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

Do you keep staring at the same few to-dos?

Then the OHIO method (“Only Handle It Once”) might be your solution. Whenever a new to-do arises, you take care of it right away.

Learn how exactly it works, what pitfalls to watch out for, and what you must do to get the most out of it.

What Is the OHIO Method?

The acronym OHIO stands for “Only Handle It Once.”

It’s an organizational strategy designed to not let things pile up. Whenever a new task comes up, you handle it immediately. You don’t keep coming back to it.

The classic example is email.

What most people do is that they go into their email several times per day, starting at the same couple of unanswered emails. 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. You get it out of the way, done. You never need to think about this item again.

Other examples:

  • Snail mail. When you get a letter, don’t just open it and then put it back down. Either define an action, pay the bill, or shred it.
  • Phone calls. When someone calls you and asks you to do something, like call someone else, do so right away.
  • Appointments. When you remember that it’s for your check-up at the dentist’s schedule an appointment immediately.
  • Decluttering. If keep thinking, “I need to throw this old winter coat out,” get the coat and toss it or bring it to the Goodwill.

There are certain advantages, but also some major pitfalls with “Only Handle It Once.”

Let’s examine those.


There are three major benefits to the OHIO method.

We already touched on the first one — mental bandwidth.

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

“Only Handle It Once” solves that. With any given task, you only spend mental energy on it once.

The second benefit is administrative savings. If you handle a task as soon as it pops up, you don’t have to take out your phone or open up your computer and add it to your to-do list.

The third benefit is that you are less likely to forget things. The task has already been checked-off.


The main problem with OHIO — you end up prioritizing the urgent over the important. You let whatever pops up dictate what you are going to do next.

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

Deep work becomes impossible. You can no longer shut yourself off from the world and focus on your most important project in life.

What’s even more terrible — by following the OHIO principle, you are also conditioning those around you to constantly interrupt you.

If my colleagues know I will stop doing whatever I am doing whenever they show up at my desk, I will become their go-to person. I will be available when others are not. Thus, I have conditioned them to interrupt me at will.

Especially in the context of email, this is not a good idea. It’s the eternal law of email — the sooner you reply to a message, the more messages you will get.

When you reply to emails immediately, you are soon going to drown in them. Instead of taking care of things once, you have created a never-ending flow of follow-up tasks.

The Solution — OHIO 2.0

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

1. Only Give Yourself 30 Seconds to 3 Minutes

First, only execute OHIO if the task in question will take a very short time, maybe 30 seconds to 3 minutes, depending on your capacities this day.

So, if you catch yourself thinking for the fifth time, “I should really toss these old newspapers,” then just do it. Take them, open the garbage bin, done.

This way, you won’t have to think about the issue for a sixth time. You also won’t have to put this item on your to-do list.

A warning: We all tend to underestimate how long it actually takes to get things done. This is known as the planning fallacy.

Always check yourself. Will it really only take 30 seconds to 3 minutes to answer this phone call by this particular client? Or will you get bugged down for at least half an hour like always?

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. You want to switch garages, but 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 item is clearly too complex to be taken care of in 30 seconds to 3 minutes.

What you do instead is create placeholders.

Placeholder 1 is, “Call Dave and ask about the garage.”

Placeholder 2 is, “Go looking for my VIN.”

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

What this does is it frees up your mental bandwidth, just like the OHIO method would. You know you have taken care of this issue — you have made a decision on what needs to be done and you have put reminders in place at a central location (your to-do list) that you regularly check.

3. Create “Figure It Out” Items

Often, an item will be too complex to only handle it once. But at the same time, you have a hard time defining the exact next step, so you can create a placeholder.

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

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

So, you create a placeholder that reads, “Figure out how I want to create leads.” Then you put that place on your to-do list, just like any other item. And next time you have an hour or two, you start researching which move makes the most sense to you.

4. Have a Second Brain

Tools like OHIO or the Pomodoro technique must be integrated into a larger productivity framework. Otherwise, these techniques will do more harm than good.

If OHIO is a tool, your framework is the toolbox. It is how you process anything in your life, the methodology you have agreed upon with yourself.

People fixate on the tools but ignore the toolbox because they don’t want to deal with even more complexity.

They are already stressed out, trying to juggle their hectic lives. “Now you want me to learn some complicated time management methodology? No thanks.”

But any quick hack cannot save you. It doesn’t account for the complex, ever-changing reality you are facing. To solve your productivity problems on a fundamental level, you must create a second brain for yourself, something that represents all the projects in your life.

“Getting Things Done” by David Allen is a great starting point for this. If you want to learn how I go about my second brain, check out this article.

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