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It’s 10 p.m.—there’s a pile of dishes in the sink, shoes, coats, and clothes strewn everywhere, and stacks of mail to go through. You know if you do address these messes now you won’t be in bed for another hour, but you also know if you don’t, then the mess will only accumulate. How did you get here? You swear you’re generally an organized and clean person, but with your hectic work schedule or little kids running around (or both!) things seem to slip through the cracks. You do an exhausting, full clean sweep most nights before bed, but somehow you end up right back here every day. What gives?

Some household tasks are never-ending. There will always be dishes to wash, laundry to fold, and things that get used will need to be put away again—and again and again. This can be incredibly disheartening and feel like you never make any progress or finish a task. So rather than curse this fact, better to find a way to deal with it efficiently. An easy place to start is the “one-minute rule.” This rule will help you be more productive, more organized, and spend less time cleaning massive messes.

How the one-minute rule works

The one-minute rule is simple: If you estimate that a task, particularly any cleaning or organizational tasks, will take one minute or less, you do it as soon as the task presents itself to you. This way, the one-minute tasks don’t add up over time, and you avoid the 20- or 30-minute stretches that would be required to take care of them later. Now, this “rule” does not mean you should get up and do fifty one-minute tasks right now. It simply means adding one minute (or less) to any given activity so you are saved the runaround later.

Let’s say you walk in the door from work and throw your coat over the back of the couch and kick off your shoes so they land in the middle of the room. Applying the one-minute rule, you would instead walk in the door and immediately hang up your coat and put your shoes on the rack or in the closet where they belong.

This may not seem like a big deal in the moment. But consider how this scenario—walking in the door, leaving your belongings wherever—could cause things to accumulate throughout the day. Your purse and coat end up on the ground after work, your running shoes and headphones after your workout, and your heels and clutch after eating out. If you had used the one-minute rule, you would have put all of those belongings in their designated place immediately when you walked in, saving yourself the bigger clean-up later. It may seem like a trivial example, but keeping clutter at bay is important: not only does research show that clutter makes it more difficult to focus on a particular task, but women who describe their homes as cluttered are more likely to be depressed and have higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

A few examples

Take dishes as a similar example. Imagine a sink with 10 or so dishes in it. Realistically, this will only take about 10 minutes to do—not a big deal. However, if I finish eating my dinner and see the sink this way, I’m more likely to just add my dish to the pile with the thought that I’ll do them all later, rather than doing 11 dishes now. I actually may not have 10 minutes to do dishes right now if I need to get out the door for work in the morning or put the baby down for bed in the evening. This pattern may continue until there’s a sink filled with dishes, a task that takes 15 to 30 minutes, and therefore may be put off even longer. However, by following the one-minute rule, each time I use a dish throughout the day, I take a minute to clean the dish or put it right in the dishwasher. If instead, I just set the dish in the sink “for now,” then the pile accumulates so that the dishes are no longer a short task.

Another example of a productive use of the one-minute rule would be putting your clothes back in the closet or throwing them in the laundry basket at night rather than tossing them on the ground or the chair in your room. Again, you avoid the mass of clothes that are neither in the laundry nor the closet at the end of the week, and it only takes a minute to put away an outfit at the end of the day.

This list of things that the one-minute rule covers is quite expansive. It may include wiping toothpaste splatters off the vanity right after you brush your teeth. Or, it may be sorting and dealing with the mail when you bring it in each day rather than throwing it in the ominous “mail pile” (and perhaps missing the deadline for an important document or bill). You can encourage your children to take part, too, by picking up their toys when they’re done with play time.

The one-minute rule can also be used to be productive in ways other than cleaning and organizing. Writing quick notes falls into this category in some cases. For example, say you just got home from a lovely dinner party. You can write the host a quick thank-you if you have stationery at home. Likewise, if you are browsing Facebook and find out a friend’s parent has passed away, get off Facebook and take a minute to write a sympathy card. This way, a meaningful but simple task such as this doesn’t get put off indefinitely and you never end up sending one.

You can even apply this rule at work or in your studies. If there is a task that you are made aware of that would take one minute or less—and you aren’t already in the middle of something else—then follow the one-minute rule. This will increase your productivity and decrease the time spent on a bunch of small but piled up to-dos.

When the one-minute rule applies—and when it doesn’t

Of course, there are limitations to this rule and times when it should not be employed. For instance, most of us have access to email 24/7 via smartphones. Unless you are required or expected to be connected to your email for work, the one-minute rule does not imply dealing with every email immediately, as soon as it comes through. That probably won’t be productive, as you may have emails come in at all times of the day, and responding to them may interrupt from another task or activity (including sleeping!).

The rule of thumb is that you should “tack on” one-minute tasks to the natural flow of your day, not interrupt concentrated tasks to carry out one-minute ones. For instance, it would take me less than a minute to get up and dust the coffee table I can see as I’m writing this, but that would derail me from this task. More importantly, that to-do item would not be a continuation or immediate result of some other activity—like hanging up my coat after I walk in the door, or cleaning a dish when I finish eating.

The one-minute rule can improve cleanliness, organization, and productivity at work and in your studies. This trick hardly takes any extra time and energy after any given activity. After employing it consistently, you’ll find you have more time, more done, and less mess at the end of the day, at home and at work.