It’s a pretty open secret nowadays that humans are bad at multitasking. Every time you ALT+TAB to Twitter or your phone beeps, your concentration is shattered, and, depending on the kind of activity you’re doing, it can take you a while to regain your focus.
For instance, if you’re writing a paper and you’re interrupted mid-sentence, when you go back you have to re-read what you’ve written, find your place again, and remember all those thoughts in your head about where your argument’s going, the sources you need to cite, etc.
Switching from one running task to a new one, however, isn’t the only issue. Switching from one small, completed task to the next is also dangerous. Every time you move from one task to the next, you open yourself to distraction.
Consider this scenario:
You put a load of laundry in the washing machine, then pick up your phone and answer a text from a friend. Then you go into the kitchen and chop some veggies, before grabbing your phone and scrolling through your Instagram feed.
In this scenario, every time you switch tasks you’re picking up your phone and letting it distract you for five, ten minutes.
If, instead, you grouped your household tasks into a single batch and left your phone elsewhere, you could move seamlessly from task to task without distraction, only taking that five-minute break after you’d put the laundry in the machine, chopped the veggies, emptied the dishwasher, scrubbed the pans, and packed your lunch.
It’s a technique known as batching. By grouping your shorter tasks into a single, longer batch, you minimise distractions and avoid pulling yourself out of the mental zone associated with whatever kind of task you’re doing.
To get the most out of batching, there are a few things to bear in mind. First of all, group similar tasks together, and don’t overburden yourself with them. Secondly, clearly delineate between ‘work’ time, when you’re working on a batch of tasks and not checking Twitter or answering emails, and ‘break’ time, when you’re doing something that will re-energise you to tackle the next batch.
Group like with like
Batching is so successful because you avoid context-switching, a term derived from computing that refers to when you need to mentally, and sometimes physically, move from one task and into preparation for the next. For instance, if you move from doing the dishes to answering emails, you’re moving from the kitchen to the living room and from a cleaning mindset to a knowledge work-based one.
On the other hand, if you move from doing the dishes to wiping down the counters and sweeping the kitchen floor, you remain both physically and mentally in the same place.
To batch your tasks together, start by making a list of everything you do in a typical day or week. Cross out anything time-specific, like the time spent at or commuting to the office or when you eat your meals, and, using highlighters or coloured pens, categorise the remaining tasks.
For instance, you might use blue for household chores, pink for running errands, and green for college work.
Now that you have your broad categories, consider each one individually and think about where you could lump your tasks together. For example, could you pack your lunch while you cook your breakfast? Or perhaps you could batch together a week’s worth of lunches and pack them all on Sunday afternoon?
At this point you (hopefully) have a number of prime candidates for batching. The next step is to decide how long a batch should take.
Longer isn’t always better
The value of batching comes from reducing the amount of time spent switching between tasks, so naturally you might assume that it’s best to switch as little as possible.
That’s not always the case. While you don’t want to be stopping every five minutes, it’s important to take regular breaks.
Last week I talked about setting time limits. Batching runs along the same premise as setting a timer for 15 minutes and ploughing through your to-do list, but with the added aspect of specifically grouping similar tasks together.
Although you don’t need to set a timer for batching, it’s helpful to think about how long you consider a reasonable amount of time to spend on a given project.
Some people might prefer to do all their cleaning in a two-hour power session on Saturday morning, while others like to spread it throughout the week. The latter group can still benefit from batching, but into fifteen-minute or half-hour sessions.
Finding your unit of time
Personally, I find 30-45 minutes the perfect length of time for most tasks. I won’t batch anything that takes around that long into a larger group, and I don’t group tasks into a batch that I expect will take longer than that. I think of this as my own personal unit of time, in that this is the length of time in which I can easily complete a single task or batch of tasks without losing focus.
It’s difficult to accurately estimate how long a given task will take, of course, so how do I avoid making sure I don’t overcommit myself?
There are two ways around this problem. One is to estimate it and give yourself a series of batches on a single day.
For example, if I’m planning on doing food prep, I might group all my tasks into three batches, but if my first one takes less time than I anticipate I’ll move onto tasks in batch two, while if things take longer than expected I’ll add a fourth batch.
It can be difficult to figure out your own natural rhythms, so the other option is to start from a list that will take more than a single batch and set a timer.
In this case, I’d recommend using the Pomodoro technique, which is a popular method of breaking your time into work and rest periods. In the Pomodoro method, you work for 25 minutes then take a break for 5, and after four sets take a 15-20-minute break.
Using this technique, pay attention to how you respond, especially with different types of tasks. You may find that 25 minutes seems like an eternity on housework, but when you’re writing a paper the timer keeps interrupting your train of thought. Likewise, the breaks might not feel long enough to refresh your mind during study sessions, but are plenty for your chores.
Tweak your timings as necessary until you figure out your own unit of time, and use this to guide your batching process.Tips and tricks to batch your tasks for effective #timemanagement Click To Tweet
Make your breaks count
When you do pause for a break, don’t go checking social media. Besides the fact that it can pull you down the rabbit hole until you’ve suddenly spent half an hour on your ‘five-minute break’, it doesn’t do anything for you in terms of helping you regain focus.
There are two options for your break that I’d recommend. One is to switch to a different category of task, for instance moving from creative work to doing the dishes. The other is to take a break that recharges your mind, such as going for a walk or reading a chapter of a book.
Whether you switch to a different task or take a full break depends largely on what your task list looks like. If there’s solid variety of tasks it might make sense to lump everything into half-hour batches and switch between knowledge work and housework.
However, if you’re going to take active breaks like this, it’s still important to give yourself a proper break every couple of hours, allowing yourself to unwind and recharge.
Remember to single-task
As I mentioned above, one of the key aspects of batching is that it limits context-switching. This means that in order to do it effectively you need to avoid distractions during your work periods.
This means no multi-tasking, and no distractions. You’re either in work mode or in break mode, but never doing both at once, such as stopping mid-sentence to check your Twitter feed. Likewise, when you are in break mode, it’s a good idea to physically remove yourself from your work environment to help with that mental separation.
Batching is one of my favourite tools to get more done in less time. The core of its success is that it alternates periods of focus on a particular kind of task with breaks, so it works best if you group similar tasks together, keep your batches to a reasonable time frame and have a clear distinction between work time and break time.
Over to you
Do you batch your tasks? Do you have any advice to add to this to batch successfully?
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