Productivity Fortnight+1: Batching Tasks

Batching tasks together is not a new concept – it’s a very old and practical one. But there are several permutations to the approach, which will be discussed in today’s post.

Simple Batches

batch-related-tasks-like-emails-and-phone-calls-into-a-single-chunkNot an incredibly world-changing method, but the common-sense approach sometimes goes missing when you have chosen some very different tasks – and also have to attend to some urgent ones that crop up.

Batch similar tasks into work units and do in a consecutive flow.

An example – batch all the social tasks together – attend to your email inbox; Facebook, Twitter and other social networks; and voicemail. Another example – batch all your book promotion or marketing tasks together – batch writing a guest blog post, your media sheets, and planning a book tour schedule together.

Batching Tasks with @Context

contextThe concept of context comes again, from GTD. The Getting Things Done approach is to batch tasks according to the action that needs to be completed, such as making phone calls, running errands and doing tasks at work. In that system, context is tagged to a task with an ‘@’.

In his book “Getting Things Done” David Allen used four criteria for selecting the action you should work on next:

  1. Context (availability of tools like phone, computer, internet connection, office)
  2. Time (time you have at hand, e.g. before the next meeting starts)
  3. Energy (the level of attention you can devote to the task)
  4. Priority (if you still need to chose between tasks which one is most important)

The original objective of tagging a task with @computer or @phone meant that you could group or find all the tasks which sat under the same context, and when you decided to, say, pick up the phone, you could locate all relevant tasks and action them all at that time.

Context equals the area or environment and limitations you will focus within. This could be a tool, or location which allows for similar focus.

With the relative ubiquity of tools for most workers nowadays, the @context tag is often used to differentiate or group tasks in other categories eg-

  • time perhaps (@1min, @fast, @quickwin, @hours!)
  • or project* (@social, @write,@plan,@promote).
  • It’s also been used to denote energy* or emotional levels suggested for the task (@routine, @thinking, @highenergy, @dreamtime, @full focus, @hardslog).

Some GTD-type apps have hardcoded older context options within (@computer, for instance) so if using an app, make sure you can customise and add your contexts to suit.

The concept of “context” is sometimes a difficult one to grasp, and is certainly what originally put me off GTD all together – like many people I chose to not use it. Irregular or non-environmental uses for the context tags can cause all kinds of problems –

Prime problems are having too large a list size of contexts to choose from – this can result from customisation also, too much overlap, and contrarily, when being used in jobs which basically have the majority of the work in one context area (like, writing).

  • In the above project example, if you create a series of @Project 1, @Project 2 etc, the system won’t work for you. That’s because you could have many different types of tasks – phone calls, writing, internet time, planning etc which could be lumped into @Project 1, but which require different types of tools and focus to achieve.
  • The same has been said about using energy levels as context. You can have several unassociated or very different tasks sitting in an @highenergy context, but these may require very different tools and focus.
  • According to this 43Folders article, jobs like those of a developer or writer have one similar context to our tasks – developers @code and writers @write. The problem is trying to differentiate – many writers might try to sub-categorise to create other contexts like @outline, @draft, @edit or @publish – much of which use the same environment and tools as the rest. So, your batches of tasks are basically very similar.

To me, it’s quite understandable why context, as a method, isn’t highly usable for tackling tasks. I tend to follow the policy to keep any I do use very simple.

WorkStation Popcorn

workstation popcornWorkStation Popcorn takes task batches on the road.

The concept originated in a hacker.com forum, but was documented by Joel Runyon at Impossible HQ and later featured at several Lifehacker sites.

The method involves choosing three batches or groups of similar tasks, and which will take a similar time to complete (around 2 to 2 1/2 hours per group); and three different locations within walking or biking distance – and away from the office and house. You then travel to the first location, complete the tasks, move to the second and so on.

This unconventional approach does utilise many findings towards increasing productivity and creativity –

  • Switching location three times in this method may offer you some down-time and rest – and exercise between task batches.
  • Walking has been found to increase productivity.
  • Taking tasks away from the office may reduce distractions – although people like me find working at cafes equally distracting.
  • And of course, similar tasks are batched together.

Reading Assignment No 7 – Further Reading

 An App for That

Of course there are apps for that. Productivity apps – ones for task or to-do list management or timer apps are one of the biggest categories at any app store, a too large an area to cover here. But for more specific apps –

  • Task Streaming Apps – from To Do to Doing to Done – these are the swimlane type apps, where tasks are moved over into action, then completition states. Many were profiled in this April post on Kanban Apps here, also listed at Listly. My favourite as regards being free, and available online and offline for mobiles, has got to be Trello.

Coming Up: in next week’s posts I’ll be looking at several timer methods including Pomodoro, which help in focusing on batches of task – one task at a time.

Productivity Fortnight 9

2 thoughts on “Productivity Fortnight+1: Batching Tasks

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