“Only Handle It Once” — How To Use the Ohio Method

Do you keep staring at the same few to-dos, without making progress?

Then you should try out the OHIO method (“Only Handle It Once”). Here, whenever a new to-do arises, you take care of it right away.

Learn about the specifics, what pitfalls to watch out for, and how to best implement it.

What Is the OHIO Method?

The OHIO method (“Only Handle It Once”) is a strategy for self-organization. The basic idea — whenever a new task comes up, you handle it immediately. You don’t keep coming back to it.

The classic example is email.

Here is what most people do — they check their inboxes several times per day, looking at the same list of unanswered emails, without doing anything about it. This is a waste of precious mental energy.

What you want to do instead is that you reply to an email the first time you see it. By getting it out of the way, you never need to think about this item again.

Some more examples:

  • Snail mail. When you get a letter, don’t just open it, read it, and put it back on the pile. Decide what needs to be done about it right away.
  • Phone calls. When someone calls you and asks you to do something, e.g., send them some info, take care of it on the spot.
  • Appointments. When you remember that it’s time for your yearly check-up at the dentist’s, call them for an appointment immediately.
  • Decluttering. If you keep thinking to yourself, “I need to throw out this old winter coat,” get up, get the coat, and toss it.

Benefits

There are three major benefits to the OHIO method.

The first one is mental bandwidth.

If you keep revisiting the same couple of to-dos without acting on them, you are wasting precious energy. You are ruminating, but not getting anything done.

“Only Handle It Once” solves that. With any given task, you only invest in it once.

The second benefit is less planning.

If you handle a task as soon as it pops up, you don’t have to process it further. You don’t have to take out your phone or open up your computer and add a to-do item to your to-do list.

The third benefit is that you are less likely to forget things. If you take care of things on the spot, there is no chance of them falling through the cracks.

Pitfalls

The main problem with OHIO is that you end up prioritizing the urgent over the important. You let whatever is currently commanding your attention dictate your next step.

That is a risky approach. In a world full of distractions, you are giving in to every phone call, every message, and every notification on your phone.

It becomes much harder to shut yourself off from the world and focus on your most important task. Deep work becomes almost impossible.

Also, by following the OHIO principle, you are conditioning those around you to constantly interrupt you.

If my colleagues know I will stop whatever I am doing whenever they show up at my desk, I will become their go-to person. I am always available. Thus, I have taught them to interrupt me.

The same is true for email — the sooner you reply to messages, the more overall messages you will receive. Your busy work will spin out of control.

The Solution — OHIO 2.0

To make “Only Handle It Once” work, you should pay attention to the following modifications. I call this OHIO 2.0.

1. Only Give Yourself 3 Minutes

Only proceed with OHIO if the task will take a short time, approximately less than three minutes. This is to make sure you don’t get sidetracked too much from your real priorities.

For example, if you catch yourself thinking for the nth time, “I should really toss these old magazines,” just do it. It will for sure take less than 3 minutes.

A warning, though. We like to imagine we can get way more stuff done than we actually can. This phenomenon is known as the planning fallacy.

So, always double-check with yourself. Will it really take only a minute to answer this phone call by this particular client? Or will you more likely get bogged down for at least half an hour?

2. Create Placeholders

Let’s say your car needs a check-up and you want to make an appointment at the garage.

At first glance, this sounds like an OHIO item.

But at closer examination, it is not. That’s because you plan on switching garages. But to do that, you first need to call your friend Dave to get a recommendation.

Also, you need to give the new garage your vehicle identification number when you call them, so they can order spare parts. But you can’t remember for the life of it where you placed it.

So, this project is clearly too complex to be taken care of in less than 3 minutes.

What you should do instead is to create placeholders:

  • Placeholder 1 is, “Call Dave and ask about the new garage.”
  • Placeholder 2 is, “Go looking for my VIN.”

These two placeholder items now go on your to-do list.

This approach allows you to quickly take care of complex issues — issues that would take way too long to solve on the spot.

3. Create “Figure It Out” Items

Often, an item will be too complex to only handle it at once. But at the same time, you will have a hard time figuring out what the exact next step is.

In such instances, create a “figure it out” item.

For example, you know you want to get new leads for your business. But you are not sure how to go about it. Should you put up Google Ads? Should you try content marketing? Ask existing clients for recommendations?

So, you create an item that reads, “Figure out how I want to go about creating leads.”

Then you put that item on your to-do list, just like any other item. And next time you have an hour or two, you start researching which approach makes the most sense for you.

4. Have a Larger Framework

Techniques like OHIO must be reintegrated into a larger productivity framework. Otherwise, they will do more harm than good.

I recommend “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. If you don’t want to read the whole book, check out my condensed, personal take on GTD here.

However, many people are hesitant to take that additional step. They don’t want to bother with some complicated methodology. They are already stressed out as it is.

But these quick gimmicks — like OHIO, Pomodoro, or inbox zero — will not save you. They are too narrow. They don’t account for the complex reality you are dealing with every day.

You need an all-encompassing approach. And yes, this will take longer to learn. But the results will be worth it — you will finally be on top of things.

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