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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.

    Mastering the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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