A new two-minute rule for email

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006
Yesterday, I spent 12 hours processing 117 emails in one client folder alone. This was the second pass at my in-box and these were the hard emails - the ones I had dragged there because I knew they would take more than 2 minutes to complete. I finally went to bed with an empty folder, in fact I deleted the folder. This morning, my SameTime IM window popped up with a message from my colleague, Robert Peake, the unwilling recipient of many of the emails I had sent the day earlier. Here's the transcript:
Robert:  been processing email lately?
Eric:       Yeah. I started my "DavidCo - to process folder" at 10:00
           am yesterday and finished at 11:30 PM last night.
Eric:        I hesitate to even look in my email today to see all the
            responses. :-)
Robert: That's the problem with email
Robert: That's why I use my new interpretation of the two-minute
           rule: if an email takes more than two minutes to respond
           to, I delete it. :)
Eric:       Ooooo I like that. Can I quote that on my blog?
Robert: You betcha
Eric:        You watch!
Robert:  oh dear.
I hope you caught that. A subtle adaptation of David Allen's two-minute rule that has the potential to revolutionize the way we handle email:
"if an email takes more than two minutes to respond to, I delete it."
So, Robert, that's how you stay on top of your email while the rest of us are drowning! I decided to try this new rule for myself. I've just deleted a bunch of your emails that would have taken me more than two minutes to process. If it's important enough, I know you'll write back. OK, just kidding, but...

My in-box is now empty.

I feel MUCH better.

Thanks, Robert!  

Discussion/Comments (19):

A new two-minute rule for email

I had an exec that made it clear: if he couldn't understand the what and what to do in one screen, he'll delete it unless he's specficially asked for something more (which typically meant an attachement).

I love it!


Posted at 11/14/2006 15:26:51 by Mike S

re: A new two-minute rule for email

Indeed. There's great opportunity for improvement in the way we send email.

Posted at 11/15/2006 0:14:35 by Eric Mack

A new two-minute rule for email

On first glance, I thought, "I really, really like this "new" rule." But, something didn't quite seem right. Then it hit me. It seems to me like you are mixing "processing" with "doing" (tsk, tsk).

Simply deleting an email that takes *you* more than 2 minutes to respond to (i.e., to "do") (as opposed to more than 2 minutes to read and understand -- to "process") doesn't seem to accomplish anything other than removing it from your Inbox. If it's important, the sender will waste time re-sending it, you'll waste time dealing with it again, and there may be other unfortunate consequences stemming from the failure to properly process and do the required action in a timely manner.

I'm assuming that it is worth responding to (doing) in the first place, or else it wouldn't take more than 2 seconds to "process." If it takes you more than 2 minutes to respond (to *do*) -- and it's something that needs a response -- it goes on your NA list to be done later.

Am I missing something here?

Posted at 11/15/2006 1:15:07 by Scott

re: A new two-minute rule for email

Scott, while I shared this original post because I found it funny in an e-mail overloaded world. It certainly is a tempting thought to toss emails that would take more than two minutes to deal with, I would never delete messages that I thought would take more than two minutes to process. To do so would destroy the integrity and use of my email system and the way clients communicate with me.

Mike's comment that his boss deletes emails that are unclear raises an interesting question: is it possible for us to be more effective in the emails that we send? Sure Apparently, his boss believes so and is willing to drive the point home with his employees. A system like that could work, I suppose, IF there was agreement that that was how communications would work. Anything less would lead to a breakdown in communications.

So, what started out as a funny thought, has me now thinking about the agreements that I could make (with myself, and with others) to improve the effectiveness of our email communication by stating up front the purpose and action requested.

One might, for example, we repurposed the subject line as PURPOSE/ACTION REQUIRED?

Instead of an email coming in with a subject like: "eProductivity Document" it might be rewritten, using the format above to say "Here's the latest EP Document, for your review/Please read and approve by November 30, 2006." A little more typing in the subject line would make the purpose of the message very clear. This would minimize

confusion and save time for both sender and recipient. Everyone would know what's expected.

I'll have to think about this a little more. Interesting idea. I've seen other systems proposed for how email should be sent. I'll have to go back and review my knowledgebase.

Posted at 11/15/2006 8:30:01 by Eric Mack

A new two-minute rule for email

Sorry, it was early in the morning when I read this. Your last comment reminded me of work that Sally McGhee has done in this regard.

Sally McGhee spends a lot of time in her book "Take Back Your Life" (TBYL) discussing her PASS Model for email -- which seeks to address how effectively we use email. Her "model" consists of 4 questions:

P - What's the Purpose of the email and does it relate to what she calls a Meaningful Objective?

A - What Action is involved and does it have a due date?

S - What Supporting documentation do you need to include?

S - Have you effectively summarized your communication in the Subject line?

Her company just came out with their own Outlook add-in that attempts to make it easier to follow her TBYL methodology -- they include some basic templates that help ensure each element of the PASS model is addressed in an email message. It's not nearly as refined or complete as the GTD add-in or ClearContext (which I use myself and highly recommend), but it's her unique take on the topic.

This is the same Sally McGhee who used to work with David Allen in the pre-GTD days.

Posted at 11/15/2006 10:52:39 by Scott

re: A new two-minute rule for email

Thanks, Scott.

Sally McGhee used to be my client, when she worked with David Allen at The Productivity Development Group.

She's a very sharp and smart professional.

You've posted some good points. I'll bookmark this for the future. I have a number of email productivity tips I;ve collected and (a few I've invented) over the years. I consider writing an essay to post here. Meanwhile, let's see who else decides to join the conversation.

Thanks for sharing. Eric

Posted at 11/15/2006 12:03:10 by Eric Mack

A new two-minute rule for email


I find that limiting e-mails to one question/subject helps generate better responses.

In other words, if I need three 'unique' items from someone, I'll send them three separate e-mails.

Otherwise, people have a tendency to respond to the first item in the list, and the other two may get forgotten.

I also take the time to re-read any e-mail with more than 3 sentences - to make sure I've been as clear as possible.

I'd be very interested in seeing your 'e-mail productivity tips' essay.

Thanks, Joan Todd

Posted at 11/15/2006 13:20:57 by Joan Todd

A new two-minute rule for email

So it that


"Not" getting things done?

Posted at 11/18/2006 1:41:13 by Reality Bytes

re: A new two-minute rule for email

Excellent points, Joan. It's easy to pile on requests in a single email, and I'm certainly guilty of this. A single topic per email is a good rule. Perhaps, when this can't be done, a subject line with # of topics would be a useful addition. Thanks for yoru comment. Eric.

Posted at 11/20/2006 22:50:00 by Eric Mack

A new two-minute rule for email

RB: it's still GTD - "Getting Things Deleted."

Posted at 11/23/2006 22:52:24 by Robert

A new two-minute rule for email

I think it depends on whom the email is from. If it's an email from my parents, I'll read it all no matter how long it is because I love them and it's probably important to them that I read it. If it's an email from some guy in shipping regarding new shipping policies, maybe I'll put it aside for later because if I want him to ship something for me and I don't follow the new procedure he'll get mad I didn't read the new policy and waste his time. If it's from some employee in some department that I don't work with maybe I'll ignore it and delete it. If it's from some old college buddy that always send lame joke forwards that require a lot of reading and then "scroll down to the bottom" punch lines I'll probably delete it.

Again, it depends on how the email is written and whom it's from. I don't think having a hard and fast "2 minute" rule is always going to work.

Posted at 11/26/2006 9:30:34 by scott hodson

Two-minute rule Scobleized

Uh Oh, this little post may be getting out of hand, I've just been Scobleized. { Link }

I guess this is how urban legends get started. :-)

In any case, and for the record, I am NOT advocating that anyone summarily delete emails that they think take longer than 2 minutes to process. As Robert Scoble wrote in his comments" ...you do realize it’s only a joke, right? It’s what we all WISH we could do, but can’t."

I guess it's a good thing that Robert didn't see my comment about clueless Mac users. { Link }

Posted at 11/26/2006 10:29:02 by Eric Mack

A new two-minute rule for email

so, what if you got a message from your mother that her brother, your favorite uncle, had just died. Answer it in under two minutes? or delete it?

Posted at 11/26/2006 15:20:44 by foo bar

A new two-minute rule for email

I didn't read in the joke part of your original post. I missed your nuance (a real risk with electronic communication) at first.

You are making a fundamental mistake if you truly follow the idea. It would appear from your email that you spent over six minutes per email.

Start with this issue:

1. is the email work related -- if so is it necessary to respond, to pass it on, or to decline to reply?

If it is truly a project, then put it on the to-do list. Consider something like Basecamp if you work on collaborative projects.

If you just delete stuff because it's effort even though it calls for a response, you'll see yourself labelled as lazy and your work will decline.

2. is it personal -- if so, you don't owe any response other than as courtesy, decide if you want to reply and when.

There is truly a great benefit to answering things that take less than a minute per response as it unclogs the system. I find that not actually answering the question for people who could find the answer as easy as me is a good technique for many ... just give them a pointer and send them on their way. In fact ask them a question back! That way they won't bug you until/unless they find the answer.

If it is something you are doing as a volunteer you can always say I am sorry I cannot help as I am too busy with the paid work right now.

Etc. BTW, Scoble sent me. Congrats on being Scobleized. Nice work with the mac link. That should help it to be found in the search engines.

Posted at 11/27/2006 8:29:32 by Don

A new two-minute rule for email

Some of the comments here took more than 2 minutes to read and process - so I scrolled them. Is that a valid 2 minute rule?

Posted at 11/27/2006 20:26:08 by Brad

re: A new two-minute rule for email

Thanks for the feedback, Don.

This thread added fuel to an idea I;ve been considering for some time - that is, to build smart messaging attributes into the subject and email protocol. I;ve mapped out some ideas to experiment with my eProductivity Template. If they work, I'll blog about it. - Eric

Posted at 11/30/2006 13:26:35 by Eric Mack

A new two-minute rule for email

Interesting discussion, especially since a group of my research students is currently investigating aspects of e-mail communication.

Would anyone be interested in taking a 5 minute internet survey on e-mail communication? You'd really be helping me & my students out.

Let me know and I'll send you the link (as I'm not allowed to post it here.


Berna Hendriks

Radboud University Nijmegen

the Netherlands


Berna Hendriks

Department of Business Communication Studies

Radboud University Nijmegen

the Netherlands

Posted at 12/10/2006 14:38:37 by Berna Hendriks

A new two-minute rule for email

Email is a processing problem because it really serves three purposes:

1) Communication channel

2) Action items

3) Reference materials

Once you realize this, it's possible quickly separate these and get to the bottom of your inbox fast. See this article for step by step instructions:

{ Link }

Posted at 12/10/2007 10:28:57 by Kevin

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