The curse of the eternally urgent

How long is two-minutes? Longer than you think. I have, I like to think, an active mind, but I find brushing my teeth for two minutes twice a day (as the dental butchers recommend) interminably long and a ‘waste’ of time (in the sense that I am doing nothing else).

But the two-minute rule is core to GTD. The idea is that if something turns up during the capture/collect or process phases that would take less than two-minutes to complete, then do it there and then. Done. Dusted. Two-minuted.

The problem I have with this is that I could easily spend my day doing two-minuters and get nothing really important done. Basically, I think I could easily just fire-fight for days, dealing with urgent stuff. Because everything is urgent, right? I mean, that’s why we do it – because it’s urgent, not because it needs to be done? And urgent as defined by whom? Mostly other people, at a guess. We respond to those emails that have the red ! attached to them first. Always. Don’t we? So urgent by other people’s standards, if we’re honest….

There’s a whole other post in dealing with the way other people approach work, so I will suspend my ranting for a moment.

Back to the two-minute rule. I read the following blog post the other day by David Allen. In it, he talks about his two-minute rule.

Ignoring secondarily important actions and projects, because you are too busy with urgent things, fosters continual crisis management. This approach never self-corrects; it self-perpetuates. Where do fires and crises come from? Usually from not-so-urgent things that people ignore because they are distracted by the crises of the moment. The actions and projects that were ignored cause the next fires and crises…

Embedded in that is a key principle. The two-minute actions need doing only if they are important enough to do. This goes back to what I was saying about other people creating urgency where, perhaps, there is none. The other key thing to note is that if we deal only with ‘urgent’ things, then other at-that-time-not-so-urgent things get left. They later become urgent. Allen goes on to say:

… Someone heard second hand about my “two-minute rule” (if the action on something takes less than two minutes, do it as soon as you look at or think of it) and thought it was ineffective. “I’d waste my whole day doing 2-minute things, many of which are not that important.” My retort was: if they’re not important enough to do, they’re not important enough to do at all! …

We all have (as Allen puts it) ‘weird windows of time’ when we can do a two-minute thing. He’s saying simply use that time well. In the end, it’s not about doing the urgent things because they are just that, urgent, but about doing the important things in a timely manner.

I could go on about GTD and lists – the heart of it all is to know what two-minute actions you might have open to you when you are between longer phases of ‘doing’. Mr Allen puts it better than I could:

…My “total life to-do list,” with me all the time, provides me with lots of options to optimize my productivity wherever and whenever. It creates much more smooth sailing through the mundane day-to-dayness of life. It breaks the cycle of the eternally urgent.
A crisis should be a crisis. Urgent things should be urgent. And they should be exceptional…

So, back to me brushing my teeth. I’ll be honest, I’m still not sure I know what to do with those two minutes, twice a day. Perhaps just focussing on brushing my teeth is enough?

Now, if they could only invent a toothbrush phone. Or a mirror with built in television/computer screen………

All the quotes were taken from David Allen’s newsletter:  Productive Living.


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