Last week a Stanford University study concluded what we’ve anecdotally known for a long time – we mere mortals don’t multi-task well. (See the Stanford article here http://ow.ly/oOTB). Not to lambast Stanford for their efforts, but consider the last time you were in someone’s office trying to have a conversation while the person on the other side of desk was checking their e-mail. If that’s not convincing enough, consider sitting in the passenger seat of a car while the driver negotiates traffic and texts back and forth with a colleague. That’ll get your blood pressure elevated for sure!
All in all, it’s great to have an esteemed learning institution validate the notion that multi-tasking produces less than optimal results. In today’s 24/7 global working environments, so many people (with and without authority) consider “on it” the only way to accomplish what needs to get done, preferring the idea that multiple “on its” mean multipliers in productivity. This is simply not the case.
With multi-tasking functionally debunked as an effective means of producing results, what other options do we have for achieving that goal?
Re-Enter Batch Processing
Henry Ford figured out an effective way to get things produced over 100 years ago – batch processing. That is, group like tasks together because repeating the same task over and over in one “batch” increases productivity. Of course, he applied the concept to the manufacturing line, but the underlying premise holds true for any group of tasks that share similar actions for their completion.
Batch Processing Defined
Batch processing is fundamentally a workflow behavior – a way (or “process”) for getting things done. To batch process means to gather together like or similar tasks and act upon them at the same time. In effect, it’s working through a stack of items in a repetitive way until you have completed the batch.
Take processing you physical mail as an example. Physical mail is delivered in a batch by the post office each day. Most people grab the stack of mail (a series of similar items), open each one, toss the junk out, and sort the meaningful items in some logical manner. That’s batch processing. The alternative would be to grab one piece of mail from the stack, open it and then make three un-related phone calls and attend a meeting or two before grabbing the next piece of mail. What if something in the mail related to one of those phone calls or meetings!?
Besides that, it just “seems” inefficient to process one piece of mail at a time. Yet, when you’re multi-tasking, that’s exactly what you’re doing from a workflow processing point of view. It’s just more efficient and effective to batch process things whenever possible.
Things to Batch Process
To get you started on batch processing the stuff that pours into your workday, I’ve pulled together a list of things off the top of my head that can be batch processed. Give one or more of these a try to see if you find it a more efficient way to plow through your work.
- E-mail. If you read my previous post on this, you’ll know that I consider e-mail just another form of correspondence. Thus, it should be batch processed just like the physical mail example above. Instead of responding to each and every e-mail that comes into the Inbox, I advise that you check it frequently – two or three times an hour – and process what’s in there. Powering through 5, 20, 50 e-mails all at once is far more efficient than doing each one separately. Moreover, many of the e-mails in any one batch will cancel out other e-mails in the same batch given people’s penchant for Reply All and Half-Thought Sends (you know who you are). The net result of batch processing your e-mail is you will move through it faster and create fewer yourself for others to read, which makes them more productive too! (For more on my views about e-mail processing attend one of my Power Processing Your E-mail online seminars – http://ow.ly/oPwb – or read my related posts – http://ow.ly/oPxm and http://ow.ly/oPzH.)
- Questions. One of the most difficult things to do for yourself and others is to group questions together into a batch. We desperately want the answer right now! Yet, constantly running down the hall to interrupt someone to ask a question devastates focus at both ends. Regardless of whether you are the one asking or the one answering these questions, agree to set aside a period each day to ask and have answered all questions. The benefits of this are several-fold. First, questions will get answered in a timely fashion. Second, many questions will evaporate in the interim either because they get answered or become irrelevant as new information streams into your workday. Third, both parties will remain more focused on the task at hand with the interruptions eliminated, which means double the productivity gain.
- Errands. Ask any stay-at-home parent if they run errands one at a time and they will uniformly ask if you’ve been getting enough sleep. Yet, at work, we often charge off on a “must-do” errand (personal or professional) just to charge off an hour later to do a similar thing. Whether you need to move about inside or outside of the office, stack your errands in a pile near your workspace and do as many of them at once as possible. This includes moving archival materials to storage!
- Phone Calls. Another lost art is batch processing phone calls. Before the advent of voice mail, we received little message slips that included the pertinent information for calls we had missed. Many of us would sit down and return those calls in batch form. Now, because we get a blinking light or, worse/better, an e-mail with the message attached (and possibly transcribed), we react to them individually. No need. Carve out a set period or periods each day (10:30 AM and 3:00 PM?) to return calls. Some would even recommend doing do it over the lunch hour or before/after business hours.
- Social Media. There’s an entire post/article here on the value proposition for social media in the business setting. However, for our purposes, the point is to review social media connections in batches. Whether it’s directly via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn or via an aggregator such as HelloTxt, HootSuite or TweetDeck, I advise that you peruse these communiques only once or twice a day for short periods of time. Look for things of interest, act upon them and disregard the rest.
Seek Out Batches
Many of the tasks we must accomplish each day can be grouped into batches for more efficient processing. I encourage you to identify additional activities that can be grouped and accomplished in batches together. My experience is that it’s more productive and efficient, which are key components to feeling in command of your work environment.