I’ve done lots of odd jobs in my time. Gardening, landscaping, painting — a fair number of relatively unskilled tasks that the teenage me was happy to take on for a few bucks.
I’ve also done my fair share of data entry in the past, including one dreadfully boring 12 hour stint at my father’s old parcel distribution company.
If there is one thing I learned from doing data entry, it is that your efficiency is greatly improved if you batch similar tasks together.
Enter all the sales receipts in one go, followed by the purchase receipts, and so on. Suddenly you’re getting the work done twice as fast as you were before.
And that is the topic of today’s post — how to get the same work done more efficiently. Increasing my own productivity is a bit of an obsession and I want to take this opportunity to share some of my findings with you.
First, let’s talk about the task batching that was so effective in my data entry days. How can this be transferred into perhaps less applicable fields, like running a business?
Well first of all, consider that anything is a task. Whether you’re writing a blog post or a sales page, creating a product page, or setting up your shopping cart infrastructure; anything can be broken down into tasks. As such, it pays to batch similar tasks together. I’m no brain scientist, but I can attest to the relative level of ease with which I can keep my focus in one place.
I’m not the only one who believes in batching tasks in this manner. I first got to thinking about this after reading a great post by Carol Tice on being a more productive writer. She puts a good argument forward for batching, especially with the idea that you get a psychological boost from ‘clearing the decks’ on one particular set of tasks. It does somehow seem more rewarding to do a lot of one thing than a little of everything.
Working in Blocks
Have you ever stopped to think how incompatible the typical 9-to–5 job is with our brain’s natural capacity to stay focused? If you think about it intuitively, the concept of holding your concentration four or more hours at a time is absurd.
But let’s not just think intuitively — here’s a few paraphrased facts regarding attention span from Wikipedia:
- Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 40 minutes at a time.
- People are generally capable of a longer attention span when they are doing something that they find enjoyable or intrinsically motivating.
- Attention is also increased if the person is able to perform the task fluently, compared to a person who has difficulty performing the task, or to the same person when he or she is just learning the task.
- Fatigue, hunger, noise, and emotional stress reduce time on task.
Now tell me this — do you dislike some of tasks you do? Do you struggle to complete some of them fluently? Do you often feel tired, hungry, or stressed out when doing your tasks? Do you ever feel stressed out when doing tasks?
If the answer to one or more of the above questions is yes then you can expect your attention span to be even further reduced from whatever your brain is capable of under ideal circumstances.
The concept of doing work in blocks is certainly not new. The Pomodoro Technique is well known in productivity circles and I recently read an excellent article on the Science of Productivity, which argued that 90 minute working blocks separated by 15–20 minute breaks was optimum (here’s the original study if you’re interested).
Whilst you may benefit from trying the Pomodoro Technique or working in 90 minute blocks, my suggestion is that you work to your own unique attention span. Grab a stopwatch and start it as you begin a task, then make a quick note whenever you become aware of an attention lapse, including how far into the task you were, how long your attention actually lapsed for, and what the cause was.
If you do this for a week you’ll be able to ascertain your own unique average attention span (plus you’ll have a list of common distractions for consideration). You can use this to attack batches of tasks for whatever time period that is most applicable to you, followed by a short break so that you can recharge your batteries (and more literally, your attention span).
To me, the concept of doing the same work more efficiently is the holy grail. After all, I can make more money but I can’t make back the time I spend. It is very precious to me, and I am sure it is to you too.
Therefore, if you struggle to be productive, I recommend you implement my two suggestions above:
- Batch similar tasks into groups.
- Work solidly for a period of time that best suits your personal attention span, then take a short break before continuing.
You can (and should) be flexible in this approach — if you feel like you’re on track and not suffering from attention span issues when you get to the end of one of your defined time periods, just carry on going until you run out of gas.
Just do what works for you and you may well be amazed by the results.
This article was written by Tom Ewer, a regular contributor at MyWifeQuitHerJob.com!
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