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Touch It Once – Productivity Principle

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Hand Touching

This is one of the most fundamental principles of productivity and time management. It’s called the “touch it once” principle. We will refer to this principle a lot on this website and you can use this for almost any project in your life.

A lot people waste time and energy by rereading and reconsidering tasks they have to do. Instead of taking care of the task at hand, they might think “I’ll take of this later” and move on to something else. Later on, they will have to re-evaluate what to do with the task and this again eats up time. It’s not uncommon to do this a couple times for the same task. Each time you have to re-evaluate and reconsider what to do, you waste valuable time. Over the course of a week, month, or year the time spent could have been more useful for getting things done.

Some common examples where you can apply the “touch it once” principle:

  • Email correspondence.
  • Paying bills.
  • Taking the trash out.
  • Handling mail.
  • Cleaning your apartment or bedroom.

The basic idea behind “touch it once” is that whenever you get an incoming task in front of you, you decide right away what to do with it. Now this does not mean that whenever you get a task, that you have to complete it right away. You can decide and delegate what to do with the task. As long as you take care of the task, meaning you either finish it, delegate it, or put into your task manager. The diagram below should explain it more clearly.

Touch It Once

The Touch It Once Productivity Principle

The diagram just gives an example of sources (email, staff, phone) that might give you incoming tasks. Now here I use the time limit of 5 minutes. This can be different for anyone depending on the task and your schedule.

For example, when it comes to answering emails, I like to use 2 minutes as my time limit. If it takes longer than 2 minutes to answer an email, I will put it into my task manager to answer it later. If it takes less than 2 minutes to answer, I will respond right away. However, if you’re at the office and someone gives you something to do, you will use a different time limit (like 5 minutes).

What you never want to do is to decide later what you are going to do with it. That’s the exact opposite of following the “touch it once” principle.

One extra step I added, after I’ve decided that the incoming task takes longer than the time threshold, is by asking myself “Am I the best person to do this task?” The classic principle of “touch it once” is by literally touching something once, meaning any task you get in front of you will have to be finished right then and there.

While that might be efficient in for some tasks, from our experience it’s not very feasible and it is inefficient. So we evolved the “touch it once” principle by adding this extra step.

Sometimes it is better to delegate the task to someone else, because it makes economically more sense (your time is more valuable than the other person who can do this) or someone else has more expertise at completing the task than you have. An example would be a colleague asked you if you could pickup lunch from the deli down the street. Money and time wise, that might not be the best thing to do, so you delegate it to an intern. Isn’t that why they got hired in the first place?!

Now if the task takes longer than the time threshold AND you are the best person to complete it, put the incoming task in your task manager (e.g. Omnifocus). If there is a deadline attached to the task, make sure you add that. A good example is a lengthy email that will require some research and thought before you want to answer.

So that is the “touch it once” principle, modified the Asian Efficiency way. As some you might have noticed, it has a lot of similarities to a system that is outlined in the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. We have to give him credit for this. This article is a little more simplified here so that you can start using it right away. As you read more articles on this website, understanding this principle and applying it can really free up a lot of time you can enjoy otherwise.

Next Action

I would suggest you print out the diagram above and start implementing the steps outlined for every task coming your way. Try to be conscious of the touch it once principle for everything. So the next time someone asks you to do something, think “touch it once.”

Do you want to see more examples of our personal systems and workflows? We reveal them all on our Personal Systems seminar. It’s completely free and you’ll get to see the exact step-by-step systems and workflows that we personally use to be insanely productive. Register for the next available seminar here.

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Posted by Eurobubba  | January 10, 2012 at 2:03PM | Reply

That’s all well and good, but there are times when the overhead of processing input streams itself becomes overwhelming. In those cases a triage system can be helpful, i.e. deleting those input items that are obviously low-value, cherry-picking the obviously important ones for immediate processing, and deferring the rest for a later decision. I keep “cascading” inboxes that I try to process on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. If I still don’t know what to do with an item when it’s been winnowed (“touched”) three times, I generally discard it then.

Posted by Five Simple and Effective Tips for Managing Your Email  | March 12, 2012 at 3:08AM | Reply

[…] touch it once principle says that each item should only be handled once. This is especially the case for emails. Have you […]

Posted by braincutlery  | January 27, 2013 at 4:28PM | Reply

Really like the way you’ve simplified the GTD principles to summarise this process. I’ve taken the opposite appoach and come up with the most complicated picture ever to summarise my email workflow, which aligns to your ‘touch once’ idea. You can find it, and the post, at

Hopefully your readers may find it complements this idea with some practical examples of implementing it in a Microsoft Outlook environment!


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