How to Cut Your To-Do List in Half

One of the most helpful time management principles I have found is David Allen’s Two-Minute Rule. The basic concept is that you take immediate action on anything that can be done in two minutes or less. This is the key to becoming more productive.

A Vintage, Analog Stopwatch in Hand - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/slobo, Image #8116718

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/slobo

To implement this, you should do these kinds of actions NOW. Why? Because it will take longer than two minutes to write the action down on your to-do list, organize it, get back up to speed later, and complete the task. Instead of going through that whole rigmarole, you just do it and move on to the next task. It is a huge productivity booster. And it will keep your to-do lists much shorter.

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How can you cut your to-do list in half? Here are four strategies:

  1. Understand the five basic decisions. With any given input, there are only five actions you can take:
    • You can DO it by taking action now yourself.
    • You can DELEGATE it to someone else who is better qualified or has the bandwidth.
    • You can DEFER (or schedule) it to do later.
    • You can FILE it for later reference.
    • You can DELETE it and forget about it.
  2. Make a decision and then act. This is the most important part—make a decision. Most of the decisions you and I make are not that consequential. You can afford to be wrong occasionally. It is better to make a decision and move on than waste precious time trying to get it right. (Obviously, I am not talking about big decisions that require significant risk or investment.)
  3. Don’t second-guess yourself. This is unproductive. You can spend an inordinate amount of time questioning your decisions. What is past is past. Let it go. Don’t get bogged down in “the paralysis of analysis.” Learn what you can and keeping moving. Like someone once observed, “It is easier to steer a car that is moving than one that is parked.”
  4. Set a time-limit. Parkinson’s Law states: “work expands to the time allotted for it.” For example, I may go online right before lunch, say 11:00 a.m. I then give myself 30 minutes to process the emails that have accumulated since I checked earlier that morning. On average, I can go through 70 emails in this amount of time. The deadline helps me be more productive.

You will get better with practice. Consciously try to implement this principle. Nike got it right with their slogan: “Just do it!” This applies to task management as well.

Questions: How many items are currently on your to-do list? How many could you have eliminated if you had just taken the action when it first appeared?
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  • http://geoffreywebb.wordpress.com/ Geoff Webb

    I'll be honest, I struggle with the 2-minute rule. I'm wired more to think and plan and muse than actually get anything done. When I actually buckle down and commit to the 2-minute rule, the benefit I notice more than a shorter task list is the momentum it helps me build. I then use that momentum to ram into the bigger projects I need to tackle. Thanks for the reminder!

    Oh, and setting a timer used to be a "good idea" for me; now that I'm married with two kids, working full time, and writing a book – it's absolutely essential!

    • Michael Hyatt

      This is a good reminder that there are different personality types. This comes easier to some than others. Thanks.

    • http://modernservantleader.com/ Ben Lichtenwalner

      Geoff, I think you make a great point on the timer. I too, use this approach, though mine is typically virtual. I block time on my calendar for many things. I also book time for my administrative tasks (that take more than 2 minutes, but less than roughly 15 each) once a week.

  • http://www.meghmiller.com Megan Miller

    Great post! It's good to be reminded of these simple, but effective strategies. "Make a decision and then act on it" is my favorite–it challenges me to not think I'm more important than I am. Ironically, that frees me up to be "important" when I need to be.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Excellent point, Meg.

  • djordanlane

    I've been working on this issue consciously for the last few weeks trying to overcome the third D on the list: defer. It's so easy to defer everything for later. So I've been asking myself this question, "Is this ___ worth my time twice?" Usually the answer is no. If I'm putting items away, rather than stopping short of their final destination, I put the socks all the way in the drawer, go ahead and hang the blouse, take the Windex back to the cabinet, etc. Those few extra seconds of effort make for a happier trip through the house rather than seeing items everywhere needing my attention again, thus my TO DO list has just been shortened.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I should have expanded on “defer.” I don't mean “procrastinate.” By defer I mean intentionally putting this action on your to-do list (because it will take longer than two minutes) or scheduling on your calendar (because it has to happen at a specific time). Thanks!

  • http://www.colinfaulknerblog.com Colin Faulkner

    I've recently read David Allen's book after hearing about him from you. It's been a huge help to me in getting things done. I've passed his book along to my boss as well. Thanks for turning me onto him. I've also found his podcasts on iTunes very helpful as well.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, his method is excellent. I am a big believer.

  • http://www.epicparent.tv Chris Spradlin

    Great post Michael, thank you! Another great resource is the book, "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. It can be pretty detailed, but a good resource!

    • Michael Hyatt

      Agreed. Here's the link to the book: Getting Things Done.

    • http://modernservantleader.com/ Ben Lichtenwalner

      I agree – I got this one on audio as it is a good reminder from time-to-time. In fact, I think I need it again these days. Time to break out the ipod.

  • http://successbeginstoday.org/wordpress John Richardson

    Great productivity point, Mike. I generally adhere to the two minute rule, except when it comes to focused time and other people's urgencies. When I'm working in a focused manner, I don't let much of anything draw me away from my allotted task. That is the secret of focused time… working on ONE thing for an allotted time period. I also draw the line when my phone at work is ringing with urgent (but not important) service calls. Most of the calls I can certainly do in under two minutes, but then I become a firefighter… constantly putting out little fires on the spur of the moment. For those calls I put a quick note in my daily planner, and work on a group of them in a focused manner at a later time. Much less stress that way.

    • Michael Hyatt

      In our interconnected, always-on world, it takes real intention to focus. Thanks for the concrete examples.

  • http://www.marydemuth.com marydemuth

    Many of these are your techniques for zeroing out your inbox. That has helped me tremendously. My colleagues think I'm crazy, or they comment about their 1000 emails they haven't tackled yet. Perhaps I'm too much of a neatnick (in an email sense) to be able to let them pile up. But I can say, dealing with emails swiftly has changed my work life. Thank you, Michael, for such tangible help.

    • Michael Hyatt

      Yes, these are indeed much the same, primarily, I guess, because most of our requests for action now come via email. Thanks, Mary.

  • http://www.LaurindaOnLeadership.com Laurinda

    right now, I'm a Nike girl – 'JUST DO IT'. I start at the top of the list and go through it. Anything not completed today gets moved to the top tomorrow's list. I rarely let things roll over for more than 2 days. If it does, then I'll evaluate if I really need to do it.

  • http://www.yuzzi.com Rick Yuzzi

    Some good advice, thanks. I definitely need to keep the time-limit in mind.

  • http://thatguykc.wordpress.com ThatGuyKC

    You took the words right out of my mouth. These are some amazing tips and I've shared this post with all my coworkers.

    Thanks!!

    • Michael Hyatt

      You are welcome! Thanks for sharing the post with your co-workers.

  • http://www.soninthefaith.blogspot.com Evan Bell

    The to-do list holds a lot of dreaded tasks. I have to work up enough courage to get through some of those tasks. And the more I sit and look at that to-do list, the more tense I become. The two-minute rule is great! Not only will it make you more productive, your stress level should decrease as well.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I'm with you. Taking action takes the fear out of it, too.

  • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

    Somewhat off-topic, but related to one particular word in your post:

    I don't like it—in fact, I consider it impolite—when somebody comes across a typo or any other obvious error in any of my own blog posts and then omits to inform me about it.

    Of course, the reason no one ever alerts other people of their typos is that once one does that, one runs the risk of being branded as a negative, nitpicking wisenheimer who gets off on pointing out little flaws in others.

    So this is my dilemma whenever I come across a typo in someone's else's writings:

    In the spirit of "Do unto others as you would to yourself," I'm feel an instant impulse to alert them. However, experience has taught me that few things will get me in the doghouse faster with a person than alerting them to an orthographical or grammatical misstep.

    So what to do when coming across a typo in somebody else blog post? To tell or not to tell?

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

      "I'm feel" … thanks, I caught that one myself :)

    • Michael Hyatt

      I never mind this. I always get emails from people and an occasional comment. I never resent it or blacklist them. I consider it a favor.

      • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

        OK. Well, here it is:

        It is better to make a decision and move on that waste precious time trying to get it right.

        • Michael Hyatt

          Got it. Thanks. It is now fixed. (And you weren't even blacklisted!)

          • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

            Well, I'll keep trying. In the end, I always find a way to get myself blacklisted :)

            Anyhow, I took the liberty of weaving your little typo into an entire blog entry of my own, and I worked in a link to your site. Thank you for the inspiration, because this is an issue I had wanted to address for a while. (If only for the fun of addressing it.)

  • http://http:faithfulfeet.byethost3.com Haelie

    I just have to say that you are a plethora of resourceful information.

    Thank you for being so generous with your unending quiver full of life lessons.

  • http://videoworshipbackgrounds.com Worship Backgrounds

    Moments to learn, a lifetime to master. Going from 1200 to 0 in your inbox is a great feeling. Going from 12 to 0 in your inbox repeatedly loses much of its appeal after a short while.

    The single biggest help to me has been a giant whiteboard on the wall to track projects (a project being anything that takes more than two tasks to complete). Especially when pumping out tons of videos, it's great to be able to glance up and see where a client is in the journey toward completion.

  • rodneydwalker

    Thanks for the helpful tips!

  • http://boulderfallcolors.blogspot.com oryoki

    On the related subject of cutting to do lists in half Alyce Santoro hosts a FaceBook page entitled Use Half Now Campaign. Just as it sounds her idea is to use half, which would logically reduce your do by half as well. Take a peek: http://www.facebook.com/pages/USE-HALF-NOW-CAMPAI

  • http://www.faithfreaks.com Nick F.

    great post, this is exactly what I needed to read today.

  • http://twitter.com/LonnObee @LonnObee

    Love David Allen's stuff…need to work on actually DOING the things he suggests. Especially that whole weekly review part. Great post!

  • http://davidknapp.mosaicmercy.com David Knapp

    How many items are on my to do list? What to do list? Mine is in my head which isn't the best place for it to be. When I have actually had a to do list in the past, I often put way too much on it. This ends up overwhelming me and then I don't do the to do list at all.

    This two minute rule sounds great. This would help me from getting my to do list too full.

  • http://www.thegetintentionalmovement.com Ryan Jenkins

    David Allen is the man!

    The problem most people get into is that they do not have an established system/process so when they receive information they do not know the next steps to executing on the info. It's so critical to get intentional on the front end to establish those process so that one is prepared when the to dos and info come in they have a systematic way to achieve the next step.

    Michael, thx for highlighting David's great concepts!

  • http://AandBCounseling.com Don Ibbitson

    I'm going to try the 2 minute gig. Intriguing. I'm a "ready-fire-aim" kind of guy anyway so this sounds like a good fit.

  • http://barbarashallue.typepad.com Barbara

    I already do this and still have a zillion things on my to-do list. sigh.

  • http://dewittrobinson.com dewittrobinson

    Great tips! BTW my wife loves the book from author/advertiser Stormie Omartian.

  • http://twitter.com/KareyShane @KareyShane

    My husband laughed and said he has a "better" way: Add all the things you've accomplished that day to half of your list, so no matter what kind of day you've had, you can always cut it in half and feel good about what you've done. We both like your two minute rule, though. A lot.

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  • http://wesleyverhoeve.com Wesley Verhoeve

    Love this method and have been using it successfully (at times) for two year now! Thanks for sharing Michael!

  • http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org Jeff Goins

    Love this list. I’m a big fan of making decisions and if it’s the wrong one, making another. Much more efficient than second-guessing yourself all the time.

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