Batch, Please: How to Finally Overcome the 'Switching Cost' of Multitasking
October 10, 2018
Another day, another hectic schedule that has you bouncing between little tasks while trying to maintain some semblance of control over your busy schedule.
One moment you’re rescheduling all those calendar invites from your co-workers, and the next you’re drafting multiple emails—all while trying to plan a presentation and get your day-to-day work done.
Sound familiar? If this is you, my friend, I’m here to remind you of something incredibly important: You deserve way more than being a human pinball. We all do.
Thankfully, research shows that we actually collectively #fail when it comes to taking a random stab at our to-do lists, hoping something ends up crossed off at the end of the day. University of Minnesota professor Sophie Leroy broke down what goes on when we try to operate like that in a 2009 paper called “Why is it so hard to do my work?”:
Leroy found that sometimes a fog can follow us around when we do switch over from one unfinished task to the next. We may be a little distracted by the work we’ve just left, or looking for ways to ditch the current task on the table.
“People need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another," Leroy writes. "Yet results indicate it is difficult for people to transition their attention away from an unfinished task and their subsequent task performance suffers.”
Leroy calls this lag “attention residue” and it’s focus’s worst nightmare because, well, your brain deserves the chance to catch up with your actions!
The ability to multi-task and do so many things at once is often celebrated in the workplace or in life, no matter how drained it can leave you feeling. But with a million things going on all at once, what can we do defeat that wiped out feeling and still, somehow stay on top of our work?
Let me introduce you to my new friend: batching.
We talk to our friends in batches, or group texts. We listen to our favorite songs in batches, otherwise known as playlists. If we’re really feeling good, we even sort our laundry in batches based on colors (unless, you know, we happen to like that pink wash that comes from when a white shirt is stained).
So it only makes sense we take batching to the next level and apply it to our lives to protect our energy, rein in our focus, and get all of the things done in a productive way that doesn’t feel like we’re being stretched thin.
Here’s how to start batching and beat “attention residue” once and for all.
Prioritize Your Work
For a moment, I’m going to ask you to go into a place you might not want to go: your to-do list. Take stock of what’s coming your way today that needs to get done, and sort it all out by order of importance). Does preparing for that meeting have an earlier deadline than finishing the final touches on your presentation? Switch things around as often as your priorities may shift, but once you have a general idea of what is to come, stick with this ranking of tasks.
Break It Up
Next, it's time to break down those big tasks. Maybe one of the items on your to-do list is to finally kick start that side-hustle you’ve been dreaming about. It may be a priority, but there are a lot of steps that you can take before it’s launched into the world. Try working through what exactly you need to do to get to the place you need to go. Sending emails, calling resources, and crafting calls to action can all lead to finding support for your project, but they each are their own tasks. So treat them like it! They deserve their own to-do list line.
Now look through this mighty list you’ve made and start grouping tasks that require similar thinking or energy. Lots of emails to send? That's a batch. A couple proposals to write? Another batch. Lunches to make? You batch-a that's a batch (sorry, had to).
Then, try blocking off time chunks in your day to crank out similar things at once. Maybe that means sitting down and sending 20 emails at once instead of trying to find time each day to write one or two. Or, it's meal prepping lunches every Monday morning instead of spending every evening making another PB&J.
For long-term projects, try devoting an entire day to a certain project instead of trying to squeeze it in here and there. That way you can stay in the zone.
Whatever method you pick, just make sure you 1. know your focus when you sit down to hustle and 2. that you're creating as little task switching as possible.
Focus Hard = Get It Done
The beauty about batching is that it allows you to harness your time and energy towards one thing at a time. The only way to actually stave off that pesky attention residue? Focus. Allocate time (or days) for one task at a time, and give it all you’ve got before moving on. If you’re feeling bold, implement tricks like the Pomorodo technique to help you maximize the time you have.
Oh and don’t forget to savor every item you cross of the list. Let that glorious, satisfying feeling to carry you through whatever task comes next.