Task batching: what it is, how to do it well

Last updated on 
July 10, 2020

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The internet is jam-packed with tips and tricks for increasing your productivity… but often it’s the simplest hacks that make the biggest difference. Task batching is a textbook example of this. It’s the practice of grouping all similar tasks together and working on them methodically until they’re complete. If it sounds both simple and obvious it’s because it is... but for many of us, the process and benefits of task batching still remain elusive. To truly reap its productive reward we need to make major changes to the ways we work. Here’s how.

What is task batching & how does it work?

Task batching is the act of batching similar tasks together and doing them all at once, rather than addressing them sporadically throughout the day. By focusing solely on a single job, whether it’s replying to emails or filling out your expenses, you’re able to create a more concentrated workflow, minimize distractions and procrastination, and pay more attention to detail.

Many of us sit down at our desks each morning with the intention of task batching. We plan to plough through our new emails, only replying to the important ones, and protect two hours of unbroken focused time to work on an important task. Sadly, most of the time we don’t actually end up doing this. In our hyper-connected world, many of instead develop a habit of context switching, flitting between different tasks, juggling various duties simultaneously, and failing to focus fully on any one of them.

Distraction is everywhere – from phone calls and app pings, to email and Slack notifications. It’s all too easy to find yourself coming back to a task 10 minutes later wondering where you were. As magazine editor and media producer Jacqueline Leo said, “One look at an email can rob you of 15 minutes of focus. One call on your cell phone, one tweet, one instant message can destroy your schedule, forcing you to move meetings, or blow off important things.”

The aim of task batching is to break this cycle. It’s so effective because it creates structure around wedges of time, allowing you to commit to one specific task without constant interruption. As the Zeigarnik effect also proves, task batching allows us to capitalize on the power of momentum; satisfying our biological drive to see tasks through to completion. It also drastically reduces multitasking – one of the single biggest killers of productivity.

The question is, how can we best utilize task batching?

What work can you batch?

One big perk of task batching is its versatility. It can be used effectively for both productive “deep work” and unproductive “shallow work”; things like email, article editing, image creation and brainstorming can all be batched successfully, helping you access flow states which enable your peak productive performance. Things like meetings are also good to batch; that way, you don’t get continually interrupted throughout the day and are able to protect time for deep work.

However, task-batching isn't helpful for everything. If you’re working on a highly creative, complex task, taking any type of cognitive shortcut isn’t advisable – plus, attempting to stack several detailed, high intensity tasks back to back can quickly lead to burnout. It’s also not a good idea to batch new tasks, as it’s important to take the time to get the hang of the work first. Don’t task batch when you’re tired, either, as your focus will already be compromised and your work might not be up to standard.

Top tips for task-batching

Ready to get started? Follow these best practice tips to get the most productive bang for your buck:

1. Question what you’re batching first

Before batching any tasks, ask yourself whether you actually need to do them in the first place. A lot of low-value tasks that lend themselves to task batching can actually be entirely outsourced to intelligent tech – think automatic time tracking, meeting scheduling, invoicing and billing. Removing these from your workload frees up even more time for the important stuff.

2. Batch low-value work for low-energy parts of your day

Many of us experience a slump at some point during the day. Make it a habit to batch low-value work for these times. If you loose energy just after lunch, schedule all email for then; if you dip towards late afternoon, reserve that space for team admin. Likewise, batch cognitively demanding  deep work for when you feel most awake and focused.

3. Set a time limit to contain unruly tasks

Task batching is great for building momentum and getting into the flow, but you don’t want to get off track. It’s super important to set a time limit and stick to it so unruly tasks – namely daily communication – don’t take up disproportionate amounts of your day.

4. Automatically track how long you spend on all tasks

Without being able to see where your time’s going, you can’t tell if task batching is working. Use an automatic time tracker to see how long you spend on similar tasks before and after you start batching them; if you’re spending cumulatively less time when batching, you know your technique is working. Tracking is useful more generally for understanding the time required for different tasks as well as understanding where your efforts go.

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