I used to have this horrible habit of leaving emails that I didn’t want to respond to in my inbox. Every day I’d open the emails I could quickly handle while leaving the rest of them unanswered. Over time I’d start to compile a list of email dread, with important inquiries and other matters just getting pushed farther and farther down my inbox. I was a class A workaholic, putting in 10-12 hour days consistently, but I’d always find something less important that kept me busy but working on the wrong things.
Strangely, more often than not, these emails in which I dreaded for days or weeks only ended up taking a few minutes to handle. Sure, in some cases the emails were quite long and tedious to handle, but the vast majority of them only required a little bit of thought and perhaps a small reply to advance it along. I arrived at a peculiar conclusion, that procrastination started by my brain’s instant refusal to even give it one moment of thought as to what the next action might be.
I had a little epiphany when it dawned on me that most procrastination we encounter throughout our lives is the instant refusal to even ponder for a moment what the task or project might require. This refusal of even just a minutia of thought can lead to a cascade of problems in our personal and work lives.
This is partly what David Allen set out to solve with his book, Getting Things Done. In it, Allen describes an entire philosophy on productivity along with a slew of helpful techniques and tools to improve your own. One technique he expounds on is the “2-minute rule”: Always complete a task if doing so would take 2-minutes or less.
We often think our inability to perform a task is related to having low motivation or willpower, but in fact, most of our day-to-day decisions are directed by external cues that trigger certain thoughts and unconscious habits; such as procrastination.
I would sometime later learn I wasn’t alone in my war against procrastination.
The technical term for a practice like procrastination in behavioral economics is “hyperbolic discounting,” or the tendency to choose a lesser reward now over a greater reward in the future. When we delay tasks or projects until mere hours from their deadlines, what we are really choosing to do is reward our present self at the expense of our future self. It might be fine once, but it easily turns into a bad habit that impedes our ability to work efficiently.
When we procrastinate, we’re simply choosing to reward our present self over the future self, and it can easily turn into a bad habit that affects our ability to work efficiently.
While there are a number of reasons why we might procrastinate, the most familiar tool at our disposal to combat the tendency is the dreaded deadline. Deadlines act as a “pre-commitment device”—or more accurately a form of torture—that ensure there are enough consequences for failure to motivate us to succeed. The problem with this method is that, though effective, it is probably the worst way to actually get work done. That, I’m sure, is a relief to everyone. But if deadlines aren’t the answer, then what is?
Well, how do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time of course! This saying, though popular, rarely works its way into our practice, but it really is infinitely easier to work in small chunks. In fact, there’s a multiplier force at play when we just get ourselves to spend a few minutes of effort on something, rather than rushing through it when we’re mere hours away from the deadline.
An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
-Newton's First Law
The desire to want to complete something we’ve already started is called the “Zeigarnik Effect.” We can take advantage of this built-in, neurological behavior by committing yourself to do things in an amount of time our lizard brain will deem so easy it won’t put up a fight.
There are 3 ways to utilize the 2-minute rule:
1. If <2 Minutes or Less, just DO IT.
It’s far too easy to avoid doing things that would only take us a few minutes to do, yet it can be such an easy mental habit to establish. I used to think I could never make my bed when I woke, let alone brush my teeth in the morning, but after enough successful attempts it’s turned into a habit that requires no willpower, and it takes less than 2-minutes.
For example, when I use my productivity workflow to sort through my email inbox, most emails that require further thought, deliberation or effort will be sent to my Todoist task application for further prioritization. However, if that email can be handled with a very small amount of effort, I’ll get it out of the way before needing to task it. This is by far a much more effective technique than anything else I’ve encountered, as it deliberately designed to minimize the potential for procrastination in the future.
2. Minimum Effective Efforts in 2-Minutes
While not always, procrastination often stems just from fear of the unknown. When we don’t know how to do something or how long it will take, we tend to discount it as something we’ll just do later, or in most cases, never. We’ve all encountered this when we found ourselves near the deadline for a task we’ve been dreading, only for it to take a very minimal amount of effort to complete.
“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.”
In most cases, the amount of effort something takes is something we just need to find time to think about. Think of it like this, whenever a new task pops up, we have a mini flight or fight reaction in our amygdala. If push it off we’re fleeing but the better option might simply be to sit there and think about what you need to do in order to accomplish that goal or objective.
Whereas I used to put things off for weeks sometimes, simply because I never wanted to put an ounce of effort into asking myself what it would actually entail, now I’m able to recognize that fight or flight reaction and I just spend at least 2 minutes brainstorming what I might have to learn, contact or do and just write it down in the task notes before moving on to something else.
3. Climb the Habit Success Spiral
When it comes to building habits, it can be pretty disparaging at times when it seems we can’t get ourselves to change. One of the problems is that we tend to focus on unattainable goals for our source of motivation, and when we fail to eat right or exercise for a few days, we succumb to the what-the-hell effect and give up on our objective all-together.
Therefore, it’s important to remember that most of the effort we put into something is just in getting started. When you define a minimum system (2-minute habit) as a way of achieving your objective, then it becomes much easier to work from there.
Instead of committing to writing a whole book, I might commit to writing 30 minutes a day or 1000 words per day. If I find myself consistently failing at that then I’ll lower the number of minutes or words as much as necessary to the point it becomes stupid-simple-easy to do. There have been times I needed to lower my intentional thought or actions towards a task to 2-minutes simply to convince myself to expend a little mental energy towards it.
On the weekends I don’t feel like meditating my usual 20-minutes in the morning, but a 1-minute meditation is good enough for me. Often I end up going longer, but knowing I will equally love and accept myself after only 1-minute of meditating is the base-line to establishing new positive habits to build into your daily routine.
The suggestion to stop a task after just two minutes of effort might seem ridiculous, but it can be surprisingly effective. The key though is the willingness to show some self-compassion if you aren’t able to finish the task in that two-minute allotment. I’ve found I become less effective if I berate or force myself to work on something for longer than I like. Do what you can in 2 minutes, and be proud of the inertia you were able to expend towards it. Over time, you’ll find yourself able to accomplish more on some days, but 2-minutes will be so measly that even on your worst days you’ll still be able to keep that habit chain going.
The Key to Success is Self-Compassion
Nobody is perfect, yet it’s hard to give ourselves compassion when we only see the best side of everybody’s Facebook or Instagram feed. This tendency to idolize others based on their external
We tend to idolize this fake version of others which leaves us with this constant feeling of inadequacy. Combine this low confidence in ourselves and a failure to change our good habits for bad ones can create a never-ending spiral downwards.
As we should know by now, most of what we call procrastination is just in the getting-started phase, and this can translate into making better decisions, feeling more accomplished and establishing good habits.
This means that when it comes to building habits, focus on creating the minimally viable routine that you can sustain even on your worst days.
For me, this translates into the following:
- Exercise (Minimum 10 minute treadmill walk in the gym)
- Meditate (Minimum 1-minute Meditation)
- Reading (Minimum 10 minute reading)
Each day I typically accomplish much more than this minimum, but by making the minimum so ridiculously small and pairing it with a version of myself that is still content if I only do the bare minimum was all I needed to create these activities as daily habits.
Of course, shit happens and I don’t always get every routine in, but by having the bar set so low, the habit is established and it’s easier to start a positive feedback loop.
By focusing on establishing a minimal system of consistency, it’s easier to build momentum and the so-called willpower muscle.
Over time, your small wins will snowball into much bigger successes, and it all starts with 2-minutes.
"Stress Prayer: Grant me the stubbornness to struggle against things I cannot change; the inertia to avoid work on my own behaviors and attitudes which I can change, and the foolishness to ignore the differences between external events beyond my control and my own controllable reactions. But most of all, grant me a contempt for my own human imperfection and the limits of human control."
- The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play