Ever wondered why you are busy the whole day and get little done? The reason could be a start-stop-attitude to work. The principle to touch everything once, can help you to work through your day step by step and continuesly move forward. If you decide to do something, do it completly. If you can not or do not want to finish it now, do not even start.
Why it is important to touch everything once
Everytime you start a new on a task; you need a certain amount of time to get into the topic. As soon as you touch a task, you must check the status, think through what’s to be done, decide on how to procede. All these steps take a certain amount of time. In addition, you have some operational things to do. You must locate a file on your hard disk, wait for a software to start, get a tool ready for use. And after the work you need to clean up. These set-up costs accumulate over time and can sum up to a significant part of your days.
That is why you will lose a lot of time if you start with a task, then stop to do something else and continue later. If you only touch everything once, you will save all these small time fractions that can easily add up to several hours each week.
How to deal with incoming messages
The priniciple also applies to your inbox: If you open an e-mail and read it – even if it’s only the subject line. This costs you some time and draws your attention to the topic. Better you decide on how to act on it right away instead of closing it and leaving it in your inbox. Decide right away if you delete, delegate, defer or do something about this message. Leaving it lingering aurond, means you have to do the same work again because you will never be able to remember everything a couple of hours or days later. Touch it once and get over with it.
The 2-minute rule helps to touch everything once
A very dangerours moment to fall into start-stopp-work is when dealing with incoming tasks. Besides the fact that checking your inbox is an interuption of your work in itself, it is paramount for your productivity to to decide right away, how to deal with every incoming task. How can you make sure to touch every message only once? You must decide quickly, what can be completed right away (and completely) and what has to be deferred to be done later? A great rule of thumb is: If it takes less than two minutes to complete, do it right away. This is roughly the amount of time, you need to defer it and make sure to be able to work on it when it’s time.
You think: “two minutes? That’s huge!” And you are right. Two minutes is much longer than expected. A lot of small tasks can be completed in this time. Like answering questions from coworkers and employees or updating some stats in a database.
But at the same time, two minutes are increadably short! If you need to load and login to your online CRM system or manually locate a file on your harddrive this might already get close to the two minutes. And be sure to really complete the task at hand and not just do something about it in two minutes and than defer the rest. This would tremendously reduce your productivity. If you decide to do it, just do it.
Finally: The two minutes are a rule of thumb. If you are an executive with huge amounts of messages a one minute rule might be more appropriate and you will probably need to have additional systems in place that will take care of some part of the messages your receive automatically. In some cases, you might also want to go for three or five minutes. But two minutes seems to be more or less right for most people. Of course, emergencies need to be handled differently and can not be deferred following the two-minute rule.
Decide on do / defer / delegate / delete
These are the golden “4 Ds” you might have heard about. Probably the most important set of verbs when talking about productivity. If you get a new message or task, you always have to decide what to do about it (see two minute rule above).
To apply this rule, it is important to deal with incoming tasks in batch and not to read every message as soon as it pops up. To achieve top productivity once you touch a taks the priority to proceed should be as follows:
First Delete: The more you do not do, the more time you have for other things. If it’s just FYI, do not act. If you do not think, this is important or helpful, do not do it. Do not confuse activity with progress and being busy with being productive. There are also requests that will take care of themselves. Just ignore them.
Second Delegate: Concentrate on the things that are important for your own goals, for your role and fit to your capability. Try to delegate as much as possible if other people can do it. Value your time. the more low-level or low-income tasks you perform, the lower your performance and your income will be. If you want to earn 50 dollars an hour, do not do 5-dollar tasks. If you want to earn 500 dollars an hour, do not do 50-dollar tasks. It’s simple but most people find it hard to follow. Even super successful people fall into the trap of trying to control everything and do low-value tasks themselves.
Instead: Find competent people to help you. Try to automate delegation if possible. And: repeating tasks in general should almost always be automated. It is a great way of delegation because it delegates tasks to a machine that is not payed by the hour.
Third Do: Do those things that just take two minutes – and can neither be deleted or delegated quicker. What is done, is done. So, it is better done than defered.
Finally Defer: If a task needs incubation time, can not be acted on because you need to wait for input, need to be at a certain place or it’s a larger task, plan exactly when you want to do it. Be realistic and do not overstack your days with planned tasks. A tickler file is a simple way to achieve just that.
If you get a task, always ask yourself if it can be deleted or delegated first.
Touch only one thing at a time (do not multitask)
Multi-tasking is giving us the illusion of being very productive. In fact, it is the opposite. Switching between tasks every few seconds or minutes is pure poison to productivity. Your mind needs to readjust to the task at hand everytime, slowing you down. In addition, you will not get into a mode of deep thinking if you do not have longer stretches of work available to focus on one thing.
Focus on one thing at a time
On a more general level: If you focus on several things at the same time you will not be best at any. There is a reason why decathlethes never set world records in any individual discipline. So, if you want to be become world class in one field, you better focus. Studies say that you need 10.000 hours of experience to become an expert in a field. That is roughly 5 years of full-time work at standard work hours.
Avoiding distractions while you are doing deep work is another big lever to increase productivity. Like touching everything once it reduces set up costs. There is a mountain of advices and ways to avoid distractions and I will summarize the best in a future post. Don’t miss it.
EDIT: Here’s the link to the article on How to Avoid Distractions and achieve Deep Work.