Just do the thing

Back in 2001, when David Allen published the groundbreaking productivity book Getting Things Done, he coined the "two-minute rule": if you encounter a task that would take under two minutes to complete, just do it now. He wasn't recommending that you spend your days ricocheting between random little activities, the moment they pop into your head. His point was that anyone who takes a systematic approach to managing their time – with some combination of to-do lists, plans, schedules, and so on – inevitably incurs overheads. Those lists and plans take time and effort, and for some smaller tasks, it's simply not worth it. By the time you've "clarified the next action", or made an entry on a list, or scheduled a time to focus on it, you could have just done the thing.

 

Case in point: recently I realized I'd made three separate reminders to myself to order new bags for the vacuum cleaner. There's no way that didn't use up as much time and effort as just ordering the bags.

 

I've long practiced the two-minute rule as a way to power through tedious chores (even if far from perfectly, as the previous paragraph indicates). But I was struck to hear the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein talk in similar terms about a different personal policy he adopted a few years back: whenever he experiences the impulse to be generous, he tries to follow through on it, there and then. ("Whenever you have the thought to be generous, just do it.") So it occurs to you to send someone a message expressing gratitude, or to donate to a charity, give money to a homeless person in the street, or take a chore off your spouse's plate… and you act. Non-generous thoughts may arise too, Goldstein notes, which is fine. There's no need to judge them. But also: do the thing.

Note that this isn't about acting on feelings of guilt or obligation. Nor is it another instance of the tyrannical and disingenuous social-media injunction to #BeKind. The point isn't to try to be more generous than you currently are. It's to notice the moments when you naturally and effortlessly already do feel that way, then not to screw it up with overthinking.

 

I've found it fascinating to try. For one thing, acting on an authentic generous impulse (as opposed to the #BeKind kind) is almost hilariously rewarding, in terms of one's own mood. For another, it becomes clear that what usually stops me being generous isn't that when I delay, some deeper mean-spiritedness takes over. On the contrary, when I overthink it, I set the bar too high: I tell myself a message to a friend deserves real focus, so I'd better get all my other tasks out of the way first. Or I tell myself it's inefficient to give money to homeless people rather than homelessness organizations (arguably true, but irrelevant if you never get round to the latter). In one way or another, I'm forever telling myself that soon, I'm going to become the kind of person who does all these good things, with the result that I don't actually do them.

The easy option

 

All of this generalizes, I think – from two-minute chores and generosity toward others, to generosity toward yourself (so much more palatable than "self-care", somehow, and surely much-needed these days) and onward to a thousand other small things that matter but that usually never get done. 

 

It's been said that it's helpful to think about the time it takes to complete a task as including all the time you spend thinking about doing it, or stressing about not having done it yet, as well as actually doing it. That helps clarify that acting immediately needn't be thought of as a matter of becoming more self-disciplined or pushing yourself harder. Rather, it's a matter of sparing yourself the unnecessary hassle of having to-dos hanging over you, of suddenly remembering (at 3am) some task you should have completed by now, or of feeling bad about not acting as generously as you'd wish. From this perspective, taking action is the easy option. It's procrastination that's the burdensome one. Why not cut yourself some slack and just do the thing? 

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