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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 Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services

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    Last Updated on January 6, 2021

    14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

    14 Ideas on How to Measure Productivity to Make Progress

    Everyone has heard the term productivity, and people talk about it in terms of how high it is and how to improve it. But fewer know how to measure productivity, or even what exactly we are talking about when using the term “productivity.”

    In its simplest form, the productivity formula looks like this: Output ÷ Input = Productivity.

    For example, you have two salespeople each making 10 calls to customers per week. The first one averages 2 sales per week and the second one averages 3 sales per week. By plugging in the numbers we get the following productivity levels for each sales person.

    For salesperson one, the output is 2 sales and the input is 10 sales: 2 ÷ 10 = .2 or 20% productivity. For salesperson two, the output is 3 sales and the input is 10 sales: 3 ÷ 10 = .3 or 30% productivity.

    Knowing how to measure and interpret productivity is an invaluable asset for any manager or business owner in today’s world. As an example, in the above scenario, salesperson #1 is clearly not doing as well as salesperson #2.

    Knowing this information we can now better determine what course of action to take with salesperson #1.

    Some possible outcomes might be to require more in-house training for that salesperson, or to have them accompany the more productive salesperson to learn a better technique. It might be that salesperson #1 just isn’t suited for sales and would do a better job in a different position.

    How to Measure Productivity With Management Techniques

    Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to fine tune your business by minimizing costs and maximizing profits:

    1. Identify Long and Short-Term Goals

    Having a good understanding of what you (or your company’s) goals are is key to measuring productivity.

    For example, if your company’s goal is to maximize market share, you’ll want to measure your team’s productivity by their ability to acquire new customers, not necessarily on actual sales made.

    2. Break Down Goals Into Smaller Weekly Objectives

    Your long-term goal might be to get 1,000 new customers in a year. That’s going to be 20 new customers per week. If you have 5 people on your team, then each one needs to bring in 4 new customers per week.

    Now that you’ve broken it down, you can track each person’s productivity week-by-week just by plugging in the numbers:

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    Productivity = number of new customers ÷ number of sales calls made

    3. Create a System

    Have you ever noticed that whenever you walk into a McDonald’s, the French fry machine is always to your left? 

    This is because McDonald’s created a system. They have determined that the most efficient way to set up a kitchen is to always have the French fry machine on the left when you walk in.

    You can do the same thing and just adapt it to your business.

    Let’s say that you know that your most productive salespeople are making the most sales between the hours of 3 and 7 pm. If the other salespeople are working from 9 am to 4 pm, you can potentially increase productivity through something as simple as adjusting the workday.

    Knowing how to measure productivity allows you to set up, monitor, and fine tune systems to maximize output.

    4. Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate!

    We’ve already touched on using these productivity numbers to evaluate and monitor your employees, but don’t forget to evaluate yourself using these same measurements.

    If you have set up a system to track and measure employees’ performance, but you’re still not meeting goals, it may be time to look at your management style. After all, your management is a big part of the input side of our equation.

    Are you more of a carrot or a stick type of manager? Maybe you can try being more of the opposite type to see if that changes productivity. Are you managing your employees as a group? Perhaps taking a more one-on-one approach would be a better way to utilize each individual’s strengths and weaknesses.

    Just remember that you and your management style contribute directly to your employees’ productivity.

    5. Use a Ratings Scale

    Having clear and concise objectives for individual employees is a crucial part of any attempt to increase workplace productivity. Once you have set the goals or objectives, it’s important that your employees are given regular feedback regarding their progress.

    Using a ratings scale is a good way to provide a standardized visual representation of progress. Using a scale of 1-5 or 1-10 is a good way to give clear and concise feedback on an individual basis.

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    It’s also a good way to track long-term progress and growth in areas that need improvement.

    6. Hire “Mystery Shoppers”

    This is especially helpful in retail operations where customer service is critical. A mystery shopper can give feedback based on what a typical customer is likely to experience.

    You can hire your own shopper, or there are firms that will provide them for you. No matter which route you choose, it’s important that the mystery shoppers have a standardized checklist for their evaluation.

    You can request evaluations for your employees friendliness, how long it took to greet the shopper, employees’ knowledge of the products or services, and just about anything else that’s important to a retail operation.

    7. Offer Feedback Forms

    Using a feedback form is a great way to get direct input from existing customers. There are just a couple of things to keep in mind when using feedback forms.

    First, keep the form short, 2-3 questions max with a space for any additional comments. Asking people to fill out a long form with lots of questions will significantly reduce the amount of information you receive.

    Secondly, be aware that customers are much more likely to submit feedback forms when they are unhappy or have a complaint than when they are satisfied.

    You can offset this tendency by asking everyone to take the survey at the end of their interaction. This will increase compliance and give you a broader range of customer experiences, which will help as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

    8. Track Cost Effectiveness

    This is a great metric to have, especially if your employees have some discretion over their budgets. You can track how much each person spends and how they spend it against their productivity.

    Again, this one is easy to plug into the equation: Productivity = amount of money brought in ÷ amount of money spent.

    Having this information is very useful in forecasting expenses and estimating budgets.

    9. Use Self-Evaluations

    Asking your staff to do self evaluations can be a win-win for everyone. Studies have shown that when employees feel that they are involved and their input is taken seriously, morale improves. And as we all know, high employee morale translates into higher productivity.

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    Using self-evaluations is also a good way to make sure that the employees and employers goals are in alignment.

    10. Monitor Time Management

    This is the number one killer of productivity in the workplace. Time spent browsing the internet, playing games, checking email, and making personal calls all contribute to lower productivity[1].

    Time Management Tips to Improve Productivity

      The trick is to limit these activities without becoming overbearing and affecting morale. Studies have shown that most people will adhere to rules that they feel are fair and applied to everyone equally.

      While ideally, we may think that none of these activities should be done on company time, employees will almost certainly have a different opinion. From a productivity standpoint, it is best to have policies and rules that are seen as fair to both sides as you’re learning how to measure productivity.

      11. Analyze New Customer Acquisition

      We’ve all heard the phrase that “It’s more expensive to get a new customer than it is to keep an existing one.” And while that is very true, in order for your business to keep growing, you will need to continually add new customers.

      Knowing how to measure productivity via new customer acquisition will make sure that your marketing dollars are being spent in the most efficient way possible. This is another metric that’s easy to plug into the formula: Productivity = number of new customers ÷ amount of money spent to acquire those customers.

      For example, if you run any kind of advertising campaign, you can compare results and base your future spending accordingly.

      Let’s say that your total advertising budget is $3,000. You put $2,000 into television ads, $700 into radio ads, and $300 into print ads. When you track the results, you find that your television ad produced 50 new customers, your radio ad produced 15 new customers, and your print ad produced 9 new customers.

      Let’s plug those numbers into our equation. Television produced 50 new customers at a cost of $2,000 (50 ÷ 2000 = .025, or a productivity rate of 2.5%). The radio ads produced 15 new customers and cost $700 (15 ÷ 700 = .022, or a 2.2% productivity rate). Print ads brought in 9 new customers and cost $300 (9 ÷ 300 = .03, or a 3% return on productivity).

      From this analysis, it is clear that you would be getting the biggest bang for your advertising dollar using print ads.

      12. Utilize Peer Feedback

      This is especially useful when people who work in teams or groups. While self-assessments can be very useful, the average person is notoriously bad at assessing their own abilities.

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      Just ask a room full of people how many consider themselves to be an above average driver and you’ll see 70% of the hands go up[2]! Now we clearly know that in reality about 25% of drivers are below average, 25% are above average, and 50% are average.

      Are all these people lying? No, they just don’t have an accurate assessment of their own abilities.

      It’s the same in the workplace. Using peer feedback will often provide a more accurate assessment of a person’s ability than a self-assessment would.

      13. Encourage Innovation and Don’t Penalize Failure

      When it comes to productivity, encouraging employee input and adopting their ideas can be a great way to boost productivity. Just make sure that any changes you adopt translate into higher productivity.

      Let’s say that someone comes to you requesting an entertainment budget so that they can take potential customers golfing or out to dinner. By utilizing simple productivity metrics, you can easily produce a cost benefit analysis and either expand the program to the rest of the sales team, or terminate it completely.

      Either way, you have gained valuable knowledge and boosted morale by including employees in the decision-making process.

      14. Use an External Evaluator

      Using an external evaluator is the pinnacle of objective evaluations. Firms that provide professional evaluations use highly trained personnel that even specialize in specific industries.

      They will design a complete analysis of your business’ productivity level. In their final report, they will offer suggestions and recommendations on how to improve productivity.

      While the benefits of a professional evaluation are many, their costs make them prohibitive for most businesses.

      Final Thoughts

      These are just a few of the things you can do when learning how to measure productivity. Some may work for your particular situation, and some may not.

      The most important thing to remember when deciding how to track productivity is to choose a method consistent with your goals. Once you’ve decided on that, it’s just a matter of continuously monitoring your progress, making minor adjustments, and analyzing the results of those adjustments.

      The business world is changing fast, and having the right tools to track and monitor your productivity can give you the edge over your competition.

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      Featured photo credit: William Iven via unsplash.com

      Reference

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