How the 2-minute rule can help you beat procrastination and start new habits

Athlete on running track
Criene | Twenty20

Overcoming procrastination and laziness can be hard, but it doesn't always have to be.

A strategy that couldn't be easier to use is the two-minute rule, which is designed to help you stop procrastinating and stick to good habits at the same time. The rule is simple: Starting a new habit should never take more than two minutes to do.

(The name of this strategy was inspired by the author and productivity consultant David Allen. He has his own 2-minute rule for improving productivity, which states, "If it takes less than two minutes, then do it now.")

Generally, you'll find that any habit can be scaled down into a two-minute version:

  • "Read before bed each night" becomes "read one page before bed each night."
  • "Do 30 minutes of yoga" becomes "take out my yoga mat."
  • "Study for class" becomes "open my notes."
  • "Fold the laundry" becomes "fold one pair of socks."
  • "Run three miles" becomes "tie my running shoes."

Picking up a new habit? Make it as easy as possible to start

A new habit shouldn't feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. Making a habit as easy as possible to start will lead you down a more productive path.

Anyone can meditate for one minute, read one page or put one item of clothing away. The two-minute rule is effective because once you start doing the right thing, it becomes much easier to continue doing it.

Making a habit as easy as possible to start will lead you down a more productive path.

For instance, running a marathon is very hard. Running a 5K is hard. Walking 10,000 steps is moderately difficult. Walking 10 minutes is easy. And putting on your running shoes is very easy. Your goal might be to run a marathon, but your gateway habit is to put on your running shoes.

Instead of trying to engineer a perfect habit from the start, do the easy thing on a more consistent basis.

People often think it's weird to get hyped about reading one page, meditating for one minute or making one sales call. But the point is not to do one thing. The point is to master the habit of showing up. A habit must be established before it can be improved. If you can't learn the basic skill of showing up, then you have little hope of mastering the finer details.

...the rest will follow

As you master the art of showing up, the first two minutes simply become a ritual at the beginning of a larger routine. This is not merely a hack to make habits easier, but actually the ideal way to master a difficult skill. The more you ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely it becomes that you can slip into the state of deep focus that's required to do great things.

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By doing the same warm-up before every workout, you make it easier to get into a state of peak performance. By following the same creative ritual, you make it easier to get into the hard work of creating. By developing a consistent power-down habit, you make it easier to get to bed at a reasonable time each night. You may not be able to automate the whole process, but you can make the first action mindless.

It can sometimes feel like a trick

You know that the real goal is to do more than just two minutes, so it may feel like you're trying to fool yourself. Nobody is actually aspiring to read one page or do one push-up or open their notes. And if you know it's a mental trick, why would you fall for it?

Your habit can only last 120 seconds.

If the two-minute rule feels forced, try this: Do it for two minutes and then stop. Go for a run, but you must stop after two minutes. Start meditating, but you must stop after two minutes. Study Arabic, but you must stop after two minutes. It's not a strategy for starting, it's the whole thing. Your habit can only last 120 seconds.

Why it works

The two-minute rule reinforces 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're casting votes for your new identity. You're not worried about getting in shape. You're focused on becoming 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.

We rarely think about change this way because everyone is consumed by the end goal. But one push-up is better than not exercising. One minute of guitar practice is better than none at all. One minute of reading is better than never picking up a book. It's far better to do less than you hoped than to do nothing at all.

James Clear is the author of "Atomic Habits," the creator of the "Habits Academy," a weightlifter and a travel photographer. His writing is focused on how we can create better habits, make better decisions and live better lives. His work has been featured in The New York Times, Entrepreneur, TIME, and on CBS This Morning. Follow him on Twitter @JamesClear.

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