advice · habits · planning

The two-minute rule: start really really small

Image description: digital timer set to 02:00, framed by a circle with options “cancel” and “resume” underneath.

Early January is crammed with all sorts of advice about how to make those January 1st changes stick. I have often dissed the idea of resolutions as a sort of set-up for failure. But this year I’m actually in a change-is-good mindset, and I have high hopes for the blank page that a new year seems to offer. Having said that, like so many other people, I have been here before. And those high hopes for change often feel dashed by the end of the month. So how to make things stick?

One way that’s getting some attention (or at least Sam brought it to my attention) is “the two-minute rule.” According to the article, “How the two-minute rule can help you beat procrastination and start new habits,” consistently spending two minutes on something can lead to transformative change. The rule says: starting a new habit should never take more than two minutes. It is a take on author and productivity consultant David Allen’s rule that “if it takes less than two minutes, then do it now.”

I am a big advocate of starting small and “doing less.” That’s why Sam tagged me when she posted about the two-minute rule. But even for me, two minutes seems so negligible as to be almost pointless. It’s not, though. I recognize that line of thinking — the “what’s the point of two minutes” line — as a mind-game to talk myself out of something. We have been conditioned to think that if something isn’t really hard or challenging, then it’s pointless. But really, if the alternative is NOTHING at all, then what’s the harm of doing just a little something towards your goal.

I’ve recently signed up for some writing coaching again with Daphne Gray-Grant, the Publication Coach. In the application form for her program, she asks how much time you’re planning to commit to your project each day. The first option is 5 minutes. The options go up from there: 15 minutes, 20-30 minutes, and if you want to choose 60 minutes or more there is a note that says you will need Daphne’s permission. Why? Because as a rule, people aim too high and then they lose steam and give up. Instead, making progress in small increments gives you a manageable habit that you can realistically maintain.

Knowing all of this, I still felt a voice in my head telling me I’m an under-achiever when I ticked the 5 minutes/day box. But I ticked that box because I can realistically expect not to feel overwhelmed by spending five minutes a day, five days a week on my book. It seems like ridiculously little time, but if the other option is spending no time at all on it, then I’m sure I will get further with five minutes a day than with zero minutes a day.

Having set that low expectation in the past and worked with it, I can also be confident that at least some days I will work beyond the five-minute timer. And I think where workouts are concerned, this is even more likely. I remember my yoga instructor once saying that if you want to start a home yoga practice, start by just putting down the mat. Next time you might put down the mat and do child’s pose. After that, you might put down the mat, do child’s pose, and follow it with downward dog. It actually works. Similarly, if you pack your gym bag, go to the gym, and commit to spending two or five minutes doing something there, that’s a start. It’s a small start, but doing it three days a week is the start of a habit. And in the end, that’s the goal: to establish a habit.

This year, besides my writing habit, my other “start small” thing is to spend time in the workout room in my building. We’ve got brand new treadmills and spin bikes, and enough free weights and weight machines to get a decent workout in. My goal is to get myself down there for at least five minutes, four days a week. Even as I type that, I can feel that voice saying “five lousy minutes — gimme a break.” But is five minutes better than nothing? Yes. And it gets me over the initial hump of not even putting on my workout gear or getting to the room, which is arguably the bigger challenge than making best use of it once I’m there.

I encourage everyone who is excited about the fresh pages of 2023 to experiment with starting small, especially anyone with a history of jumping in with both feet and then hitting a wall before the month is out. The goal is to establish a new habit, not to transform overnight into a completely different person. We are a week in and it’s not too late to moderate expectations, even for those of us who went out of the gate a little more ambitiously than is sustainable. Small habits grow. And even if kept small, they yield fruit. The voice in the head that says “this isn’t enough” needs to be challenged, perhaps with a stronger voice that says, “Oh really? Just watch!”

Is there anything you’ve been wanting to start that you can give two minutes a day to, a few times a week? Go for it!

2 thoughts on “The two-minute rule: start really really small

  1. Started to write this yesterday, managed to lose it in the usual busy-ness.

    This is a great approach. I take it even farther: all I have to do is begin. 99% of the time, once I am at it, I keep at it. 1% of the time, I realize it was more than inertia that kept me away, and I am allowed to put it aside for the time being.

    24 years ago, a brain tumor diagnosis taught me how not to procrastinate much. No one wants/needs that level of prodding! But the way I kept at getting in shape was not so hard to manage: largely involved requiring myself to go to the gym at lunchtime, change into workout clothes, and get started with whatever the plan was. I had to stay on the treadmill until things got reasonable – the first couple of minutes were always the hardest – but then, I could stop if I wanted to. I almost never did.

    It worked beyond my dreams. It’s been 24 years since the surgery, and I have ridden my bicycle across north America twice. Before that, I’d have thought of 5 flat miles as a serious workout. I was an active kid, but never involved in official sports or activities. I was 46 at the time of the tumor diagnosis, and could claim nothing more than an ability to walk fast and long. Never ran, never had a road bike. I’ve made it to 71 and rode from San Francisco to Los Angeles in September. That’s now no big deal.

    This also works for getting my desk cleaned up, or writing thank-you notes, or almost anything that can so easily be swept aside.

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