Of all the best practices available for getting more done in less time, one of the most powerful and easiest to implement is batching. Batching is the art of making a repetitive task more efficient by reducing it to as few sessions as possible. Instead of spreading your outbound calls throughout the day between other tasks, it’s usually more efficient to handle them during one or two scheduled blocks, to minimize the mental burden of task switching.
Batching makes logical sense to everyone, but in practice, it doesn’t always work as advertised. Sometimes the principle is applied in ways that don’t take human factors into account; other times, people will apply batching to one or two tasks, but miss opportunities to apply it in many other areas of their lives. Let’s look at a few ways to implement batching the smart way.
Use Context Lists
The context list concept is an innovation from David Allen, popularized in his personal productivity classic, Getting Things Done. Instead of keeping a single task list with everything on it, you keep several lists, each devoted exclusively to one location or “context.” All of your phone calls go on a list called Calls, all of your tasks that need to be done at a computer go on a list called Computer, all of your errands go on your Errands list, and so on.
In the canonical GTD system, each action list is prefixed with an “@” sign: @Calls, @Computer, @Errands, @Home, @Office, @Agendas, to name a few of the most commonly used lists. “Agendas” are lists of names of individuals you need to discuss various topics with, and each of those names can have a list of topics (possibly in the notes field of a task entry, if you’re using Outlook or another electronic organizer).
Why keep multiple task lists instead of one? For two reasons. First, it reduces the number of options to scan through and choose from to only the options that are actionable in the moment. If you’re not at home, why wade through a bunch of tasks that need to be done at home that you can’t actually do? Batch them into an @Home list and keep them out of view until you’re home and need to refer to them.
More importantly, you’ll get to see everything you can do in your current context in one snapshot. There’s no reason to limit yourself to one computer task when you’re sitting at the computer. Before long, working through each context list becomes a game, where you start challenging yourself to see if there’s any other tasks you can knock off while you’re in the same place.
It’s possible to go overboard with too many lists. You want as few as possible but as many as necessary, which is a balance that can only be refined through experience.
Factor in Setup and Strike Time
For think-intensive work, it typically takes about 15 minutes to ramp up to a steady flow of production, so it makes sense to incorporate that arc into the time you allot to a session. If you want to get 30 minutes of solid writing done, allocate 45. Also consider time it takes to “strike the set” — to put everything away, to shut down the computer, or to change venues. Strike time often gets ignored and derails subsequent tasks. Think of how many meetings start with colleagues still strolling in for the first 10 minutes because they underestimated how long it would take to wrap up what they were doing immediately beforehand. Don’t be one of the stragglers. Begin with the end in mind.
Rightsize Your Batches
Conventional wisdom on batching maintains that you should extend your work sessions for as long as possible. That’s great for machines, where fatigue is negligible, but human concentration follows a bell curve with a point of diminishing returns. This is known as your concentration threshold. Devoting eight hours to a writing session when you’re genuinely productive for only four of them can lead to two problems:
- The quality of work done beyond your concentration threshold will suffer, and require more revision than normal, negating any efficiency gained by batching
- You become subliminally aware of how much time you actually work, and begin to procrastinate until you have only that much time left (the “student syndrome”)
The solution is simple: cut the time you allocate to a more manageable chunk. If you’re having trouble cranking through your email in 90 minutes, only give yourself 45; then pick up the slack in another sitting.
If the suggestion above seems like a prescription for laziness, note that I’m only referring to the time allocated to a single task, not work in general. You have other things to do besides email, so scan through your @Computer list (or @Office or @Calls) have find another task to complete. You can always come back to email when you’ve done some real work in the interim.
Nor does rightsizing mean limiting yourself to one session per day for a single task. A programmer might write some code for 90 minutes, process email for 30, code some more for another 90 minutes, bring a coworker over for a code review for 30, spend another 30 minutes on email, and so on. Yes, there’s overhead to task switching, but there’s also overhead to working through a decline in concentration. Use intuition and experimentation to hit the right balance.
Demarcate Your Batches
Don’t let fatigue or change of mood be the cue to start or finish a task. Your brain needs a more explicit signal to get a sense of completion. When you’re done with the set of @Computer tasks you planned for that session, get up from the computer and walk away from it. When you hit the Send button on your last email of that session, close the email app or tab. I make it a point never to have a tab or application window open if I’m not using it for the task at hand. Multitasking isn’t just doing multiple things at once, it’s thinking about multiple things at once; it’s less about action than fragmented attention. So keep your attention whole by closing off unrelated inputs.
Name the Application or Location Needed for the Task
If you have a bunch of things to do in Photoshop, consider listing them with “Photoshop:” at the beginning, as in, “Photoshop: resize thumbnails for blog”. If you have a few things to do at Office Depot, like comparing printers, purchasing an external hard drive and exchanging an office chair, write down, “Office Depot: compare printers,” and so on, to each of them. When it’s time to do one of those tasks, you’ll have a streamlined group of options for what you can do immediately afterward. If your list manager is a digital organizer, you can even alpha sort each list so that you can see, for instance, all of your Excel-related work in one contiguous block.
Like all best practices, batching is most effective when used by people who focus on principles rather than rules. You can probably think of more ways to apply the batching concept than have been outlined here. Use these tips as a springboard for new ways to consolidate repetitive tasks.
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Sounds like a great idea… the only thing I would have liked is a few examples of apps that will take care of this breaking up of lists.
I’ve been doing this (without realizing actually what I was doing!) by using Quicksilver on my mac to quickly append text to a series of text files, without interrupting what I was doing at the moment I came up with the task. Its worked beautifully in the past, but after reading this article, I’m going to make some tweaks to my methods to get more out of it. Thanks for the great idea!
Things http://culturedcode.com/things/ is a great Mac app for managing list according to the GTD principle.
I use Evernote (www.evernote.com) to work with lists and syncronize it in all my computers via internet. The book of GTD was my best buy of this year.
@Chris: That’s an excellent idea for another post. Device synchronization is important to me for ubiquitous task management, so that rules out many PIM apps.
I’d be happy to use Google Tasks, for instance, but Tasks has no API that would allow syncing with anything but an Android device. So I use GooSync for its task list manager and contacts, and use Google Calendar for “hard landscape” events. GooSync syncs my calendar, contacts and tasks complete in the cloud, allow me to avoid the limitations and frustrations of ActiveSync on my Windows phone (a Treo Pro).
next great GTD webapp here: http://nirvanahq.com/
Remember the Milk, it’s a website and an iPhone app. Going off the principle of the best system is the one you will use, this app is perfect for me.