I often have something of a short attention span. I get easily distracted from whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing in favor of looking at video game reviews, checking the movie listings, watching YouTube videos, or doing something else on my to do list that is slightly less urgent.
It’s pretty normal and I like to think I’ve gotten MUCH better at not distracting myself over the years. But it still happens, and so a few weeks ago I developed a plan for how to cut down on it even further.
I call it the Twenty Minute Rule, and the idea is simple. Whenever I pickup a task – whether reading a book or writing an article – I make sure I spend at LEAST twenty minutes on that task, the hope being that one of three things will happen:

  1. I’ll tap into a deep creative well and go on a run
  2. I’ll realize how unimportant that task is and not return to it for a while
  3. I’ll ask myself it that task is worth 20 minutes and not even bother

It’s worked fairly well but, of course, only with a few rules in place.

How I Use the Twenty Minute Rule

First, you need to commit to what twenty minute rule requires you to do – namely, spend at least twenty minutes on every task you start. It sounds easy, but it’s really not. You don’t realize just how many times you’ll pick up your phone for five minutes or spend three minutes eating lunch before returning to your desk. Time is broken up into hundreds of three and four minute chunks and finding ways to glue them all back together is not easy.
So you first need to set your schedule in a way that maximizes the efficiency of those chunks of time. Here’s a great example.
The average person checks their email between 10 and 15 times a day. That’s a lot of email time, and more likely than not they spend 5-10 minutes in their inbox each time. That means a total of at least 50 minutes and upwards of 150 minutes spend every day checking email.
Now take into account the transition time lost. You might spend 5 minutes reading and replying to messages, but how long does it take after that to transition to another task? Another minute or two, right?
Now what if you split that 50 minute time period into two periods of 25 minutes. Not only do eliminate the distraction of email, you get rid of most of that transition time (and you’ll probably receive fewer emails because you don’t get into ongoing conversations throughout the day via email).
There are a few other rules to keep in mind when you use the Twenty Minute Rule:

  • Combine Like Tasks – There are a lot of tasks that won’t take twenty minutes, so combine them into like chunks of time. For example, I have a 1 hour chunk of time every day I set aside to make followup phone calls, set my calendar, check my messages, and send instructions to contractors. Each task takes a minute or two so I dump all 20+ of them into one large chunk of time.
  • If You Enter the Zone Keep Going – Twenty minutes is the minimum, but if you’re getting good work done, don’t stop! Keep going and take advantage of the groove you just entered.
  • It Applies to Breaks Too – It’s easy when you work at home to bring your lunch to your desk, take your breaks on Netflix and never get out of that chair. But when you do get up, make sure you stay up for a good 20 minutes (this doesn’t count for hourly stretches that you should for 3-5 minutes six or seven times a day).
  • Check Before Starting – Before committing twenty minutes to any task, ask yourself if it is something you want to do. Sometimes a task can be put off until later or grouped with other tasks if you’re not ready to commit 20 minutes to it.

I’ve been using this for a few months now and I’ve seen a marked boost in my productivity in that time. I encourage you strongly to use it yourself and see what it does for you. Even if all it does it cut down on email and busy work, you’ll be significantly more productive because of it.