Want to Build a New Habit? Use the Two-Minute Rule

Every once in a while there comes a time when we wake up and want to make a change in our lives. Sometimes we want to start exercising and get in shape, other times we want to read more books, or start a meditation practice. So we decide that we’re going to make this our new habit.

Define the smallest, easiest version of any habit or skill you want to build and focus on repeating that.

The first few days go very well, as we feel motivated and excited about it. But as more days pass, our so-called “new habit” doesn’t excite us any more. So we say to ourselves, “It’s fine, I’ll do it tomorrow.” Then tomorrow rolls around, and we still don’t feel like doing it. Again we say, “Tomorrow.” This keeps happening until our desired new habit is nearly forgotten.

However, we aren’t alone in our struggles, as we’ve all been there at one point. But why does this happen? Why is it so hard to follow up on our new habits?

The point of any habit is to make it a habit in the first place. You’re not expected to go all out from day one. You start with small, simple steps. This is where the magic happens.

Break Your Mental Resistance With The Two-Minute Rule

Our Mental Resistance

One reason is that forming a habit can feel overwhelming, leading to mental resistance.

In the beginning, when we’re super motivated, it’s much easier to do something. For example, going to the gym for 1 hour doesn’t seem that hard, because the initial motivation is a powerful driving force.

But when we’re motivated, it’s also easy to impose some super high expectations on ourselves. We think, “Ok, so I went to the gym for 1 hour the first few days. From now on I’ll go to the gym for 1 full hour every single day.”

But once that initial motivation fades away after a few days, there is now nothing that’s driving us forward, and we haven’t really formed a habit yet.

That’s why when we’re unmotivated, we’ll probably just skip the gym altogether, as dedicating a whole hour to it seems daunting.

History of Two-Minute Rule

David Allen popularized the “two-minute rule” in his book Getting Things Done. The core idea is to take any task that can be finished in two minutes or less and do it immediately, rather than deferring it. This clears your mind and your workload.

James Clear built on this with the idea of “quick tasks” in Atomic Habits. These are small, quick actions that create momentum and prime you for forming habits. They serve as “gateway habits.”

When you read about the Two-Minute Rule, you will hear about Gateway habits. So, let’s understand it.

Gateway habits are small habits that lead to bigger changes. By mastering quick, easy habits first, you build self-efficacy and consistency, making it easier to tackle more difficult habits.

The 2-minute rule represents these ideas. By breaking goals down into 2 minute chunks, you lower activation energy and friction, making it easy to start. These serve as gateway habits.

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For example, “read for 2 minutes” is a quick task and gateway habit to the larger goal of “read for 30 minutes daily.” By focusing just on the 2-minute version, you build consistency and momentum.

Both Clear and Allen emphasize the importance of beginning with small and simple actions. This makes it more likely you’ll follow through, while still moving you forward incrementally.

The Two-Minute Rule operationalizes these ideas – quick tasks, gateway habits, two-minute tasks – into an easy-to-implement system for habit formation. The consistent practice is what ingrains habits over time.

Two-Minute Rule
Two-Minute RuleWatch Your Time

The Two-Minute Rule

The Two-Minute Rule is as straightforward as it sounds: if a task can be completed in two minutes or less, do it immediately. This might sound almost too simple to be effective, but that’s where the genius lies. The rule helps you break down your to-do list into bite-sized, manageable chunks.

Let me explain what I mean, by introducing you to the Two-Minute Rule.

When the expectation is to read the whole book, meditate for 1 hour or run 10 miles, your habit can be quite hard to start. Most of the tasks that you procrastinate on aren’t actually difficult to do. You just avoid starting them because you make them seem so.

The idea of the Two-Minute Rule is to trick your brain into thinking that the habit you’re about to do isn’t hard. So what you want to do is break that big habit down into a small 2-minute version of it.

Your goals obviously can’t be completed in 2 minutes, but every habit can be started in that time. And once you start doing something, it’s much easier to continue with it.

Start Small

For example:

  • Want to make reading your new habit? Use the 2-minute rule and read just one page of a book. Just one. After that you can stop reading, but you have to do it for a minimum of 2 minutes. The end goal might be to read the whole book, but the expectation should be to just start reading, no matter how little.
  • “Floss all my teeth” becomes “Floss one tooth.”
  • “Run three miles” becomes “Put on my running shoes and go outside.”

All of these things are easy to do, however they are super important, as they are what get you started. You can’t write a book if you can’t even write a single sentence. Neither can you be an athlete if you can’t put on your running shoes. But even if it’s just one word, or just a walk around the block, it’s more than nothing.

And more importantly, what you’re doing is you’re forming and reinforcing the habit. Eventually that one sentence you wrote turns into a paragraph, which forms a chapter, which in the end becomes a book. But you have to start with that first sentence.

One of the reasons this rule is so powerful is that it provides instant gratification. When you complete a quick task, you get that immediate sense of accomplishment, which can be motivating and set the tone for a productive day.

This rule is not JUST about immediate gratification; it’s a strategic approach to tackling larger routines, mastering difficult skills, and managing your task list.

  • Larger Routine: Whether it’s building a consistent exercise routine or mastering a new language, the Two-Minute Rule helps you start and maintain these larger routines by making them less daunting.
  • Difficult Skill: Learning complex skills becomes more manageable when you focus on taking the first step. The rule encourages you to initiate your journey, making that difficult skill more approachable.
  • Task List: Your to-do list becomes less overwhelming when you prioritize tasks that can be done in two minutes or less. It allows you to clear the small, nagging items efficiently.
  • Reasonable Time: The Two-Minute Rule is all about setting reasonable expectations for each task. It aligns your goals with what can realistically be achieved within a short timeframe.
  • Time Blocks: Incorporating two-minute tasks into your schedule through dedicated time blocks is a practical way to ensure you’re consistently chipping away at your goals.
  • Time Frame: It provides a structured time frame for completing quick tasks, preventing them from piling up and becoming overwhelming.
  • Time Limit: The rule sets a clear time limit for taking action. This deadline acts as a motivational trigger to get started.
  • Action Mindless: The rule turns action into a mindless, automatic response. You don’t waste mental energy on deciding when or how to start; you just do it.
  • Ultimate Goal: Every significant achievement begins with a series of small steps. The Two-Minute Rule bridges the gap between where you are and your ultimate goal.
  • Real Goal: It helps you focus on the real goal — building habits, fostering consistency, and sustaining progress. The ultimate goal becomes achievable by consistently working on the smaller, manageable steps.
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Whether you want to be more productive, avoid procrastination, or achieve your dreams, keep in mind the Two-Minute Rule. It’s not just a time-saver; it’s a life-change

Here is an example of how to apply the 2-minute rule step-by-step:

Goal: Start a regular exercise routine

Step 1: Break it down into a 2-minute version

For exercise, commit to doing some sort of movement/exercise for just 2 minutes. This could be:

  • Walking around the block
  • Jumping jacks
  • Basic bodyweight squats
  • Pushups
  • Situps
  • Stretching/Yoga poses

Step 2: Remove friction points

  • Lay out your workout clothes the night before
  • Have your workout shoes ready by the door
  • Clear a space in your living room for bodyweight exercises

Step 3: Schedule it

  • Put it in your calendar app and set a reminder
  • Decide on a consistent time, like first thing in the morning.

Step 4: Just press play

  • When the alarm goes off, don’t think, just start your 2-minute exercise.
  • No need to psych yourself up, just press play on the timer and begin

Step 5: Repeat daily

  • Stick to your schedule and do it every single day
  • Even if you miss a day, get back to it the next day.

Step 6: Level up gradually

  • Once 2 minutes feels easy, increase to 5 minutes.
  • Then 10 minutes, 20 minutes, etc until you reach your goal.

The key is to start small, so there is little resistance. But overtime you build up your habit and it becomes effortless. The 2-minute rule removes the mental barrier and gets you started. Consistency over time yields results.

Use the rule to define the smallest action step possible towards an ultimate goal. Focus on repeating that small task, not the big goal.

What kinds of tasks fall under the 2-minute rule?

Some examples of tasks that would fall under the 2-minute rule:

  • Household chores
    • Washing a few dishes
    • Folding a small pile of laundry
    • Making your bed
    • Picking up clutter in one room
    • Taking out the rubbish/recycling
  • Health habits
    • Doing 10 squats or lunges
    • 10 Pushups or Situps
    • Stretching for 2 minutes
    • Meditating for 2 minutes
    • Drinking a glass of water
    • Taking vitamins
    • Flossing one tooth
  • Work tasks
    • Replying to 1 quick email
    • Organizing one file folder
    • Scheduling 1 calendar appointment
    • Deleting old files to clear space
  • Personal habits
    • Reading 1–2 pages of a book
    • Writing one sentence in a journal
    • Playing an instrument for 2 minutes
    • Spending 2 focused minutes learning guitar
    • Studying flashcards for 2 minutes
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The key is to identify simple, quick versions of tasks that can be done in 2 minutes or less. The small commitment makes it easy to start.

Define real goals in a reasonable time frame based on your schedule. 4 hours of study is daunting, but 2 focused minutes is doable.

Just Get Started

So I encourage you to employ the 2-minute rule yourself, whenever you are struggling to stick with a habit. The most important part of any new habit is just getting started. It’s not about how well or for how long you do it, it’s about consistently taking action towards it.

Instead of trying to create a perfect habit from the start, do the easier thing on a consistent basis. That’s how you’ll make your habit, an actual habit.

  • Writing one sentence is better than not writing anything.
  • One minute of piano practice is better than none at all.
  • And one minute of reading is better than never picking up the book.

It’s far better to do less than you hoped for, than to do nothing at all. There will be plenty of time to improve your performance later on.

Remember, you can’t improve a habit that doesn’t exist. Just start, and the rest will follow.

Limit tasks to 2 minutes, so they are compact and mindless to start. Don’t overthink it, just press play on the timer and begin.

Summary of the key points for applying the 2-minute rule:

  • Break down big goals into a 2-minute version to remove friction
  • Schedule a consistent time and remove obstacles ahead of time
  • When the alarm goes off, don’t think, just start for 2 minutes
  • Stick to daily consistency, even if you miss a day.
  • Once 2 minutes feels easy, gradually increase time.
  • Remove the mental barrier and just focus on starting
  • Consistency over time builds the habit.
  • Start small and level up rather than going all out initially.
  • Focus on repeating the 2-minute version daily as a habit.
  • It gets you started and makes continuing easier.
  • Habits come from consistent actions over time.
  • The 2-minute rule removes resistance and friction.
  • Start easy and build up intensity gradually.

The simplicity of the 2-minute rule in creating momentum and habits through starting very small.

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