How task batching can increase your productivity at work

Sarah Laoyan contributor headshotSarah LaoyanDecember 16th, 20216 min read
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Summary

Task batching is a productivity strategy that involves grouping similar tasks together to complete all at once. This technique can help you avoid multitasking and increase the amount of time you have to focus on tasks. Learn how you can use task batching to prevent procrastination, increase productivity, and produce quality work.

Here's a scenario: you open your email on Monday morning to look at your task list. Your email inbox is a mess, approvals are piling up, and you have no idea where to start or what to do first. 

If this is you, you’re not alone. One of the most common ways people start their day is by going to their e-mail and tackling the first correspondence in their inbox. But while this is helpful for the people who’ve emailed you, it may not be the most efficient use of your time. Task batching can help you organize the tasks you need to complete in a way that’s most effective for you, so you can start your day on your own terms.

What is task batching?

Task batching is a productivity strategy that involves grouping similar tasks together to complete in one time period. The main purpose of this strategy is to avoid context switching—aka mentally jumping back and forth between tasks. The term context switching originated from computing to describe how an operating system may run multiple processes at once. Think of it like clicking into two different apps on your phone and switching between them. Your brain does a similar process when it focuses on two different tasks. But because we’re humans and not computers, it takes time and mental effort for us to context switch. Task batching helps reduce the amount of context switching you have to do during the day. Instead of tackling your to-dos as they come, the task batching strategy encourages you to group like tasks so you can complete all of the tasks for a similar project or work stream at once. 

Task batching vs. time blocking

Task batching uses the concept of time blocking. While these two productivity strategies are similar in nature, there are some differences between the two. 

  • Task batching groups tasks that are similar in nature or part of the same project into one designated time period. For example, you can choose to answer your emails in a batch as opposed to when they come in. 

  • Time blocking or time batching involves scheduling specific blocks of time in your day to focus on work. Using the email example previously mentioned, you can block off one hour everyday solely dedicated to answering emails. 

You can take your productivity one step further and combine the two strategies. Group similar tasks together, and assign one block of time to complete that category of tasks. 

Why task batching works

Task batching works because it allows our brain to focus on one task at a time instead of multitasking. Dr. Sahar Yousef, cognitive neuroscientist and lecturer at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, says that multitasking is a myth. During Asana’s Focus & Flow event Dr. Yousef stated, "the human brain works best when it focuses on one thing at a time. We have a certain amount of cognitive capacity and a certain amount of attention."

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The human brain works best when it focuses on one thing at a time. We have a certain amount of cognitive capacity and a certain amount of attention.”
Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley

To help avoid multitasking, task batching harnesses our individual focus to tackle a specific type of task. As you work through a group of batched tasks, you can avoid thinking about or working on any other task that’s not in that group. This helps you work more efficiently because your brain takes time and energy to switch between different tasks. It can take an average of 23 minutes to focus back in after a distraction, and task batching prevents this so-called “switching tax.”

"The beautiful part about human attention and focus is that it's a precious, finite resource," Dr. Yousef says. "We do not have an infinite amount of attention. We have to be very careful about how we deploy that finite resource." 

Read: 4 ways to improve your focus at work

How to task batch

Task batching is a simple technique to help you get through your to-do list and improve your time management. Here are the steps you can take to successfully batch tasks. 

Categorize your tasks for the day

Look at everything you need to do for the day and categorize tasks into similar groups. You can organize your tasks by the level of effort, by project, or by the type of actions needed to complete a task.  

[Product UI] To-do list example in My Tasks (Lists)

Tip: If you have a hard time switching between things you need to do during the day, try using the GTD method. This technique helps you offload some information from your brain onto an external source, so you don’t have to waste energy remembering everything you need to do. 

Block off time in your calendar 

Once you’ve grouped similar tasks together, give yourself ample time to complete those tasks all at once. If necessary, schedule this time in your calendar. This not only helps you stick to your commitment—it also lets your team know when you’re available, and when you’re focusing. 

For example, let’s say answering emails and Slack messages takes you about 30 minutes. To use the task batching technique, simply block off 30 minutes at the beginning, middle, and end of your day to go through these tasks. 

Time blocking time management strategy Asana illustration

Tip: A common objection to using the time blocking technique is that employees want to be constantly available for their team. While the consideration is nice, using a time blocking technique isn’t making you unavailable—it’s highlighting to your team members the most optimal time to reach you so you can give them your undivided attention. When creating your time blocks, don't forget to account for team meetings and meal breaks! 

Color code your blocks of time

While this step is entirely optional, color coding your blocks of time can help you better understand how you’re spending your day at a glance. Use a different color for meetings, focus time, and 1:1s so you can see what your day looks like quickly.

Read: 18 time management tips, strategies, and quick wins to get your best work done

Benefits of task batching

If you're thinking about testing out a few productivity hacks, here's why task batching is worth your time. 

Promotes deep work and focus

Deep work is a state of peak concentration that allows you to easily learn challenging things and produce quality work quickly. The term was created by Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University. In his book, "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World," Newport defines deep work as a state of distraction-free concentration when your brain works to its maximum potential. 

Task batching allows your brain to filter out distractions and only look at the task in front of you, so you can work on it with your brain’s maximum potential. This can help you both get into deep work mode and stay in it once you’re there.

Read: 6 tips to harness the power of flow state at work

Decreases burnout

Context switching not only interrupts your focus, but it can also increase your chance of burnout

The University of California Irvine discovered that working in an environment with constant interruptions increases stress and frustration. Constantly context switching increases the amount of cortisol your brain produces, which can leave you feeling mentally exhausted and burnt out. 

Think about your work day like a hiking trail. When you’re focused, you can stay on the trail and continue moving forward. If you’re distracted, you may stop and wander off the trail to look at a flower, but then you still have to go back to the trail and continue moving forward. Your brain does the same thing when switching tasks, and it can be hard to really see how far you’ve traveled if you’re continually veering off the path. 

The same is true for your work—identifying how much work you completed when you’re constantly multi-tasking is challenging. When you separate your tasks into working blocks, it’s clear to both you and your team members exactly what you completed. Seeing your tangible results can help you feel more accomplished throughout the day and show that your hard work paid off.

Read: Feeling overworked? Strategies for individuals and teams to regain balance

Saves time 

If you're having a hard time fitting all of your work in one workday, task batching can help you to catch up and minimize procrastination. If deadlines are an issue for you, time blocks can help create a sense of urgency. This can help you get those more challenging tasks out of the way instead of putting them off until later. As a result, you can enjoy more free time later. 

Tips for task batching

If you’re not used to task batching, getting started may be a little tricky. Here are a few tips you can use to get the most out of the task batching strategy. 

Schedule mentally challenging tasks during peak time

Every person has different periods of time in which they are at their peak mental state. Some people are able to work better early in the morning and others may get a burst of energy after lunch. Whatever that period of time is for you, schedule your more mentally challenging tasks, like brainstorming or strategizing, during those hours. 

Minimize your distractions during focus hours

When you're focusing on a set of tasks, disable notifications, exit out of any extraneous apps on your desktop, or turn on do not disturb mode. Turn off your phone notifications and log out of social media. A small notification blip on your screen is enough of a distraction to pull you out of focus, and you want to prevent that as much as possible to promote deep work. 

If you get distracted by your physical workspace, take the time to clear your desk and set up your workstation in a way that allows you to work most effectively.

Read: How to focus: Tips to get things done in a distracted world

Communicate your focus hours with your team

It's important to let your team know when you're in a focus block. You can do this by setting a status on Slack, an auto-reply on your email, or making a public calendar block in your calendar. When you alert your team, they'll know not to bother you unless it's an emergency. Let them know different ways that they can get a hold of you, like via emails, Slack messages, or assigning tasks asynchronously. It’s also a good idea to give them some indication when they can expect a response. For example, you can set a status on Slack that you’ll receive their message, but you may be slow to respond. 

Read: Asynchronous communication isn’t what you think it is

Increase productivity with work management tools

It's easier to be productive when you have the right tools in your workflow. Using a work management tool like Asana can help you keep track of your work so you know exactly who needs to do what by when. 

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