Two Minutes to get Back on Track


I’ll admit it. Sometimes I get into a “funk.”  That’s the best word I can think of to describe a state where I just don’t feel like doing anything. And I’m not talking about the regular, end-of-the-day, time-to-take-a-break type feeling. I mean when all of a sudden in what ought to be a productive part of the day, some apparently-complex set of chemical reactions in my brain leaves me feeling blah and unmotivated.

This feeling can come for me at various times. It might hit first thing in the morning on a day where I know I have a lot on my plate. It might come in the early afternoon when all of the “urgent” things have been handled and it’s time to start working/thinking more strategically. I have noticed that it tends to be at times when I’ve just completed something (like a meeting) and a part of me is resisting making the transition to something new.

Whatever the reason, I become aware that I am having a difficult time getting going again. Everything else in the world suddenly seems more attractive to me than starting on the task or tasks I have decided to do. I feel restless and a bit antsy.

Having noticed this pattern in myself, I have spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out strategies for handling this situation. The main problem is that the things you might normally do to get yourself back on track are all things that seem particularly unappealing when I’m in the funk. So I have a “bootstrapping” problem—how do I get myself to exert enough energy so that I can feel energized again?

Here’s a little technique I’ve developed for getting myself back on the productivity wagon in these situations. I call it the “two-minute random task.” And it works like this.

The two-minute random task

  1. Look at my current to-do list
  2. Use a random number generator to choose one of the tasks on my list.
  3. Set a timer and work on that thing for exactly two minutes
  4. If necessary, repeat this process two or three times.

Here’s an example with a few more details. Let’s say that my to-do list currently shows 22 tasks. These can be a variety of  things that have piled up over the last couple of days. I open my favorite random number generator and ask it for a number between 1 and 22. It chooses 14. I then count to the 14th task on the list and work on it for only two minutes. If I want to choose another two-minute task, I move the task I just worked on to the bottom of the list, then ask the random number generator for a number between 1 and 21.

That’s it! It may sound simple, but for me the psychological effect is huge. After doing between one to three tasks this way, I almost always feel “back in the groove.” I’ve got both energy and momentum, and I’m able to work productively on the things that I need to be doing.

Why it works

So why does my little trick work? I think that there are two key elements that combine to break down the resistance I am feeling. These are 1) the very short time interval and 2) the random task selection.

First, two minutes is a magic interval for me. It may seem like a ridiculously small amount of time, but that’s precisely why it works so well.

Two minutes is so short that it never seems overwhelming. I can get myself to do practically anything for just two minutes—even if it’s a very unpleasant task. Two minutes is also short enough that I don’t have any expectation of finishing. For all but the most trivial of tasks, I know that I won’t complete the item so I can focus instead on just getting myself to start. And a time limit of two minutes prevents me from procrastinating for even a few seconds. I have to get started on the task right away, or a quarter or half of the time will be gone.

Second, having a task chosen randomly eliminates the cognitive effort of me having to pick one—which is just one more potential obstacle to getting going. I owe the idea of random task selection to Mark Forster (whose philosophy and writings on time/task management I have found very helpful over the years). As Forster says, “Instead of spending time and energy deciding how urgent or important or pressing or scary or avoidable a task is, you just forget all that and accept a purely random decision.”

This might seem bit reckless until you remember that everything on my to-do list is something that I have committed to and intend to do anyway. There’s also something a little fun and adventurous about the random selection. With,  the randomness is generated by atmospheric noise, which I like to think of as a way to let the cosmos direct my next action.  :-)

In conclusion

So that’s the “two-minute random task.” And it’s amazingly effective at getting me quickly out of a “funk.”  Somehow working on something—anything—on my to-do list gives me as sense of accomplishment and momentum, which then starts a virtous cycle of productivity.  I can go from feeling down and unmotivated to being excited to tackle my work again in a matter of just a few minutes.

If this sounds too simple, I’d encourage you to try it and see if it works for you. Alternatively, tell me what techniques you have found useful in getting yourself going again.