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How to Maximize Efficiency by Grouping Tasks

How to Maximize Efficiency by Grouping Tasks
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    There’s a metaphor many of use on a daily basis that compares our brain to a car or a bicycle with gears. I need to shift gears or my head’s in the wrong gear for this indicates that the human brain, for the sake of efficiency and concentration, hones in on the task at hand to the point where it takes time to remove our concentration from the subject matter and move on to something else.

    This is something we experience all the time—for instance, when I’ve been working on the budget and getting invoices and receipts in order for tax time I’ll need to take a break to refresh my mind before moving on to work such as writing this article, which is a different type of work—creating data rather than processing it—and a different subject matter.

    In Your Memory: A User’s Guide the author Alan Baddeley refers to a study conducted by Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot in which the memory of chess masters were compared with those of average club players. The masters were the players who frequently played with a blindfold on.

    In one experiment he set out a chess board in a position selected from a game, allowed his chess players a series of five-second glimpses of the board, and after each glimpse required them to attempt to reproduce the position on another board. The masters correctly placed 90 per cent of the pieces after a single five minute glimpse, whereas the weak players positioned only 40 per cent of the pieces after one glimpse, and needed eight glimpses before they could equal the initial performance of the masters. Excerpted from Your Memory: A User’s Guide.

    What was the conclusion of de Groot’s study, along with a number of other experiments? That the master chess player’s superior skills comes from their ability to see the board as an organized whole rather than as a bunch of disconnected and individual pieces.

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    What’s that got to do with anything? Your mind organizes not at a minute level, but by clumping small, related things into cohesive wholes. To the mind, checking email, reading RSS and reading snail mail from the letterbox all end up as one thing—communications processing.

    If You Think in Groups, Work in Groups

    So, through anecdotal observation and personal experience (both highly regarded forms of scientific evidence, I assure you) we’ve established that the mind “shifts gears” in order to hone in on a particular task and think in the fashion required to complete it, or solve any problems pertaining to it. We’ve established that it then takes time to shift the gears of our brain to deal with other problems optimally. And, we’ve obtained legitimate scientific evidence to explain this and gain some insight into why this occurs.

    The natural, practical conclusion is that if you think in groups of related ideas that form wholes, then you should work that way too. Going against the flow of the human mind is only counter-productive, so instead of doing small chunks of the bookkeeping in between writing articles—since it’s so hard to keep going at it in one sitting!—we should group those related bookkeeping tasks together and tackle them in one go, right?

    The practical exercise would be to try it both ways and measure, down to the minute, the time it takes to complete the bookkeeping and the articles using both methods. I can guarantee that, if you mix tasks up through the day:

    • You spend more time completing the tasks,
    • You spend more time switching between tasks,
    • You have lost a significant amount of the day.

    Every time you stop what you’re doing and make a coffee and enjoy the sun for ten minutes after that half hour bookkeeping before you get stuck into an article, you lose time. Every time you have to pick up where you left off, you lose time figuring out where you actually left off and getting back onto the next tasks. And at the end of the day, when you add this up, you could be losing two hours because your style of task planning isn’t efficient.

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    Baddeley explains in his section on mental organization that the brain also categorizes things by your attitudes, beliefs and expectations. This may seem like an obvious factoid to bring up, but the truth is it means groups can only be defined by you.

    For instance, I put checking email, snail mail and reading RSS in the same group earlier on in the article—you may organize email, snail mail and phone calls in the same group while putting RSS with browsing and research.

    Getting a Grip on Groups

    List all the tasks you complete in a day, from the 8am email check through to the 5pm task review (or whatever it is you do). Everything. Then, using either paper or a mind-mapping tool, group all of those tasks together in what seems like a logical match to you. There’s no right or wrong, obviously, since whatever your brain is telling you is the way that you think about those tasks.

    If you have fairly large groups or lonesome tasks, that’s okay. The largest groups will make up the bulk of your crunch time, because you should tackle those tasks consecutively for maximum efficiency. The lonesome tasks will be good for breaking up any large groups, since it’s particularly hard to shift gears from one really huge area to another huge one.

    You should also figure out any tasks you perform weekly or monthly and group them too, though this can get trickier. Only attempt this if you’re an uber-productivian, the kind of person who actually lists reading this blog on their task list.

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    When you’re done, schedule them in groups, saving the most challenging groups and the largest groups for the times of day when you have the most energy, and the fairly low-involvement groups for the start and the end of the day. For instance, checking email and RSS is a fairly easy but productive way for me to get started, so I put that at the beginning of my day and get it out of the way. It gets me into the office routine and by the time those tasks are done I’m awake and ready for the real work.

    Examples of Groupings

    Communication is a big one, but unfortunately, it’s also fairly hard to group—you may have phone calls coming in and out all day, emails that need to be dealt with on the fly (avoid this at all costs if your work allows for it), and so on. However, in my workday, it looks something like this:

    • Email
    • RSS
    • Snail mail – bills, bank statements
    • Instant messaging (if you’re a web-worker, that’s like the conference room)

    Housework, however, is pretty easy to figure out—and we all have a pretty similar idea of what that entails.

    • Sweeping, vacuuming and mopping floors
    • Washing dishes, cleaning kitchen
    • Bathroom cleaning,
    • Laundry

    I know some people who spread the housework out through the day and take breaks in between. We all do it. But, if housework is viewed as a grouped task set, it can take an hour to do what usually takes you two.

    Your groups may (in fact, definitely will) vary – these are just examples of the groups of tasks I use to organize my day.

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    Auxiliary Benefit

    Instead of micromanaging my schedule, preset groups allows me to schedule much faster. I can simply plot Communications for 8am, Research for 9am and Writing for 12. It’s certainly not the reason for using this scheduling technique, but it does provide one more reason to actually do it.

    Schedule Consistently

    Perform your grouped task sets on a consistent basis – for weekly groups, do it on the same day at around the same time. For daily groups, do them in roughly the same order. Developing a routine allows your brain to shift those gears more easily, because they know what to expect.

    Grouping tasks is a simple, even trivial, technique, but after a few practical tests I’m convinced that it can save me a couple of hours in every day—exactly what I needed to find! However, if you like to break up tasks into more palatable chunks and aren’t looking for a few more hours in the day, then it might just drive you crazy to try this.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Get More Done in Less Time How to Master the Art of Prioritization the Right Way 3 Simple Strategies for Dealing With External Distractions The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure

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    Last Updated on March 23, 2021

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

    One of the greatest ironies of this age is that while various gadgets like smartphones and netbooks allow you to multitask, it seems that you never manage to get things done. You are caught in the busyness trap. There’s just too much work to do in one day that sometimes you end up exhausted with half-finished tasks.

    The problem lies in how to keep our energy level high to ensure that you finish at least one of your most important tasks for the day. There’s just not enough hours in a day and it’s not possible to be productive the whole time.

    You need more than time management. You need energy management

    1. Dispel the idea that you need to be a “morning person” to be productive

    How many times have you heard (or read) this advice – wake up early so that you can do all the tasks at hand. There’s nothing wrong with that advice. It’s actually reeks of good common sense – start early, finish early. The thing is that technique alone won’t work with everyone. Especially not with people who are not morning larks.

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    I should know because I was once deluded with the idea that I will be more productive if I get out of bed by 6 a.m. Like most of you Lifehackers, I’m always on the lookout for productivity hacks because I have a lot of things in my plate. I’m working full time as an editor for a news agency, while at the same time tending to my side business as a content marketing strategist. I’m also a travel blogger and oh yeah, I forgot, I also have a life.

    I read a lot of productivity books and blogs looking for ways to make the most of my 24 hours. Most stories on productivity stress waking up early. So I did – and I was a major failure in that department – both in waking up early and finishing early.

    2. Determine your “peak hours”

    Energy management begins with looking for your most productive hours in a day. Getting attuned to your body clock won’t happen instantly but there’s a way around it.

    Monitor your working habits for one week and list down the time when you managed to do the most work. Take note also of what you feel during those hours – do you feel energized or lethargic? Monitor this and you will find a pattern later on.

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    My experiment with being a morning lark proved that ignoring my body clock and just doing it by disciplining myself to wake up before 8 a.m. will push me to be more productive. I thought that by writing blog posts and other reports in the morning that I would be finished by noon and use my lunch break for a quick gym session. That never happened. I was sleepy, distracted and couldn’t write jack before 10 a.m.

    In fact that was one experiment that I shouldn’t have tried because I should know better. After all, I’ve been writing for a living for the last 15 years, and I have observed time and again that I write more –and better – in the afternoon and in evenings after supper. I’m a night owl. I might as well, accept it and work around it.

    Just recently, I was so fired up by a certain idea that – even if I’m back home tired from work – I took out my netbook, wrote and published a 600-word blog post by 11 p.m. This is a bit extreme and one of my rare outbursts of energy, but it works for me.

    3. Block those high-energy hours

    Once you have a sense of that high-energy time, you can then mold your schedule so that your other less important tasks will be scheduled either before or after this designated productive time.

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    Block them out in your calendar and use the high-energy hours for your high priority tasks – especially those that require more of your mental energy and focus. You also need to use these hours to any task that will bring you closer to you life’s goal.

    If you are a morning person, you might want to schedule most business meetings before lunch time as it’s important to keep your mind sharp and focused. But nothing is set in stone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice those productive hours to attend to other personal stuff – like if you or your family members are sick or if you have to attend your son’s graduation.

    That said, just remember to keep those productive times on your calendar. You may allow for some exemptions but stick to that schedule as much as possible.

    There’s no right or wrong way of using this energy management technique because everything depends on your own personal circumstances. What you need to remember is that you have to accept what works for you – and not what other productivity gurus say you should do.

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    Understanding your own body clock is the key to time management. Without it, you end up exhausted chasing a never-ending cycle of tasks and frustrations.

    Featured photo credit: Collin Hardy via unsplash.com

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