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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.

    More by this author

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    Published on January 16, 2019

    How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

    How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

    We’re all busy, but sometimes we go through periods where the work piles up and it seems like it might never end.

    You might have such a heavy workload that it feels too intimidating to even start.

    You may have said yes to some or too many projects, and now you’re afraid you won’t be able to deliver.

    That’s when you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and start looking at what’s working and what’s not working.

    Here’re 13 strategies you can use to get out from under your overwhelming workload:

    1. Acknowledge You Can’t Do It All

    Many of us have a tendency to think we can do more than we actually can. We take on more and more projects and responsibility and wear numerous hats.

    We all have the opportunity to have and take on more work than we can reasonably expect to get done. Unfortunately, our workload is not static. Even now, while you are reading this article, I’m guessing that your inbox is filling up with fresh new tasks.

    To make real, effective progress, you have to have both the courage and resourcefulness to say, “This is not working”. Acknowledge that you can’t do it all and look for better solutions.

    At any given time in your life, there are likely many things that aren’t going according to plan. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself and those around you about what’s not working for you, both personally and professionally.

    The more you exercise your ability to tell the truth about what’s working and what’s not working, the faster you’ll make progress.

    2. Focus on Your Unique Strengths

    Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a leader or working as part of a team, every individual has unique strengths they can bring to the table.

    The challenge is that many people end up doing things that they’re simply not very good at.

    In the pursuit of reaching your goals or delivering a project, people end up doing everything themselves or taking on things that don’t play to their unique strengths. This can result in frustration, overwhelm and overwork.

    It can mean projects taking a lot longer to complete because of knowledge gaps, or simply not utilizing the unique strengths of other people you work with.

    It is often not about how to complete this project more effectively but who can help deliver this project.

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    So, what are your unique strengths that will ensure your workload is delivered more effectively? Here’re some questions to help you reflect:

    • Are you a great strategist?
    • Are you an effective planner?
    • Is Project Management your strength?
    • Is communication and bringing people together your strength?
    • Are you the ideas person?
    • Is Implementation your strength?

    Think about how you can bring the biggest value to your work and the projects you undertake.

    3. Use the Strengths of Your Team

    One of the simplest ways to manage your workload effectively is to free up your time so you bring your highest level of energy, focus and strengths to each project.

    Delegation or better teamwork is the solution.

    Everyone has unique strengths. It’s essential to think teamwork rather than working in isolation to ensure projects can be completed effectively. Besides, every time you give away a task or project that doesn’t play to your unique strengths, you open up an opportunity to do something you’re more talented at. This will empower both yourself and those around you.

    Rather than taking on all the responsibilities yourself, look at who you can work with to deliver the best results possible.

    4. Take Time for Planning

    “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. – Abraham Lincoln

    One hour of effective planning could save hours of time. Rather than just rushing in and getting started on projects, take the time to map everything in.

    You can take the time to think about:

    • What’s the purpose of the project?
    • How Important is it?
    • When does it need to be delivered by?
    • What is the best result and worst result for this project?
    • What are the KPIs?
    • What does the project plan and key milestones look like?
    • Who is working on this project?
    • What is everyone’s responsibilities?
    • What tolerances can I add in?
    • What are the review stages?
    • What are the challenges we may face and the solutions for these challenges?

    Having absolute clarity on the project, the project deliverables and the result you want can save a lot of time. It also gets you clear on the priorities and timelines, so you can block out the required amount of time to focus and concentrate.

    5. Focus on Priorities

    Not everything is a priority, although it can often feel, in the moment, that it is.

    Whatever you’re working on, there is always the Most Urgent, Important or Most Valuable projects or tasks.

    One tool you can use to maximize your productivity and focus on your biggest priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix. This strategic tool for taking action on the things that matter most is simple. You separate your actions based on four possibilities:

    1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
    2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
    3. Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
    4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

    James Clear has a great description on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix: How to be More Productive By Using the Eisenhower Box

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      The method I use with my coaching clients is to ask them to lay out their Top Five priorities for the day. Then to start with the most important priority first. At the end of the day, you review performance against these priorities.

      If you didn’t get everything accomplished, start the next day with your number one priority.

      If you are given additional task/projects during the day, then you will need to gauge their importance V the other priorities.

      6. Take Time Out

      To stay on top of a heavy workload, it’s important to take time out to rest and recuperate.

      If your energy levels are high and your mind and body is refreshed and alert, you are in more of a peak state to handle a heavy workload.

      Take time out of your day to go for a walk or get some exercise in. Leave early when possible and spend time with people who give you a lot of energy.

      In the background, it’s essential to get a good night’s sleep and eat healthily to sharpen the mind.

      Take a look at this article learn about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

      7. Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance

      Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be tough. The balance we all crave is very different from one another.

      I’ve written before about 13 Work Life Balance Tips for a Happy and Productive Life. Working longer and harder doesn’t mean achieving more, especially if you have no time to spend with the people that matter most. The quality of who you are as a person, the relationships you have, the time you spend in work, deciding on what matters most is completely within your control.

      Work-life balance is about finding peace within yourself to be fully present, wherever you are, whether that be in the office or at home, right now. It’s about choosing what matters most and creating your own balanced life.

      If you feel there is not enough balance, then it may be time to make a change.

      8. Stop Multitasking

      Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain simply can’t work effectively by doing more than one thing at a time—at least more than one thing that requires focused attention.

      So get your list of priorities (see earlier point), do the most important thing first, then move to the next item and work down your list.

      When you split your focus over a multitude of different areas, you can’t consistently deliver a high performance. You won’t be fully present on the one task or project at hand.

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      If you allocate blocked time and create firm boundaries for specific activities and commitments, you won’t feel so overwhelmed or overworked with everything you have to do.

      9. Work in Blocks of Time

      To keep your energy up to produce your best results it’s essential to take regular breaks.

      I use the 60-60-30 method myself and teach it to my coaching clients.

      Work on a project for a sustained period of 50 minutes.

      Then take a 10-minute break. This could be taking a walk, having a healthy snack or just having a conversation with someone.

      Then continue to work on the project for a further 50 minutes.

      Then take another 10-minute break.

      Then take a complete 30-minute break to unplug from the work. This could be time for a proper lunch, a quick bit of exercise, reading or having a walk.

      By simply taking some time out, your energy levels stay up, the quality of your work improves and you reduce the risk of becoming burned out.

      10. Get Rid of Distractions

      Make an estimation on how many times you are distracted during an average working day. Now take that number and multiply it by 25. According to Gloria Mark in her study on The Cost of Interrupted Work, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after interruption.[1]

      “Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood and lower productivity.”

      Distractions don’t just take up your time during the distraction, they can derail your mental progress and focus for almost 25 minutes. So, if you are distracted 5 times per day, you could be losing almost 2 hours every day of productive work and almost 10 hours every week.

      If you have an important project to work on, find a space where you won’t be distracted, or try doing this.

      11. Commit Focused Time to Smaller Tasks

      You know sometimes, you need to simply tackle these tasks and take action on them. But there’s always something more pressing.

      Small tasks can often get in the way of your most important projects. They sit there on your daily To Do list but are often forgotten about because of more important priorities or because they hold no interest for you. But they take up mental energy. They clutter your mind.

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      Commit to spending a specific period of time completing all the small tasks you have on your To Do list. It will give you peace of mind and the space to focus more on your bigger priorities.

      12. Take a Time Audit

      Do you know exactly where your time is going each day? Are you spending too long on certain projects and tasks to the detriment of bigger opportunities?

      Spend a bit of time to analyze where you are spending your time. This insight will amaze you and give you the clarity to start adjusting where you focus your time and on what projects.

      You can start by taking a piece of paper and creating three columns:

      Column A is Priority Work. Column B is Good Work. Column C is low value work or stuff.

      Each day, write down the project or task and the time spent on each. Allocate that time to one of the columns.

      At the end of the week, record the total time spent in each column.

      If you are spending far too much time on certain types of work, look to change things so your focused time is in Column B and C.

      13. Protect Your Confidence

      It is essential to protect our confidence to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed, stressed and lose belief.

      When you have confidence as a daily resource, you are in a better position to problem solve, learn quicker, respond to anything, adjust to anything, and achieve your biggest opportunities.

      Confidence gives you the ability to transform fear into focused and relaxed thinking, communication, and action. This is key to put your mind into a productive state.

      When confidence is high, you can clearly see the possibilities at hand and create strategies to take advantage of them, or to solve the challenges you face each day.

      Final Words

      A heavy workload can be tough to deal with and can cause stress, burnout and ongoing frustration.

      The key is to tackle it head on, rather than let it go on and compound the long-term effects. Hopefully, you can take action on at least one of these tips.

      If it gets too much, and negatively affects your physical and mental health, it may be time to talk to someone. Instead of dealing with it alone and staying unhappier, resentful and getting to a point where you simply can’t cope, you have to make a change for your own sanity.

      Featured photo credit: Hannah Wei via unsplash.com

      Reference

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