The Self Improvement Magic of the "2-Minute Rule"

Steven Gambardella

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What I Learned From Flossing

“How often do you floss?” The dentist asked, peering into my mouth.

He was holding a dental mirror in there. His light was shining in my eyes. “As often as I can” I garbled out as best as I could.

“You need to floss every day,” he said, peering into my wide-open mouth. “It’s important. There’s the risk you’ll get gingivitis. That’s not good at all. Floss once a day and you’ll be fine.”

I nodded. “Uh-huh.” I didn’t want gingivitis.

The problem with flossing was that it was never top of mind. Brushing my teeth was a well-worn routine, but flossing was an occasional afterthought. But that all changed when I came across James Clear and his theory of "micro habits".

I learned from Clear that if I place the floss out close to my toothbrush, I’ll be reminded to floss when I brush. This is what Clear calls “habit stacking”.

Essentially, habit stacking is piggy-backing one or more positive habits on top of a regular routine by making a clear association between them.

This is usually a visual cue — having a prompt to act within sight. Putting your running shoes beside your front door, or some books you always meant to read on your coffee table in front of the television are examples of how you can cue positive behaviour.

With the floss next to my toothbrush, I was reminded to floss every time I brushed my teeth.

The Magic of Two Minutes

The next problem was then how long to floss for. To floss thoroughly takes around 5 minutes. I tried hard to completely floss, but got frustrated and often gave it a miss. I didn’t want to spend 5 minutes flossing every single time.

But this is where James Clear’s next golden rule comes into play. Clear talks about the “two-minute rule”: “when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”

Clear developed his idea from David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, who wrote the rule: “if it takes less than two minutes do it now.”

The rule is perfect for positive habit-forming for two reasons: it makes it easier to get going and easier to keep going. Do something for two-minutes and the chances are that you’ll do it more often, and you’ll more likely follow through and do it for longer.

The idea is a relative of Woody Allen’s famous assertion that “eighty per cent of success is showing up.” The easy part gets you most of the way there.

The two-minute rule removes the psychological barrier to staring something because you’ve already set a low bar of time investment.

Anything that takes two-minutes you can do now and, like Newton’s Law of Motion, once you get going it’s harder to stop. If you do happen to stop, two minutes is better than nothing. To do something positive for a short amount of time is a small win.

When I see my floss next to my toothbrush I’m reminded by myself that I should floss for at least two minutes. Two minutes is better than nothing and I’ll often keep going anyway if I have the time and patience that day.

Habit stacking and the two-minute rule are powerful tools, but together they’re a super-power. I use both for a number of tasks and positive habits.

Here are some ideas to get you going:

Writing

Write anything for two-minutes, either with pen and paper or on your computer or phone. Pre-Coronavirus, was I doing it as soon as I would get a seat on the subway in the morning. I use my iPhone to write. Getting a seat was my cue.

The chances are, once you’re through that 2 minutes, you’ll keep going. If I’m in the middle of writing something longer, the (minimum) two-minutes I spend on the writing is another brick in the wall I’m building. If I’m working from a blank, that two minutes is fishing for ideas.

Reading

James Clear recommends that you pick up a book and promise yourself you’ll read just one page. Not exactly a daunting task, is it? This is how I tackle complicated books. I go slowly. The two-minute rule is probably better for my comprehension of ideas in books because I bite off the information piece by piece.

Exercise

2-minutes is all you need for a pretty intense session. I do press-ups, handstand practice or burpees. That initial two-minutes usually segues into a longer, more intense workout, but the two minutes I put in is sufficient to help me stay fit. If you want to start running, James Clear recommends that you simply put on and tie up your running shoes. This habit alone conditions your mind to be ready for exercise.

Cleaning

Pick up a cloth or the vacuum cleaner and promise yourself you can give up in two minutes if you don’t like it. The chances are, you’ll keep going anyway. If you don’t, you’re spot cleaning different parts of your home and making an incremental improvement.

In any aspect of your life where you think a good habit would benefit you, think through this simple checklist:

  • Visual cue — make sure you see the cue every day (example: get that guitar you always meant to learn out of your closet).
  • Stacking on an existing habit (watching TV, eating breakfast, brushing teeth)
  • Give yourself just two minutes to do the task. Ideally, time yourself.

Good habits can be hard to pick up. We’re often intimidated by the time and effort it takes. By tweaking your environment or your routine, you can remind yourself with cues to pick up better habits.

The two-minute rule lets you act on those cues with little commitment. You have a low barrier to starting, but a long enough time to gather momentum.

Even if you only commit two minutes each time, it’ll compound as the days go by. Two minutes twice a day is 14 minutes a week, 56 minutes a month, and 11 hours a year.

Small changes make a big difference. Just ask my dentist.

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