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.
It seems remarkably easy to fall into inefficient routines:
- Eating junk food.
- Watching Netflix for hours.
- Starting your day with email.
There’s no shortage of unhealthy and unproductive behaviors. We all fall into them from time to time.
Identifying and uprooting all of these “bad” habits is one way to become more productive with your time.
The process is relatively straightforward.
- Track the triggers that initiate the bad habit.
- Avoid the triggers you can.
- Swap out the bad routines for positive (or neutral) routines that offer the same reward when you come across a bad habit trigger that couldn’t be avoided.
We’ve written more extensively on the bad habit uprooting and replacement process here.
An alternative path to productivity is to learn and apply a few of the fundamental principles of effective time and energy management.
One way is not inherently better than the other. Zapping bad habits and applying productivity fundamentals are both tried and true ways of upgrading your personal systems. These changes will get you closer to where you want to be – a place where you can take more consistent action on your goals, produce more results in less time, and take time off without feeling guilty because you know you’ve done quality work in the hours you’ve given.
Unlike the thought leaders in the habit space James Clear, BJ Fogg, and Charles Duhigg, I’ve seen the fundamentals approach work better when starting out. Once you know the fundamentals, you can lock them in with your rituals.
The fundamentals will be shockingly effective for most people. They often require less willpower to implement and give big wins early on.
(Fundamental principles follow 80/20 rule also know as the Pareto Principle.)
The Fundamentals of Juggling
Taking mental and physical breaks throughout the day is important for cognitive performance – especially for information workers who tend to do a lot of sitting. Since I fall into this camp, I decided to take up juggling as a fun way to press pause on work and get my blood flowing. I got three balls off Amazon and proceeded to throw them in the air. A few weeks went by and I still couldn’t hold the balls in the air for a meaningful amount of time (5 to 10 seconds was my average).
I then decided to learn the fundamentals. I hopped on YouTube and learned the basics of juggling.
- Hold your arms at a 90-degree angle.
- Throw the ball with the middle of your hand.
- Imagine there is a box in front of you. The bottom corners of the box start at your hands and go up to eye level.
- Throw the ball in your right hand to the upper left-hand corner of the box.
- When the ball from your right hand gets to the left-hand corner of the box throw the ball in your left hand at the upper right-hand corner of the imaginary box.
- Practice with two balls until the throws are natural.
- Add a third ball that would ball that will be thrown before the second ball (the one from step 5) begins to drop.
Learning these fundamentals allowed my practice to become more fruitful. In a short amount of time, I learned how to maintain three airborne balls for up to a minute without any mistakes.
Why is this story meaningful? It illustrates that working hard is not the answer. Working with a proven strategy is what will get results. Even with hours more practice, I would not have the (meager) juggling skills I have today without the fundamental strategies I learned on YouTube. The same learned skills apply to personal efficiency.
With the juggling fundamentals in place, I can start to add more balls or learn new tricks. With productivity fundamentals, you can start to layer on techniques that will allow you to perform better without being overwhelmed or letting any balls drop to the ground.
With practice, these fundamentals will start to crowd out the previous inefficiencies in your life. Timeboxing, planning your day the night before, clearing to neutral, eating your frog, and the three times rule are all examples of fundamental principles you can adopt that will skyrocket your productivity.
Of all of the fundamental productivity techniques we teach at Asian Efficiency, the following technique has the biggest return on time investment. The return is high because the implementation is easy. It takes no extra work. It’s just a small change in how you handle incoming tasks.
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 task, project, or obligation in your life.
Touch it Once (TIO)
A lot of 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 care 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 and energy. It’s not uncommon to do this a couple of 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 adds up.
Let’s say you have 5 tough emails in your inbox. They have meeting requests, require research, ask multiple questions… “you’ll take care of this later.” You re-read the email twice before taking action on the third time. If it takes you 2 minutes to re-read the email, that’s 20 minutes of re-work. Just 20 minutes of re-work a day, 5 days a week for a 48-week working year adds up to 80 hours. That’s 2 full 40 hour work weeks!
Some common examples where you can apply the “touch it once” principle:
- Email correspondence.
- Handling mail.
- Cleaning your apartment or bedroom.
- Scheduling meetings.
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 the technique more clearly.
Touch It Once Flowchart
This video explains how the flowchart works:
The Touch It Once Productivity Principle
The above flowchart will instantly tell you whether it would be more efficient to do the task now, delegate it, or save it for later. It starts with potential 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 the message into my task manager to answer 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 touch it once 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.
Once you’ve determined if the task will take more or less that 5 minutes, you will move down to the next box in the flowchart which asks,”Does the task need to be done?” This may seem redundant. If it’s a task, of course it needs to be done. That’s what efficient people do, right?
A large source of overwhelm and inefficiency comes from taking on more than you can realistically handle. This happens for a number of reasons:
- You have a hard time saying no
- You are not sure of your key responsibilities in the organization
- You don’t know which projects are currently a priority
So ask yourself, does this task align with my goals or values? If it seems to fit or is a maintenance item that serves the higher purpose, great. Continue on down the chart. If not, don’t do it.
Prime examples of things that you should not be doing:
- Responding to emails you’ve been bcc-ed on
- Replying to every Facebook wall post
- Accepting every “gotta minute” meeting request
- Attending every meeting
The time estimation and “does it need to be done” steps can be answered in a fraction of a second. This is especially true if you are clear on your current goals and values.
If the task needs to be done move on to the next question, “Is it a repeating task that can be automated?” This question may slow you down at the moment. This friction is worth it because it will save you more time and energy in the long run.
For example, let’s say you come across a credit card statement in your email. The task could be to:
- Download the file to DropBox so you have an organized record of your expenses come tax season
It will take less than 2 minutes and the task aligns with your personal values of being good with your finances. However, you recently heard about a service call FileThis that automatically downloads your statements and bills every month and saves them to DropBox for you. Two minutes times your 8 monthly bills equate to 16 minutes a month and reduces the chance that you’ll miss any statements and spend even more time tracking them down. This seems like a good automation. You are the best person for the job since you are the only one who has password access to all of your billing sites. You should put the incoming task in you task manager (e.g. Omnifocus).
If you followed the decision tree down the left-hand side, your task will take less than 5 minutes, needs to be done and cannot be automated, at this point, it would be easier to just do the task at the moment it appeared. Unless… the task can be batched.
Batching tasks like phone calls, “gotta minute” meetings, multiple emails from a single person, or administrative tasks like clearing your physical in-basket are best done at one time.
Tasks that take longer than 5 minutes start you down the right-hand side of the flow chart. You only have two outcomes here. Delegate or Put in task manager. You are not going to interrupt your workflow to do the longer task in the moment.
When looking at these larger tasks, you’ll still ask yourself if the task needs to be done, if it could be automated and if you are the best person to set up the automation. We evolved the “touch it once” principle by adding yet another extra step.
Sometimes it is better to delegate the task to someone else because it makes more sense economically (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 pick up 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. 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 streamlined so that you can start using it right away. As you read more articles on this website, understanding this fundamental principle and applying it can free up a lot of time you can enjoy otherwise.
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.”
Majority of the members of our productivity community, The Dojo, practice this principle as well. The Dojo is jam-packed with trainings, courses, masterclasses, podcasts, coaching calls, action plans, and productivity-focused individuals just like you. Click here to learn about joining the Dojo.
It is a decision making process to know how to priotitize correctly. Thank you
Great post. Your example happens to be one that irks me because I don’t receive statements via email, only notifications that a statement is ready. That plus having too many accounts make downloading statements a daunting task. I can either batch the task by downloading them quarterly or annually, or ignore them completely. Ignoring them is an option since my budgeting applications download every transaction from my financial accounts, and I review every transaction at least weekly in those applications.
I like your email folders idea from another post. Touching each email once and deciding to delete it, archive it, delegate it, do it, do it later is a great flow.
How do you file emails that are articles that you want to read later? The email could be a guide on how to be productive, or tell you how perform a task in an application you use, or maybe announce events in your local area that you might wish to attend ( a concert, networking meeting, October fest, etc ) ?
Great piece, Zachary! I feel like I should print the chart and put it up in my office. I also got this weird urge to learn how to juggle now :))
Good flow chart. I am a true believe of principles over silly productivity pet tricks. Things like pomodoro technique can work, however I believe it can also be tedious and can cramp creativity. I also like your mention of batch tasking, which I do quite frequently
Focus is truly the king to true productivity and responsible for 80 percent of our positive results taking us closer to our vision.
One thing that some may find helpful for forming vision is at:
Thanks again for your post
Glad to meeting you here.. :)
wow, very informative post indeed.. I really like this article. I enjoyed lot reading this article but I have also learned many techniques of “touch it once”.
I just can’t hold myself to reading this technology related article, you know. Info graphics are more suitable to made me understood. One of the excellent post..
Thanks for sharing this article.. :)
Have a good day..
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 https://wp.me/p2TvFY-50
Hopefully your readers may find it complements this idea with some practical examples of implementing it in a Microsoft Outlook environment!
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.