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Batch and schedule similar
Productivity Principle #7
This is part 7 of a multi-part series exploring the principles of personal productivity, with the goal of making it the last thing you’ll ever need to read about the topic. If you missed it, you can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here and part 6 here (once all parts are published, I’ll create a proper index).
Now that we’ve talked about the time it takes to get into the flow state, and the price we pay for constantly switching tasks (also known as switching costs), this next principle is simple common sense.
Whenever possible, batch similar tasks together.
In theory, if you receive ten emails, it should take the same amount of time to deal with them whether you deal with each one as it comes in, or whether you deal with them all at once. For instance, if each email takes one minute to deal with, then it shouldn’t matter whether we check email ten times and deal with each one as it comes in, or we check email once and deal with all ten at the same time. Either way, this should take ten minutes.
Except, as we saw when we were talking about flow state, that’s actually not how this happens. Every time you check email, there’s a switching cost, a sort of cognitive friction of starting up and winding down a task. The more often you check email, the more often you’re paying that cost. So, in reality, rather than it being ten 1-minute sessions vs one 10-minute session, it’s probably closer to something like ten 1 minute and 30 second sessions vs one 7-minute session. That’s the difference between 15 minutes and 7 minutes. That might not seem like much, but multiply that by the number of emails you receive in a day and you realize it makes a huge difference.
Obviously, email isn’t the only task that this principle applies to. The same logic can be applied to working on a presentation, doing the dishes or preparing emails. Also, as Henry Ford figured out years ago, it applies to all of the tasks related to building a car. Hence the assembly line.
The way this gets applied to our daily lives is by identifying those tasks that individually seem so small they’re trivial (like answering one email, replying to one slack message, cleaning one dish), but that recur so often as to add up to a significant amount of time. Then, rather than dealing with each item as it comes in, you schedule a block of time to deal with it all at once.
This has two advantages. The first, as we’ve seen, is that we can save significant time by batching similar tasks together.
The second is that the tiny individual tasks will no longer be interrupting us as we work through our other, more important, larger tasks.
I feel compelled to go on a slight tangent here about the feasibility of doing the above. If you’re freaking out about the idea of not replying to an email or a slack message immediately, then it’s time for a reality check. How many people can you think of whose responsibilities are so time-sensitive that they MUST reply immediately? Emergency room doctor? Police officer? Firefighter? Paramedic? President of the United States? The guy whose job it is to fix your internet while you’re in a marathon session of World of Warcraft?
And how many of those people are getting those requests by email and Slack?
My point is that if you’re reading this, you’re probably not saving babies, and there’s a good chance that whatever email or slack just showed up can wait a few minutes, or even a few hours. By now, most people in the workplace have understood that they shouldn’t expect immediate email responses, and most people understand that sometimes, you’re just not available to answer the Slack message about which shared directory that document was saved in.
And if you’re in an environment where people DON’T understand that you can’t drop everything you’re doing to answer their every question, then your biggest problem isn’t your personal productivity.
Applying the Principle
This one’s easy, especially since you already started applying the Pomodoro technique, and are no longer being interrupted in the middle of focused work. All I want you to do now is to identify the recurring tasks that take small amounts of time to do individually, but that add up quickly over the day or the week. Now, I want you to schedule yourself some time to deal with all of the same task in a batch (maybe in the form of a 25-minute pomodoro?).
How frequently you should batch these things is going to depend on your specific circumstances. Maybe it’s once per week, once per day, or once per hour. That doesn’t really matter. The important part is that you’ve scheduled time to deal with these things all at once so that they’re no longer interrupting your real work.
What Comes Next
The principle that I discuss in my next email is going to seem to directly contradict everything I just wrote above. So, I’ll catch you next time when I show off how well I can argue myself out of a corner.