You walk into work and you're just about to #coffeeup. You have energy—or at least you will have it soon. Ever the good corporate citizen, wanting to remain responsive to customers and coworkers, you open your email. You dive in. You put out fires. You connect people together who really need to talk. You recommend the perfect article to someone stuck who needed your help. You outline an idea for a new feature and send it to everyone for their comments. You get through it all. You're a machine. You feel great!

Then you look at the clock. That took five hours, eighteen minutes. Uh... lunch?

Never Check Email in the Morning

This looks to most people like an email problem. Maybe so. Maybe you've heard of some of the tricks: don't respond to things that don't explicitly ask for a response, write concisely, write if-then emails... even never check email in the morning. You can find entire manifestos related to using email "properly". I mostly like most of this advice, and you can find millions of articles on the topic of managing email better.

I just don't think of this as an email problem.

Just Five More Minutes...

Even if you're not a programmer—but especially if you are a programmer—you know the feeling. You want a sense of completion. You start something, and it takes a while, but you need to finish, so you soldier on. You think you've finished, but you think of one more little thing to do. Five more minutes, you think. Then you get through that tough bit, you breathe a sigh of relief, then realise that you've thought of one other really good, little thing to do. Five more minutes, you think.

Five more minutes... then you're two hours late getting home. Or four.

Welcome to the Fundamental Irony of Flow:

When you reach a flow state, you lose track of time, which makes it awfully difficult to manage your time effectively, which, of course, you do precisely in order to make it easier to reach a flow state.

Now do you see it? This is exactly how many people approach email, and it absolutely kills their productivity. And this isn't an email problem.

So What Kind of Problem Is It, Smart Guy?

Let me ask you this: when you start responding to email, why do you so often keep going until you've answered it all? You probably do it because you want the email out of your way so that you can do some real work. I feel the same way. I don't want that stuff hanging over my head. So far, so good.

Now let me ask you this: when you think you've finished something, and then you think of something else related to that worth doing, why do you so often simply do it now? You probably don't need to do it now. You might not even want to do it now. So why do you do it now? I can guess that you do it now because you don't want that task to fall through the cracks, like so many other tasks before it. Similarly, you don't want that stuff hanging over your head, so you just do it.

Bad idea. This attitude causes you to spend five hours, eighteen minutes handling email before you start doing your real work. This attitude tricks you into spending four hours doing "five more minutes" of work. You have to stop!

You have been doing real work—just in an awfully haphazard sequence. By responding in full to all those emails, you've treated a large amount your "real work" as though the recency of the request magically imbued it with urgency. Mostly false urgency. This has to stop!

In the five hours, eighteen minutes that you spent responding to email, you probably did a solid four hours of real work, and I'm willing to guess that three hours, forty-two minutes of it didn't need to be done today. You did it for no reason other than it was fresh in your mind. Once again, freshness in your mind does not magically make the work urgent! No wonder you feel buried under a mountain of work—you're doing the wrong work! Stop it, or I'll bury you alive in a box!

One Weird Trick To the Rescue

You'll kick yourself. Use this trick especially when you process your email inbox. I didn't invent the trick; I learned it from David Allen's Getting Things Done. He calls it The Two-Minute Rule.

When work arrives at your door, if you can't avoid it and you can do it in two minutes or less, then do it now; otherwise, schedule it for later.

Simple. Elegant. You can start doing this absolutely right now.

Of course, since you've been paying attention, you're already wondering how you "schedule it for later"? Read "Getting Started with Getting Things Done" for a short answer before reading Getting Things Done for a longer answer.

Now be careful: remember the Fundamental Irony of Flow. You probably underestimate the time it takes to finish a task. You probably start a task that you expect to take two minutes, and it takes five or eight or even twenty. No problem. When you discover that you've spent more than two minutes on the task, stop it and schedule it to finish later. Even when this seems like a silly thing to do. I know it feels weird, but trust me. You're ingraining a habit and sometimes that means doing things that hurt short-term productivity in order to improve longer-term productivity. (We call that investing.) Over time, you'll get a better feel for what takes two minutes. You could even set a timer to help you become accustomed to how quickly two minutes passes. (It's stupid and it works!)

If I Have 100 Emails at Two Minutes Each...

...yes, I can feel you doing the arithmetic. Don't panic. Not every email needs two minutes of your precious attention. Every email now takes at most two minutes to handle. Many of them take 30 seconds. Some only five. (Delete!) You could get through 100 emails in less than an hour. The 90 people who don't need an urgent-to-the-minute response from you won't notice a delay. The 10 people who need a holyshitrightnow! answer will get one, because you'll have marked their emails as "respond right away"—even the ones that need more than two minutes of work—and with your email inbox no longer hanging over your head, you'll find it much easier to devote your full attention to answering them. No more giving an important email short shrift just because there are 87 others behind it that you just want to get through. Everybody, it would seem, wins.

Summary

If you find tasks getting away from you and that causes other, more significant or more urgent tasks to wait, then use the Two-Minute Rule to escape the treadmill of false urgency.

  • When someone interrupts you to ask a question or get your help, apply the Two-Minute Rule.
  • When you process your email inbox, apply the Two-Minute Rule.
  • When someone gives you urgent work to do, apply the Two-Minute Rule. (Surely even urgent work can wait long enough for you to get what you've been working on out of your head, so that you can get back to it later.)
  • When you look at what you need to get done today, do a handful of Two-Minute tasks first. That's a Quick Win and an energy boost! (Almost as good as the coffee.)

For everything that takes longer than two minutes, you need other strategies. I have some, if that would interest you. Let me know at tell.jbrains.ca.

References

J. B. Rainsberger, "Getting Started with Getting Things Done". What should you do after you've starting using the Two-Minute Rule? What do you with the tasks that don't fit in two minutes? Read this little guide next.

David Allen, Getting Things Done. If you're ready to dive into the deep end, then buy and read this book. Take your time. Trust the system, even the silly-sounding parts. This requires ingraining habits, so give it at least a little time every day. It feels counterintuitive in places; that's OK. I felt weird about it at times, too.

Julie Morgenstern, Never Check E-Mail in the Morning. It's not one that I hear others talk about, but I really enjoyed it. Although I've said here that you don't really have an email problem, you might also have an email problem. I did, and this book helped.

John Kotter, A Sense of Urgency. If you see false urgency all around you, then you need this book.