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The 20-minute Rule

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Personal productivity is a hot topic these days. A Google search of the term reveals 5 million plus results, and there are nearly 50,000 books on Amazon catering to the topic. Meanwhile, productivity evangelists such as Tim Ferris, Ramit Sethi, and David Allen continue to make a killing serving up advice on personal efficiency and getting things done.

All for good reason. Several simultaneous circumstances in recent years have made it vital to know how to manage one’s time, and operate effectively under one’s own will power. The increasingly ubiquitous “knowledge worker” has meant less tops-down, manual work for the masses, and requires more self-direction and process-oriented thinking. Skyrocketing unemployment rates resulting from the economic downturn caused a “gut-check” moment for corporate lifers, with many realizing their presumably safe and secure jobs at large corporations just weren’t so. Consequently, many laid-off or out-of-work employees turned the entrepreneurial route, starting their own businesses. This is a bold move, and requires tremendous commitment, self-sacrifice, and task coordination. Even more influential than recent economic conditions, however, has been the frequency of technological innovation over the past ten years. The breadth and depth of this innovation has affected the way we communicate, find information, and live our lives.

These recent circumstances have bred a society of multitaskers. Smart phones, tablets, Kindles – look around you, and you can’t miss it. In fact, I bet you have more than one browser window open right now. Doing many things at once has simply become ingrained in the way we work. Enter Clifford Nass, Thomas M. Storke Professor at Stanford University. Nass specializes in analyzing social-psychological aspects of human-interactive media interaction, but he has also led laboratory and field experiments on the topic of chronic media multitasking. Back in November, I had the pleasure of hearing Nass speak about the latter topic.

To briefly summarize Nass’ findings, research shows that heavy media multitaskers perform poorly at actually multitasking, and at a number of other cognitive control processes crucial to getting things done well. You can read more about Nass’ study and its findings here, but in short, juggling many things at once causes our brains to constantly “switch” tasks, leaving us less effective while performing the task at hand. During the lecture, Nass recommended a simple solution to help combat this problem: The 20-minute rule. Every time you start a new task, keep your attention solely focused on that task for at least 20 minutes. If you find yourself switching tasks (to check email, for example), force yourself to spend the next 20 minutes performing the activity. If you follow this protocol for two weeks straight, you will learn where your time is best spent, which activities are a time suck, and will effectually become a more productive worker (so says Nass).

But imagine the 20-minute rule was a requirement; that it applied to everything in our lives, 24/7. What would the world look like? What effects would it have? Whether this would help or hinder society is up for debate, but there’s no doubt it would heavily influence three areas of our lives: Productivity, People, and Passion.


Seriously consider the implications of the suggestion for a moment. For everything you did or paid attention to in your life, you had to spend the next 20 minutes doing or thinking about that task. It’s almost embarrassing to think about how I would spend my time on some days. Do I really have to spend the next 20 minutes on Twitter? Or reading articles on Or searching through the app store on my mobile phone? Pretty scary. There’s no denying I would think twice about opening my browser window to check email if I had a deadline looming at work, and really needed to finish a PowerPoint presentation. The resulting behavior: focusing more on what’s truly important! How novel.

On the flip side, there is a place in our lives for checking email, posting updates on Twitter, and connecting with friends and relatives through Facebook. And of course, sometimes we should spend time doing those things. All the more reason to tenaciously power through our other, “more important” tasks, so we can have the free time we need to do other things. I pose this would result in higher-quality work, since all our intellectually capacity and focus is devoted to accomplishing the task at hand.


How the omnipotent 20-minute rule would affect our social interactions is perhaps the most intriguing dynamic to think about. Following the rule to the letter, you would have to spend 20 minutes talking to everyone you start a conversation with. (let’s exclude pleasantries such as “Hi” and “Good morning”) How interesting this would this be! Not only would you be forced to interact with your co-workers and close friends for extended periods of time, you will come to know your coffee-shop barista and neighbor down the hall on a more intimate level.

Think about how well you actually know the person sitting next to you at work every day. Wouldn’t you work better, and enjoy your job more, if you connected with him in a more personal way? Wouldn’t long-lasting grudges be smoothed over, if you were forced to “talk things out” with your boss for extended periods of time? And finally, wouldn’t we all get to know the people surrounding us, those random strangers we normally never engage deeply with? If we were forced to spend time talking to one another, over time we would build deeper and more diverse connections to each other, which could only lead to positive outcomes.


The final affect of the 20-minute rule would be discovering what you’re truly passionate about. Many people get so caught up in the minutiae of life and work, they hardly develop any true passions. Get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch 3 hours of reality tv, sleep, rinse, repeat. Well, if these individuals spent 20 minutes focusing on every task they partake in, and only that task, they would quickly learn what their true passions are. Since the rule mandates you spend most of your time on the tasks you undertake, people would presumably choose to spend more of their free time pursuing their passions. Passionate people produce disproportionate results, leading to high levels of personal gratification, and better outcomes for those they serve. If everyone spent more time pursuing what they loved, we would all benefit from the side effects.

If our lives were tied to the 20-minute rule for only a two-week period, we would all benefit. Increased individual productivity, improved interpersonal relationships, and a more passionate citizenry? Who wouldn’t be in favor of those outcomes?

For those of us who are chronic multitaskers, it would do us well to follow Mahatma Gandhi’s advice: Be the change you wish to see in the world. Focus on what you’re doing at any given moment. Pay attention.


Written by bryan

March 3rd, 2011 at 12:12 am

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