Processing like-minded tasks in batches aids productivity

Depending on your age, I’d like you to either remember or consider the work environment before the internet, email, instant messaging, mobile phones, open plan offices, shared workbenches, etc. It doesn't seem possible that these have only been phased in over the last 30 years? Or that companies actually successfully prospered for 100 years without these?

The items listed have generally positively improved productivity by increasing speed, collaboration and communication while reducing silos in organisations. In some aspects though productivity has reduced due to sometimes unrealistic expectations of instant responses, coping with increased levels of distractions and interruptions which often sees many knowledge workers having difficulty in keeping up with their workload.

So how did Senior Managers process their work in the pre email etc age? For starters, (unlike now) many often had a Personal Assistant who would sort through all correspondence, meet with the manager to tick and flick through the pile to sort priorities, designate actions etc. In other words the correspondence was processed and dealt with as a batch (sometimes individually but usually multiple tasks at the same time).

This approach was used as a highly effective way of getting through the volume of work.

Today Senior Managers (who have Personal Assistants) sometimes still use a similar approach to dealing with incoming work. And even though most of us don't have access to a Personal Assistant, we don’t leverage the benefits of batching like-minded tasks as best we could or should to get more work done in less time.

Why batch work at all?

Let’s not think of our office environment but of the production processes at a manufacturing company. For processes that have setup and teardown time manufacturing companies make products in batches, otherwise it’s not cost effective. Lots of work is done to minimise setup and teardown time so that batches can be produced in small agile amounts.

At the office when we process our work, our brain is no different when task switching than the setup and teardown time in the manufacturing company. The example I’ll refer to is the research from the University of California who discovered it can take up to 23 minutes 15 seconds when we jump back from switching tasks. Imagine the negative impact this is having on our productivity.

Dave Allen in Getting Things Done supports batching like-minded tasks. While Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek goes even further to the extent of suggesting emails are only checked once a day or less!!

The most well known batching approach for knowledge workers I’m aware of is the Pomodoro Technique invented after the tomato shaped timer by Francesco Cirillo. The technique essentially is to: 

  • Plan and prioritise your task list
  • Set the timer for 25 minutes for a task or batch of small like-minded tasks
  • After 25 minutes take a 5 minute break to refresh
  • Start the next Pomodoro group
  • After 4 Pomodoro’s take a 15 – 20 minute break

The benefits from the Pomodoro approach are said to be increased productivity, creativity, greater focus and sense of achievement from getting things done and feeling in control, while not feeling as mentally fatigued from reduced levels of frustration, stress and procrastination.

I like the idea of batching but I find the Pomodoro Technique too rigid by nature (however if it works for you then keep using it). My alternative is just to set aside time to batch tasks like:

  • Processing emails – can get through more when processing them in batches of 20-30 minutes
  • Phone calls – focussed phone calls enables 10 – 20 calls to be made in a short period of time
  • Non urgent correspondence with stakeholders – instead of contacting stakeholders every time something pops up, consolidate a range of items to cover off at the same time. It’s then quicker to tick and flick through the list

Therefore, where appropriate I recommend to batch small like-minded tasks as the best way to make progress and receive benefits similar to those using the Pomodoro Technique. Besides improved productivity, the other reason for batching is that frequently it’s the volume of small things which get in the way for us to focus, have the energy and brainpower to attempt the bigger more complex challenges.

Alternatively, I’m not a fan of batching larger tasks as the enormity can often be too overwhelming or mentally taxing which has a negative impact on productivity. So finding the right balance of when or when not to batch is important.

If you’re not already using some form of batching then you might be surprised at the benefits gained from integrating this principle with how you work.