How to manage a million tasks

OK, I can’t promise you that, but I have got a principle that can help.

If your home is anything like mine, there are a million little jobs that need doing, and they just keep on coming. We can try and manage all that by just chipping away at them here and there, multi-tasking, squeezing in jobs wherever we can… but that’s exhausting.

Multi-tasking is a myth by the way – it doesn’t make you more productive, it just makes you feel more productive. Really you’re constantly switching between tasks, and all that switching takes mental time, and a lot of mental energy. (Not convinced? Read more here or here.)

Doing a job actually takes more time and energy than is required to just do the job. You have to start the job, get set up with whatever’s required to do that job, get in the head space for that job… and only then you can do the job… and then at the end you have to tidy up, get off that mental track and onto whatever’s next.

That’s why BATCHING is so helpful.

Simply, the idea is that you do several tasks of the same kind all at once in order to save time and mental load.

The easiest example of this is double-batching in baking. It takes a whole lot more time and energy (and mess) to bake two separate batches of cookies as two separate times. It is a lot easier and quicker to make a double batch at one time – twice as many ingredients, twice as many biscuits. Now you’re not double-batching because you want a massive amount of biscuits NOW (although that does sound pretty good), you’re double-batching to make biscuits for later, or for a separate purpose. I’ll often bag up one batch and freeze it for another time. Being able to pull a bag of biscuits out of the freezer is like a gift to my future self, and is one reason why I LOVE having ample freezer space #chestfreezerforlife.

Anzac biscuits “fresh” from the freezer

Other things I like to batch are:

  • freezer meals (lasagne etc) – either for us or for giving away. Recently I made up a whole lot of meals for three different families, but because I only made two different recipes, it was really time-efficient. I often use the foil trays so then whoever I’m gifting to doesn’t have to worry about getting the dish back to me.
  • stuff that needs supergluing – I have a little box I collect the broken bits in, and when there’s enough to justify opening a tube of superglue I do it all at once. And anyway, a tube of superglue always seems to gum up between uses.
  • notes from school – the kids usually want me to attend to it immediately, either because they want to please the teacher (daughter #3), or because they should have given me the note a few days ago (daughter #2). Regardless, I get them to add to it to the pile, and then sit down once the dinner dishes are clear and do them all at once.

Aside from the time-efficiency of batching, it just feels like less mental effort. You know how when you’re cleaning you can get on a roll? I always tell myself when that feeling hits to keep cleaning for as long as I possibly can. It reminds me of chemistry, and the activation energy it takes to start a chemical reaction. There’s a certain amount of mental activation energy that it takes to start a task, and if you stop you have to put in that activation energy all over again when you restart.

To make batching work you might have to put off some tasks for a while in order to collect a few together, or you might have to think ahead to future tasks and include them now. Either way, you’re taking a mental step back and looking at the longer-term picture, rather than just reacting to every task that pops up on your radar.

I’m currently working at applying this principle in my work day. My main “job” is researching and writing a PhD, but when I sit at my computer to do that I’m often distracted by emails that come in, or tasks that come to mind, particularly those that deal with church administration. I’ve taken the easy steps of turning off notifications, but mentally they nag at me. Too often I find myself starting my work day by “just getting a couple of things done”, which ends up eating into my morning and my best brain time for creative work. So I’ve decided to batch all those tasks at a time that suits me best – after lunch when my brain isn’t at its best for creative thinking or academic writing, but it can cope fine with emails and admin. Now to apply self-control to resist the distractions and the urge to feel productive by switching over to admin tasks.

Now, a word of caution. Batching is not always a good idea, sometimes it’s an excuse for procrastination. There’s some merit in letting your clothes pile up on the chair (you know, THAT chair, we all have one) and dealing with them all at once, but more often than not you’re just procrastinating. I heard Gretchen Rubin talk about her one minute rule: if a task will only take a minute or less, then do it straight away. If in doubt, check yourself: are you just procrastinating and shifting the work onto your future self, or are you being smart and optimising your workload by saving this task to do in a batch?


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