For busy professionals with heavy workloads, maximizing productivity is paramount. Unfortunately, today’s climate of hyperconnectivity and multitasking can have a detrimental impact on focus and performance. Read on to learn how batching can help you be more productive.
If you’re like me, you’re always on the lookout for ways to increase your productivity while maintaining your work–life balance and your sanity. As clinicians, there are often so many obligations pulling us in every direction that it can seem impossible to accomplish everything. This is where effective, research-backed strategies can really help, and one technique that has been invaluable for my own productivity is batching.
“Batching” refers to grouping similar tasks together within a day or week. Perhaps the most common (and arguably most important) example of batching is restricting social media and email to a few specific times during the day, but it can be a helpful strategy for nearly any task. The main idea behind batching is that it gives you larger chunks of uninterrupted time for work that requires a lot of focus, and it helps you avoid the losses in productivity that come from switching tasks frequently.
In this article, I’ll explain why batching is such a boon for productivity, give some practical tips for using batching effectively, and share examples of how I personally put batching into practice. I’ll also offer some strategies that can be useful if you’re having trouble focusing or sticking to your new batched schedule.
Multitasking destroys productivity
To understand why batching is an important productivity tool, it can be helpful to consider the opposite end of the spectrum—multitasking. Most people who multitask believe that what they’re doing allows them to get more done in a shorter period of time, but in reality, research shows that multitasking is detrimental to focus and performance.
In fact, the very idea of multitasking is a myth. According to the late Stanford neuroscientist Clifford Nass, multitasking should really be called “multi-switching,” because the human brain does not have the capacity to focus on several tasks at once. If you are multitasking, you are simply switching back and forth between tasks very quickly, which almost always results in a loss of productivity.
The decrease in performance as a result of task switching is referred to in the literature as “switch cost,” and it occurs whether the interruption is external (such as an email notification) or voluntary (such as deciding to check your Facebook page). (1) Two studies from 2013 that allowed participants to freely switch between tasks at their discretion found that increased switching behaviors led to poorer performance on the primary assigned task. (2, 3)
Although not all findings are consistent, the bulk of the evidence supports the conclusion that people who multitask—particularly “media multitaskers”—have reduced attentional control, greater susceptibility to distractions, and a general tendency towards diffuse or “shallow” attention. (4, 5, 6) This makes perfect sense because that’s exactly how they’re training their brains to behave.
Use this one simple technique to boost your productivity
Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t appear that our multitasking efficiency improves with practice, and some evidence even indicates that habitual multitaskers have reduced task-switching ability. (4, 7) In other words, multitasking may not even make you a better multitasker.
Social media and email are productivity kryptonite
Even if you don’t consider yourself a multitasker, it’s likely that your social media and email habits are still harming your productivity. A study from 2015 found that the average person checks his or her smartphone 85 times per day—more than twice the number of times people thought they were checking. (8) Another survey found that over three-quarters of people reply to email within an hour of receiving it. That’s a lot of voluntary task switching!
Even worse, the default settings for most devices are to notify you immediately any time you get a new email, comment, message, or “like.” I shouldn’t need to cite too much research to convince you that this constant interruption of thought decreases productivity.
Consider a focus-intensive task such as writing. It can take a while to settle in to the level of concentration that allows you to be maximally productive, and if you come out of that state to respond to an email or check social media, you’re losing time getting back “in the zone” afterwards. And if you’re doing something like watching TV while trying to get work done, you might never reach that flow state, and it’ll take you much longer to complete tasks.
Further, social media and email are addictive. Such platforms are naturally rewarding because you’re interacting with other people, and they become even more so when sharing videos or other content that is funny or pleasurable. (4) Additionally, rewards such as Facebook “likes” and emails satisfy the brain’s desire for novel stimuli, and the fact that we receive these stimuli at both unpredictable frequencies and magnitudes increases their reward value. This makes it very easy to fall into the trap of checking these accounts more and more frequently, reducing your ability to stay on task and get things done efficiently.
How to use batching effectively
Fortunately, batching provides a simple fix for many of these productivity pitfalls. The basic premise of batching is very straightforward, but it can be helpful to have concrete guidelines and examples for putting it into practice. Here are some tips on how to implement batching effectively.
Group similar tasks together within the day or week
This is the basis of batching. For example, instead of having meetings at 9:30, 12:30, and 2:00, schedule all of them within a single block of time, between 3:00 and 4:30, for example. This frees up larger blocks of time for work that requires uninterrupted focus.
You can also think about batching week to week, instead of just day to day. For example, when I’m producing content for online courses, I try to complete all the video recordings in two or three full days of shooting, rather than doing multiple shorter periods. This reduces travel and preparation time and makes the whole process more efficient. Another example of this would be grouping any in-town errands together into one day or having a day dedicated to cooking food for the week.
Batch email and social media
Only check and respond to your social media and email accounts at specific periods throughout the day. When and how frequently these periods occur will depend on the specific nature of your practice and work with patients and clients, but in general, I’d suggest checking no more than three times a day. I recommend scheduling these periods directly into your calendar, just as you would schedule an appointment, and turning off all notifications except for phone calls, text messages, and appointment reminders on your calendar. If people really need to reach you, they will likely have your phone number and can either call or text. Otherwise, it can almost certainly wait.
It’s also helpful to quit your email client and close any social media tabs outside of your scheduled batch periods. And if that isn’t enough to keep you from reflexively checking these accounts, you may want to download an app like SelfControl that allows you to block your own access to certain websites for a specified period of time.
Another thing you may want to do is set up an autoresponder or a custom signature on your email that lets people know you’re only checking email a few times a day and asks them to text or call you if it’s an emergency. While I’ve never felt the need to do this, I know it helps some people feel more comfortable with checking their email less frequently.
Schedule your batches strategically
Take advantage of the time of day when you’re most focused and productive. Generally this is first thing in the morning, so try to leave the morning hours for tasks that are more difficult or require more focus. For me, this is often writing and content development. Leave things like email, social media, meetings, phone calls, and errands for later in the day.
However, plenty of people find that they’re more productive in the evening or at other times of the day. Just be aware of your own personal inclinations, and schedule your days accordingly.
How mindfulness meditation can hone your focus
If you’re finding it difficult to adjust to only checking your email and social media a few times per day, you’re not alone. As I discussed earlier, these activities are addictive, and it can be surprisingly challenging to break the habit.
One tool that can be especially helpful for improving focus and decreasing reward-seeking behavior is meditation. You can think of mindfulness meditation as a workout for your brain: by setting aside 10 minutes per day to focus on your breath, you’re exercising your brain’s ability to let go of distracting thoughts and stay on task.
Research has borne this out. In one study, participants practiced mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes per day and were given a cognitive test at the beginning of the study, at eight weeks, and at 16 weeks. (9) Compared with the wait-list group, EEG results indicated that the meditation group had more efficient allocation of cognitive resources and improved self-regulation of attention. Another study found that just eight minutes of mindfulness meditation reduced mind-wandering during a sustained attention task. (10)
An interesting paper published just last year investigated whether a brief mindfulness practice could be helpful specifically for ameliorating the effects of heavy media multitasking. (6) As predicted, they found that the positive attentional effects of mindfulness breath exercises were disproportionately large in heavy media multitaskers, indicating that mindfulness may help reverse the specific attentional defects associated with such media use.
If you’re interested in additional tips for increasing productivity, you can check out the two podcasts I recorded on how to be insanely productive without destroying your health (part 1 and part 2). You may also be interested in this podcast, where I talk more about multitasking and how the internet is rewiring our brains, and in an article I wrote a couple of years ago discussing similar topics titled “How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience.” I also recommend the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr for more discussion about how drastically the internet is altering the way we think.
Do you use batching to schedule your work days? What are your favorite techniques for increasing productivity? Share your thoughts in the comments.