The Art of Taking Action: Use The Two Minute “Do-it-Now” Rule

The Art of Taking Action: Use The Two Minute Do-it-Now Rule

Many tasks that people tend to procrastinate on aren’t really difficult to do. People have the ability, energy, and time to undertake such tasks, but just aren’t disciplined enough to not dodge starting them for one reason or another.

One particular habit that robs people of time is putting all their tasks on a to-do list, prioritizing the list, and then tackling the tasks by priority. But it’s often wiser to skip the to-do list and simply do many tasks immediately. This constitutes the Two Minute Do-it-Now Rule, a discipline popularized by David Allen in his bestselling time management book, Getting Things Done. This rule directs you to act immediately on a contemplated task if it can be completed in less than two minutes.

  • You’ll not only save the time it takes to put the task on your to-do list, but also prevent the buildup of tasks hanging over your head.
  • By limiting the time you’re allocating to get the task done, you can finish it more efficiently and avoid being perfectionistic about it. (See my previous article on Parkinson’s Law, which states that work tends to expand to fill up the time you give it.)
  • You’ll avoid procrastination by getting the task done straightaway and not letting it fall through the cracks. Therefore, this technique has the added advantage of making you appear responsive.

Idea for Impact: Don’t put a task on your to-do list if you can get it done within two minutes. You’ll be surprised at how many tasks you tend to put off that you could get done in two minutes or less.

How to Leave Work at Work

Employees are expected to be 100% on

Leave Work at Work There was once a time when people went to work, clocked in, put in their hours, clocked out, and forgot all about work until the next day. They fully disconnected from work and took real vacations. They maintained a healthy separation between their work time and their personal time.

Alas, those good times are long gone. Today’s challenging and competitive workplace demands of people not only their stamina to work exceptionally hard but also their hearts-and-minds’ commitment to bring creativity and insight to their efforts.

The pressure to constantly prove themselves is also exacerbated by how modern society judges people by their professional and financial successes—what they do, what they’ve accomplished, and how quickly they’ve accomplished it.

People are expected to be 100% on, take work home, and check in during their vacations. The upshot is that many people have real trouble turning work off. Work-related thoughts encroach upon their off-work hours. Some even lose sleep or wake up in the middle of the night thinking about their work.

Don’t bring work home in your head

  • Get a Life. Have a life to go to after you leave work. Develop a rich social life. Invest more time in your relationships. Get involved in absorbing activities, events, and hobbies. Schedule fun activities—you’ll have something to look forward to at the end of your workday.
  • Organize your workday. Structure your schedule to prevent hustling through work towards the end of the day. Be realistic about what you want to accomplish. In the middle of the afternoon, review the tasks ahead. Prioritize, reorganize, and pace yourself to wind down your workday. Do not answer phone calls or email during the last hour.
  • Organize and prioritize your next day’s schedule before you leave your office. Clean off your desk at the end of each day. This not only brings about a feeling of order and completion, but also helps you tune down and free up your mind.
  • Create a buffer between work and home. Stop by a gym, go shopping, or visit a friend. After you get home, change clothes, go for a walk, or do something relaxing to mark the transition and create a relaxed mindset for the evening.
  • Vent if necessary. Ask your loved ones to give you a few minutes to “let it out.” Expect them to just listen and be non-judgmental.
  • Don’t bring work home. Leave your briefcase, laptop, reports, and work-related reading at your desk.
  • Disconnect. Modern technology makes it easier for you to stay connected, but also makes it more difficult than ever to leave work at work. Leave your laptop at work. Turn off email and instant messaging on your phone. Resist the temptation to check your email on the family computer. Don’t visit the business center at the hotel when you’re on vacation.
  • Delegate and cross-train your staff to handle some of your responsibilities while you’re away.
  • Stop checking in with the office, especially when you’re on vacation. Your team will get along fine without you around. Crises will get managed, production will continue, customers will continue to be satisfied, and you’ll still have your job when you return. Let your team know how to find you in a dire emergency, but ask them not to bother you with the inconsequential stuff.

Idea for Impact: Don’t let work take over your life. Establish boundaries.

Don’t let your work run you. Don’t take work home literally (in your bag/briefcase or on your laptop) or figuratively (in your head). Enjoy your downtime.

Learn to disconnect from work unreservedly and spend time with your family. Play with the kids. Quality time with your loved ones is often more rewarding than your time at work. And perhaps by doing less work, you may end up loving your job more.

Survive Stress & Manage Time Better Using Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law proclaims, “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

'Parkinson's Law, and Other Studies in Administration' by Cyril Northcote Parkinson (ISBN 0395083737) This adage’s namesake is British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who first detailed it as an opening remark in his famous 1955 The Economist essay.

Parkinson’s Law has spawned many serviceable corollaries:

  • A wardrobe expands to fill all the available closet space.
  • A hoarder’s corpus of unwanted items and junk expands to fill his available space—in closets, cabinets, attics, garage, etc.
  • Data expands to fill the space available for storage.
  • Boredom expands to fill the space and time available to an affected individual.
  • Meetings expand to fill the time available. (Appropriately, if you set an hour for the meeting, people will use the entire hour, in spite of how much is on the agenda.)
  • No matter how much money people earn, they tend to spend the entire amount and a little bit more besides.

Parkinson’s Law for Stress-Management and Time-Management

Parkinson's Law for Time Management From a stress- and time-management perspective, the functional implication of Parkinson’s Law is that tasks take as much time as you allot for them. In other words, the amount of time that you have to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task.

For example, if you have two hours to process engineering data, clean your wardrobe, bake a cake, or build a birdhouse, you are likely to fill those entire two hours performing that task, even if the task need not necessarily take as much time if you were efficient enough.

Idea for Impact: Put Bookends on Your Activities

According to Parkinson’s Law, work can contract to fill in the time you give it. You can apply artificial limitations to your work in order to finish it more efficiently. Consider setting time limits on all your activities.

Set a timer for each task you’re trying to get done. If you reckon something may take 90 minutes, set a timer for 90 minutes—or better yet, challenge yourself to be more efficient by setting a timer for 60 minutes. During that time, allow no interruptions and distractions. Keep your nose to the grindstone, apply yourself thoroughly to the task, and get it done.

For habitual procrastinators who tend to put off looming tasks to a later time and exert themselves at the “last minute” prior to an imminent deadline, one other corollary to Parkinson’s Law may be helpful: “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do,” possibly producing mediocre results.

Advice for the First-Time Manager: Whom Should You Invest Your Time With?

Advice for the First-Time Manager: Whom Should You Invest Your Time With?

Before you were a manager, success was all about your individual performance. When you become a manager, success is all about growing your employees. It is about bringing out the best in people who work for you—making them smarter, pushing them to perform better, and advancing their professional development.

As a manager and a team-leader, your performance as an individual matters in the sense of how you cultivate your team’s efficacy and foster their self-confidence through coaching and feedback. Your success will be measured less by what you do and more from the reflected glory of your team.

Given a team to manage,

  • Don’t invest the same amount of time for each employee. Treat employees differently, based on their responsibilities, strengths, and their developmental needs. Do spend some time every week chatting with each employee. Then prioritize and invest more time with:
    • those who ask for your help.
    • those who need your help, but may not ask for it—especially those employees who may be struggling with some assignments because of their weaknesses.
    • those who are transitioning into their roles or may be experiencing changes.
    • those whose ideas and performance have the biggest impact to the organization—now or in the future.
    • those competent employees who understand the responsibility you’ve assigned them and the results expected. Especially with employees who need little help and direction getting things done, focus on ensuring that your expectations and priorities align with theirs.
  • Give your employees the freedom and responsibility to do their jobs. Set high standards and make them accountable for achieving the results.
  • Give your employees continuous, timely feedback: not just during the HR-required mid-year or end-of-year performance reviews. Thoughtfully use every meeting, design review, brainstorming, project closure, or client-presentation as a teaching moment.

To Become Time-Conscious, Always Ask, “Is It a Priority?”

To Become Time-Conscious, Always Ask, 'Is It a Priority?'

As I wrote in my three-part series on time logging, time analyzing, and time budgeting, life is all about values and the relative priorities you attach to these values.

Priorities imply choice; you get to make a choice in almost everything you do. Every choice involves tradeoffs: when you choose to do something, it implies that you choose not do something else.

Before being sucked into doing anything, ask, “Is this the best use of my time?”

Another way to think about this is in terms of “opportunity cost.” Everything in life has an opportunity cost. Whenever you take up one opportunity, you forfeit another. When you choose to go to a movie with a friend, it means you aren’t going to the library to work on a research paper that’s due next week. When you choose to spend this month’s savings on new furniture, it means you can’t add to your retirement account. So, when making decisions about anything, keep opportunity costs in mind. Be aware of what you’re giving up.

One of the most important choices you make—often subconsciously—is how you use your time, which is your most important resource. Before doing anything, be aware of what you are giving up; decide whether the benefits are worth the time you’re investing in the task.

The Nagging “5-5-5” Questions

Is It a Priority Poor time management often has less to do with your packed schedule than with your indecisive, unorganized, or undisciplined mind. To improve your life, stop wasting time on things that don’t matter. Have a little voice in your head that constantly nags you by asking the following “5-5-5” questions:

  • Is this a priority?
  • Will this matter in 5 days?
  • Will this matter in 5 months?
  • Will this matter in 5 years?

The “5-5-5” questions will prevent you from being caught up in little tasks and trivialities that aren’t truly important.

Idea for Impact: Be time conscious; constantly ask yourself, “Is this time-effective?”

According to my world’s shortest course on time management, “There are countless things you can do. There are numerous things you want to do. There are several things others expect you to do. There are many things you think you are supposed to do. However, there are only a few things that you must do. Focus on those and avoid the rest.”

As I mentioned in my article “don’t say ‘yes’ when you really want to say ‘no’,” don’t be vulnerable enough to be pulled along by forces that are beyond your control. Be accommodating when you can and assertive when you must. Be intentional about how you choose to use our time. Your life depends on it.

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

“He who every morning plans the transactions of the day and follows out that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life. The orderly arrangement of his time is a like a ray of life which darts itself through all his occupations. But where no plan is laid, where the disposal of time is surrendered merely to the chance of incident, chaos will soon reign.”
Victor Hugo

“A Guaranteed Formula for Success”

Ivy Lee's A popular legend recalls a time management trick that efficiency expert Ivy Lee showed to Charles Michael Schwab (1862—1939,) the American steel magnate and President of Bethlehem Steel, then the second largest steel manufacturer in the United States.

Lee famously advised Charles Schwab and his managers to list and rank their top priorities every day, and work on tasks in the order of their importance as time allows, not proceeding until a task was completed. After implementing the suggestion, Charles Schwab famously said that Lee’s method for managing priorities had been the most profitable advice he had ever received and paid him $25,000.

When Charles Schwab was president of Bethlehem Steel, he confronted Ivy Lee, a management consultant, with an unusual challenge. “Show me a way to get more things done,” he demanded. “If it works, I will pay you anything within reason.”

Lee handed Schwab a piece of paper. “Write down the things you have to do tomorrow.”

When Schwab had completed the list, Lee said, “Now number these items in the order of their real importance.”

Schwab did, and Lee said, “The first thing tomorrow morning, start working on number one and stay with it until it’s completed. Then take number two, and don’t go any further until it’s finished or until you’ve done as much with it as you can. Then proceed to number three and so on. If you can’t complete everything on schedule, don’t worry. At least you will have taken care of the most important things before getting distracted by items of less importance.

“The secret is to do this daily. Evaluate the relative importance of the things you have to get done, establish priorities, record your plan of action, and stick to it. Do this every working day. After you have convinced yourself that this system has value, have your people try it. Test it as long as you like, and then send me a check for whatever you think the idea is worth.”

Mary Kay Ash Helped Her Beauty Consultants Juggle Spouse, Children, and Career

'You Can Have It All' by Mary Kay Ash (ISBN 0761501622) Mary Kay Ash, American beauty products entrepreneur and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, had a variation to this technique. In You Can Have It All, she writes:

Each night, I put together my list for the following day. If I don’t get something on my list accomplished, it goes on the next day’s list. I put the hardest or most unappealing task at the top of the list. This way, I tackle the most difficult item first, and once it’s out of the way, I feel my day is off to a good start.

Mary Kay Ash taught her cosmetics sales consultants this technique of prioritizing their work and thus avoid being stretched too thin. Most of Mary Kay’s cosmetics sales consultants were women filling multiple roles as mother, wife, and businesswoman.

We try very hard to get our consultants to organize themselves. The best way I have found is a little pad of paper we issue called “The Six Most Important Things.” I teach consultants to write down the six most important things they have to do the next day every night before they go to bed. I suggest that people organize things by priority. First, put the thing they most don’t want to do at the top. Then write down the six most important things—not sixteen, because this is frustrating, but six.

Idea for Impact: Squeeze the Most out of Your Day

The best way to start your day is by accomplishing something instead of fiddling around with email or contemplating the day’s priorities. So, every evening, before you leave the office, write down the most important tasks you’ve got to get done the next day. Leave it on your desk along with any support material you need to work on it. This will help you get rolling first thing in the morning.

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Save Yourself from Email Overload by Checking Email Just Three Times a Day

Email, instant messages, and alerts have evolved into our primary mode of communication. From project management to socializing, everything at work and in our personal lives centers on electronic messages. Many of us have found the unending tide of these messages unmanageable.

Research has shown that checking messages just a few times a day can help reduce stress and prevent the feeling of being incessantly ‘invaded’ by emails.

If you feel weary, annoyed, and unproductive from a daily deluge of messages, try the following techniques to regulate your electronic communication.

  • Turn off alerts on all your devices. Productivity studies have shown that people take 15 minutes on average to return to serious mental tasks (thinking about a project, writing reports, or debugging computer code, for example) after being interrupted by an incoming email or an instant message.
  • Maintain a zero inbox, i.e. consistently process all incoming email and get your inbox to zero messages. See my previous article on this productivity technique.
  • Set up and use subject-specific folders to hold your incoming and sent messages. This makes it easier to retrieve emails later.
  • Relieve Inbox Stress and Email Overload Do not check emails continually throughout the day. Instead, process only three times a day: once in the morning, once during lunch, and then again before going home. Don’t waste the most productive hours of your day doing email.
  • Reserve time to focus on email. Set a time limit on your activities and blast through the messages without interruption. Stop when the time runs out. (Remember Parkinson’s Law: work will expand to fill the allotted time.)
  • When you process email,
    1. If you can respond to a message in less than two minutes, do so right away.
    2. If a response may need more than two minutes or you must look up information, defer it. Leave the incoming email in your inbox or file it in a ‘Draft’ folder. Dedicate the last email session of a day to respond to such emails and clear the Draft folder.
    3. Delete, file, or delegate.
    4. Process all emails and fully clear your inbox by the end of the day.
  • Tell people you correspond with the most (your boss, employees, peers) that you check email only a few times a day. Let them know that if they need to reach you immediately, they could come over to your desk or call you. If possible, encourage them to follow your email discipline.
  • Limit off-the-clock correspondence. Don’t make a ritual of catching up on work email after dinner or during the weekends.

Idea for Impact: If your inbox is driving you crazy, some discipline can help you process—not just check—emails and mitigate some stress.

Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”

Don't Say 'Yes' When You Really Want to Say 'No'

Most People Never Learn to Say “No”

Consider the case of Anna, a manager in a large accounting firm. Anna is a great team player and readily pitches in when her team’s workload gets heavy, especially during the tax season. She covers for peers when they have other commitments—personal and professional—and often stays late. Anna is a people-pleaser. She’s also one of those people who can’t say “no”: she spends too much time and energy working on others’ priorities while setting aside her own personal and professional priorities.

Consider also the case of Chuck, a selfless project manager at an engineering business. He not only passively gives in to requests to train new engineers, but also accepts all of his peer-managers’ unwanted assignments. Chuck reluctantly accedes to whatever work his boss imposes even if the task has little relation to Chuck’s span of responsibilities.

The problem with Anna and Chuck is that they cave in easily. They cannot assert themselves, stick to their guns, and bring themselves to saying “no.” Their inability to utter the simple two-letter word when they must and can makes them feel like they have no control over their life. They feel burned out and are often on the fast track to an emotional meltdown.

Learning to Say “No” Can Get You Ahead

There are many reasons people struggle with saying “no.” Some feel bound by obligation or by fear of hurting others’ feelings. Some want to be liked or be seen as team players. Yet others believe they really can do it all. Whatever the reason, this inability to say “no” can have several personal consequences.

  • Not being able to say “no” leads people into doing things they don’t respect themselves for doing. Saying “yes” becomes wrong when they want to say “no” and it is in their best interest to say “no,” but instead they resign and say, “OK, I’ll do it.”
  • Not being able to say “no” distracts people from their priorities and tasks that they really want to get completed. They become so encumbered doing the things they don’t want to do that they have neither the time nor the energy for the things that are most important to them.
  • By feeling like an overcommitted, selfless martyr and allowing other people to exploit them continually, people who struggle to say “no” may build up resentment. Often, after a long stretch of saying “yes” and doing things they don’t want to do, they may end up losing their temper and bring about an inappropriate emotional outburst.

Nice Ways to Say 'No'

Nice Ways to Say “No”

The key to saying “no” is to say it firmly, succinctly, and without an overlong explanation. Here are two examples.

  • Imagine you’ve been working on the organizing committee for an employee recognition event. Even though you’ve put in more time than anyone else on the committee has, the committee’s chair comes to you with another request, “Mark, I’m really fortunate to have you on the organizing committee. Can I count on you to go collect the recognition plaques from the store?” You could say, “No, chief. I have already done more than my share. Perhaps you should give that job to someone who hasn’t done his/her share.”
  • Sometimes, you don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. Try to defer your answer when faced with a request that you cannot accept immediately by saying, “Give me some time to think about it” or “Let me get back to you in 15 minutes.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the requester doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he/she appreciates knowing you’ve seriously considered the request.

Easy and Effective Ways to Say “No”

Here are more simple and direct ways to say “no” for you to practice.

  • “No. Let’s find another way to get it done.”
  • “No, I can’t do it on such short notice. I have something else scheduled for that time.”
  • “No, not now. I don’t feel like doing that today. I’d rather do something else.”
  • “No, I don’t know this topic well enough to do a decent job.”
  • “No, I don’t want to take on anything that I can’t fully commit to doing well.”
  • “No, I’d be happy to help in some smaller capacity. Make me a member of the committee, not the chair.”
  • “No, I have a personal policy about not working on Saturdays or not missing my evening workout.”
  • “No, it’s impossible for me to do that. Please try someone else.”
  • “No.” Sometimes the best way to say “no” is to simply and directly say “no.” Per the old adage, “Never apologize. Never explain.”

Idea for Impact: Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”

Have no regrets about having to say 'no' Have no regrets about having to say “no.” Don’t allow pangs of guilt to dictate your personal or professional life.

By asserting yourself in a decisive, direct, polite, but firm way, you can be selective about saying “yes” to your own needs and priorities. Practice saying “no.”

In an NPR This I Believe essay, Jessica Paris reflected, “sometimes saying ‘no’ is easier than saying ‘yes’ … when I need it, my strength to say ‘no’ is bolstered by knowing that every ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something else.” In other words, almost every misplaced “yes” is really a “no” to yourself. So, don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no.”

Your To-Do List Isn’t a Wish List: Add to It Selectively

Your To-Do List Isn't a Wish List

Poor time management is often not about a packed schedule as much as it is about an indecisive, unorganized, undisciplined mind that struggles with task management.

One persistent problem in time management is how people go about managing their to-do list, whether it’s a paper list, on an app/software, or just a mental record.

Unwieldy Buildup of Tasks

People find it easy to add things to their to-do lists. They tend to say yes to almost everything that is asked of them—because right when they are asked for something, saying “yes” involves nothing more than adding one more item to their already lengthy to-do lists.

What’s more, people can’t seem to complete and cross-off more than half of their to-do lists. The buildup of tasks is never-ending; for every task they complete, they tend to add a few more.

Consequently, they end up with a large, ever-growing task-list, which they postpone from one day to the next. No wonder they constantly feel besieged by work and get disheartened that there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

Take Control of Your To-Do List

  • Be very conscious about your time.
  • Be very selective with what you add to your to-do list. As I mentioned in “the world’s shortest course in time management,” focus on things that you must do and avoid everything else. “An earnest purpose finds time, or makes it. It seizes on spare moments, and turns fragments to golden account,” said American Unitarian William Ellery Channing.
  • Learn to limit the demands on your time. Don’t say yes to everything that people ask of you.
  • Favor close-ended tasks over open-ended tasks. Break down complex tasks into smaller, bite-sized tasks that can be close-ended.
  • Associate everything on your to-do list with a date, time, and duration. Instead of adding a task to your to-do list, consider scheduling it on your calendar. Scheduling forces you to consider a task’s length and to confront how much time you actually have to devote to its completion.
  • Don’t tackle the tasks that you fancy instead of the ones you really need to do. Don’t focus on smaller, insignificant tasks on the pretext of making tangible progress quickly and in an attempt to avoid doing the significant projects.
  • Don’t wait for motivation to strike. Instead, discipline yourself and launch into action. As I mentioned in my article on the “10-Minute Dash” technique to overcome procrastination, action leads to motivation, which in turn leads to more action.

When Getting a Great Deal Might Not Be Worth Your Time

Life Spent Searching for Deals

Most consumers love a deal. However, some of us spend untold time searching for the best possible bargains.

If you’re one of these obsessive bargain-hunters, unless you derive some hedonistic pleasure in snatching deals, you may not have considered the possibility that you’re putting too low a value on your time.

Perhaps you could benefit from some perspective: the time you spend hunting for deals and trying to save that last penny may not be worth it. While you can quantify how much money you save by shopping around, you may not realize the opportunity costs of deal-hunting: it often comes at the cost of your time.

You may have a vague sense of the fact that “time is money,” but this might not be telling enough. You can find the approximate value of an hour of your time by dividing your annual income by 2,000 (or, more easily, by disregarding the last three digits of your annual income and dividing the result by 2.)

Obsessive Bargain-Hunters, Coupon Craziness Based on your “hour’s worth of money” or some fraction thereof, set a cost threshold, say $15, for the cost per hour you could spend bargain-hunting. Unless you’re saving as much as this cost threshold, deal-hunting is quite simply a waste of your time and money. So, don’t poke around the internet for a better deal or follow an auction on eBay if you’re saving less than $15 per hour spent deal-hunting. Similarly, don’t run to the Costco at the other end of town just to save a dime a gallon on 20 gallons of gas.

I’ve written previously that life is all about values and the priorities you assign to those values. Therefore, decide which choices in your life really matter and focus your time and energy there. Let numerous other opportunities pass you by.

Another part of leading a wise and meaningful life is not always seeking the best but instead making good-enough choices about the things that matter and not concerning yourself too much about the things that don’t.

Idea for Impact: Don’t spend more time on a task unless it really warrants this in terms of “time-is-money.” As the American Philosopher Henry David Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”