your social security number and other information via email.) If the benefit is large, and the time cost of taking off your cleaning gloves and getting the letter opener etc. is relatively small, you might choose to open your mail.
If you were not expecting any important mail and it would take a lot of time to take off your gloves, put away cleaning supplies, find your letter opener, go to your office to sit down, etc., and you were going to do more with written correspondence later anyway, then you should defer on opening the mail (unless there is some other overriding benefit to you). In this scenario, the benefit, taken with the high cost, is too low to justify switching from the task of mopping the floor.
So, why is PLANNING so important?
It’s because if you weren’t doing any other “activity” (such as mopping the floors) when the alternative 2-minute activity presented itself, then your marginal time cost to switch from nothing to any alternative is the same.
The result of this is that any new task, regardless of its real value, looks appealing because the cost is marginally the same as switching from nothing, so you will only pick the tasks with the highest immediate benefit.
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Put another way, the marginal cost is roughly the same for any alternative task when you have not planned, so every task with some benefit and a low enough cost looks appealing.
This is precisely why these 2-minute activities can cause you to get stuck in a loop of completing them all day.
This is problematic because you will only pick only the activities that present themselves posing some immediate “benefit,” and you may continually choose to do these 2-minute activities because short, easy tasks are appealing due to people’s affinity for crossing to-dos off.
In addition, while the marginal cost choosing the first activity from nothing is the same as any other activity, choosing any later activity will necessarily need to be of a similar character to keep the time cost low.
It would be easier to wash the windows after mopping than it would be to immediately afterward go on a camping trip—you would need to do a lot of packing, etc. to prepare for the camping trip. Conversely, if you were going on a camping trip, the cost of switching to washing the dishes in the woods is extraordinarily high so you would be wise to batch many camp activities in the woods while you were there.
I think you understand my point.
Planning to “batch” your activities.
As I noted in the cost-benefit section, we need to keep the marginal cost from switching between any activity to another as low as possible to cut our overall time expenditures. Thus, you must plan to do like activities in blocks around the same time.
I try to plan my whole days not by what task necessarily needs to get done, but what type of activity needs to get done.
Okay, what needs to get done is important, but I’ll plan my day based on those tasks, batching tasks of a similar character.
This reduces the amount of cost between each item of that type, which in turn reduces total time cost through efficiency gains achieved by switching only when marginal costs are the lowest.
For instance, if I have a particularly important document to draft that is due today as well as other miscellaneous drafts and emails to write that need not necessarily be finished today, I will maximize my time by choosing to put the draft due today at the top of my list, and then will block after that task the other similar, not-urgent tasks (like the emails and drafts). This is because the marginal cost to switch between any of these tasks is almost nothing once I have finished the pressing draft.
Similarly, if I have errands to run, I want to decrease the amount of time spent getting in and out of my car, as well as the amount of time spent driving.
Let’s say I need to go to the store and get gas for my car. Of course, I will try to find a gas station and store that are not far out-of-the-way for each other so that I can go on one trip. If I went on two trips, I could be potentially wasting at least thirty minutes to an hour of my day, at least.
Although I know there will be a time cost to drive from the store to the gas station, find parking, and actually spend time shopping/pumping gas, the marginal cost is much lower between these activities than if I had done them separately. In short, if you’ll be out-and-about anyway, it makes sense to get it all done at once.
Note: I often take this a step further and try to cut the actual time (not just marginal) cost of going to the store and driving to fill up my car’s gas tank by only going to the grocery store in the last couple of hours before it closes. This you could spot me shopping at my local supermarkets when other shoppers are cooking or getting ready for bed. Waiting in the check-out line normally takes at least 5 minutes while a store is busy. With driving, parking, and waiting for people in the aisles, you end up wasting a significant amount of time better spent on things that you actually enjoy. Conversely, if you go at night, you are likely usually one of just a few people there.
How do you take this and run with it? Here’s an example:
Let’s say for any given day you have much paperwork to get done, want to dye your hair, go to the grocery store, fill up your gas tank, and do all the normal things you do to live as a human in the world.
First, you might decide to get all of your paperwork done in the morning when you are the most awake and have the least distractions, leaving the afternoon to handle all of your errands while you will be out of the house to drive home from work anyway. If you are reminded of any short tasks that came up during this time, you should take note of them on your to-do list, unless your internal cost-benefit analysis says you should do the task right then.
Further, you may plan to set a block of time in the evening that we could call “personal hygiene” time. If you were planning on showering in the afternoon anyway, you would be the wisest to also dye your hair in the “personal hygiene” block with showering and other nighttime hygiene tasks at the end of the day, because you will likely be in the bathroom anyway, need to shower at some point, and may not have the time constraints that having a day job entails.
At the end of the day and week
Or when you have set aside time to plan the following day, you should go through your to-do list and look at all the tasks you captured while you were doing blocks of other things.
Take these tasks, and find blocks to put them in. If the item is more of an idea, wish, or a “one-day-maybe,” then the proper “block” might unascertainable. Put these tasks on a “tickler” list.
If the item is something actionable, like something you would like to do soon, try to put a due date on it and schedule some time with other like activities on or before that date.
You want to avoid the situation where you procrastinated or did not give yourself enough time to complete the task, which ultimately hurts your productivity–especially if the cost to switch to the urgent task last-minute is high (which is likely due to all the other things you already had to do in your life).
Some examples of batching categories you could potentially use:
- Email — a time set aside solely for email to knock it all out. If you are serious about productivity, you will choose to not do this first thing in the morning;
- Reading — compress all of your reading into one or two time slots in a given week (or more). Or do your daily leisure reading at the end of the day when you are least distracted. Reading before bedtime is also better than reading looking at a screen because there’s no blue light;
- Phone calls — keep a running tab of the people you need to call and empty it once per day. I like to make these blocks in the morning around 10 or 11. This is after I have worked on something that demands a lot of attention for a few hours, but also gives people you plan to call time to wake up, get to the office, etc. Keep in mind lot of people are not near their phones around lunch, or between 11 and 1;
- Entertainment — try to batch fun and play at the end of the day when you’re not as motivated to work;
- Cooking — try cooking all of your meals for the week on Sunday, instead of each evening;
- Thinking / Planning — yes you should plan to plan and think. I plan my next day daily (it’s on my Everyday list), and every Sunday have a weekly review.
- Social — try to plan social events at a time when you will be out anyway. Or try to plan social events with groups of friends and acquaintances.
Plan blocks of like activities. Capture all activities you don’t do now. Do now all activities that have a higher benefit than the marginal cost of an alternative and that batch together. Finally, go back to step one and plan blocks of like activities from the activities you captured but did not “do now.”
See here for more tips on batching activities and tasks.
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Author: Ryan Ullman
Ryan Ullman is an attorney at the boutique law firm Spence | Brierley in Baltimore, Maryland. He is particularly interested in technology, productivity, peak flow states, music, and the outdoors.