This is from “Calm to Tuesday: 9 ways to calm the chaos and create time for the matter” by Laura Vanderkam Copyright 2022 by Portfolio and reprinted with permission.
It’s easy to turn off notifications and make a list. The biggest problem with the composure of many of Tuesday’s participants is that this regulation interferes with small things — at work and at home — with some deeply held ideas about what productivity looks like.
- “I like the idea of hiding chores. But I feel like I have a ‘I have too much on me’ mentality that makes me feel responsible if I don’t constantly take care of something.”
- “Nowadays life is more about getting things done because you can’t rely on the protection of any particular time frame.”
We want to make things. This is true of humanity in general. As for the subset of humans who read time management and productivity books? We love crossing things off the list. The physical act of crossing something creates a wonderful sense of satisfaction. In fact, I’ve been known to write things on my to-do list after I’ve done them just so I can cross things off. We travel in our heads to not put off until tomorrow what can be done today and make hay while the sun shines. Several of Tuesday’s participants cited the “two-minute rule” that comes up in many productivity texts. The idea is that if a task takes two minutes (or less), you only need to do it when you know it, so you don’t have to deal with it again.
To some extent, the two-minute rule makes sense. It may take more than two minutes for him to pull that task off a second time and get into his mental space. But there are problems with the two-minute rule that ultimately undermine its benefits.
Any two-minute task can easily turn into one of these three monsters:
- Action Hydra. Are you sure it’s just a simple two-minute task? Few people excel at timing. That two-minute task can easily turn into five or ten minutes, or it involves waiting for someone to call you back, or finding out if you need to find a different form, or printing something out while you’re doing it. I have no printer nearby. One has called this phenomenon “Active Hydra.” Cut off one head and the work grows another. Before long, you’ve actually stopped thinking about doing something else.
- The rabbit hole. It is difficult to continue the work after being distracted. Yes, it only takes a minute to email your colleague the form she asked you for but after you send that email you’ll find yourself in your inbox with a surprise. Your inbox has another shiny new unread message. You open it and start reading and…two minutes turns into twenty. And that’s if you stay in your inbox. Some people have elaborate rituals before work. Any break will check headlines, the stock market, sports scores, a couple of social media apps, and the weather. Attention becomes the exception rather than the rule.
- A delayed siren. The big problem is that the two-minute rule (or the five- or ten-minute rule) can be an easy way to procrastinate the most difficult tasks, a phenomenon that self-aware participants quickly figured out:
- “When I’m at my computer, I often do personal things—order a gift, find a bike route, etc.—because it’s easier and more fun than work.”
- I want to feel productive and small tasks make me feel accomplished, even if they distract me from the larger, more important task.
- “Sometimes I have a hard time motivating myself to do anything productive, so these little tasks come in handy.”
- “It’s good to have something to ‘sign off’ when I’m feeling down. Sometimes there is value in this, but often I have to sit down and dig through the hard stuff.
The events of “Task Hydra” and “Rabbit Hole” may consume time, but in the end this last monster is very dangerous. Sometimes if you’re contemplating a composition, you just need to see a screen, or a notebook, or piano keys, or sitting on a canvas. You need to sit with anxiety while your brain works to figure out what to do. When you give yourself an easy win, you deprive yourself of the big win of breaking through. And yes, you need breaks, it’s probably better to stop answering emails altogether.
One person wrote: “If I feel like my mind is stuck, I want to get up and stretch or go for a walk. As you go for a walk, your mind slowly weaves your various threads together. I am refreshed and back with an answer. In the grand scheme of things, this makes better sense than crossing six meaningless items off a to-do list.
Time Management: The One Habit All Successful Entrepreneurs Learn To Master
Three hour rule
If it’s not just the “two-minute rule,” then what is it? A few years ago, one of my wise blog readers shared what she called the “Three Hour Rule,” which gave her a way to get things done both big and small.
Every day, she spends a few minutes checking email and planning her work schedule, and is quiet from 9 a.m. to noon. She turns off all notifications, closes her inbox, turns off her phone and focuses entirely on her biggest problem of the day. She emerges into the world at lunchtime and spends the rest of the day on calls, meetings, administrative work and so on. Following the “three hour rule”, she still completed all her two minute tasks. But she has made progress on her major projects.
I know that not all jobs are the same. Many professions, from medicine to construction to retail, do not fit this mold. Even people in the know-how may be coming up with reasons why the three-hour rule never works. And maybe not. But would that change your mind if we let you call from the school nurse, daycare, or your spouse? What if you had an honest conversation with your manager about saving time to focus? Have you ever felt unreachable on a three-hour flight? Or even ninety minutes? Did the earth stop spinning?
To change your daily life, change your narrative
Sometimes, we get addicted to being busy, and we have to do one thing or the other constantly. I don’t have time to think about my next career move because I have to answer all these meeting questions! I can’t meet my friend or write that book proposal because I have to buy light bulbs and mail that package and . . . Consciously pushing these activities into a smaller window means there is time for other things. This sounds great, but acknowledging that there is time for other things can mean changing the narrative. And changing a narrative is hard. Changing narratives may require changing identities. I am no longer a martyr who does everything for others. I am someone who is having fun or making progress on my professional goals, but not because of my choices.
In the end, there are no prizes for enjoying your life a little.
“Calm Until Tuesday” can be purchased via StartupNation at the link below.
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