- When you're working toward a goal or a new habit, start by doing the quickest and easiest action possible.
- That's according to productivity expert James Clear, who calls it the "two-minute rule."
- Clear suggested "fold one pair of socks" as the two-minute version of "fold the laundry."
- You'll establish a ritual and reinforce your desired identity.
A theme of James Clear's "Atomic Habits" is that you can trick yourself into being the person you want to be.
One of my favorite examples of this theme is Clear's explanation of the "two-minute rule": "When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do."
The idea is to scale down the whole habit into a very quick, very easy behavior. Clear suggests "take out my yoga mat" as the two-minute version of "do 30 minutes of yoga" and "fold one pair of socks" as the two-minute version of "fold the laundry."
There are a number of reasons why this strategy works. According to Clear, who runs a popular productivity website, you have to "master the art of showing up" before you turn to the details. What's more, the first two minutes become a "ritual at the beginning of a larger routine," so you can eventually think less about it.
Do less than you can when you're starting a new habit
I've heard versions of Clear's two-minute rule before, for example from Chade-Meng Tan, a former Google engineer who developed the company's emotional-intelligence course, "Search Inside Yourself." In his book by the same name, Tan writes that the best way to start a meditation habit is to "do less formal practice than you are capable of."
Tan previously told me that sustaining a meditation or mindfulness practice means figuring out "how much meditation does it take for you to see meaningful changes in life. And then be careful to not overdose - because overdosing is no longer fun." Over time, your ability to enjoy and benefit from a large dose will increase.
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Chris Bailey had a similar tip in "Hyperfocus": When you're dreading a task like writing a paper or cleaning out your closet, work for at least one minute "with purposeful attention and limited distractions." Bailey writes that it can take just 40 seconds before we get distracted from the task at hand. But if you pass that threshold, chances are, you'll be inclined to continue, since you've gotten over the starting hump.
And on a Reddit thread about overcoming laziness, multiple people shared some variation on the idea that you should tell yourself you'll only work on the dreaded task for a designated time period - and then you can stop. backformore wrote: "I set an alarm for 10 minutes and then see how much I can get done in that time. Usually, it gets me motivated to keep going after the timer goes off, but if it doesn't at least I did something."
Clear offered a more existential justification for the two-minute rule: These tiny behaviors "reinforce the identity you want to build. If you show up at the gym five days in a row - even if it's just for two minutes - you are casting votes for your new identity."
He went on: "You're focused on become the type of person who doesn't miss workouts. You're taking the smallest action that confirms the type of person you want to be."