The cost of switching lanes: How to use batching to increase productivity

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Do you often feel like you’re pulled in more directions than you even thought existed? Me too. I work as the Marketing Director at Lawyerist, where I’m responsible for a lot of different projects and a few employees on two different teams. In addition to planning and analyzing campaigns, I train team members, speak to new partners, host and produce our weekly podcast, create email and general marketing strategy, plan webinars and events, and even coach attorneys on their law firm marketing strategies.

Having no two days be the same can be the spice of life. But it can quickly turn into the stress of life too.

One of the best ways I’ve found to manage this is through batching, which helps your brain focus on one task at a time for more efficiency—and far less overwhelm.

Why batching?

In a given day, do you hop from your email inbox to a video conference call to deep focus on an assignment to giving feedback in a project management app—over and over again? If so, you’re working in a way that’s known as lane switching.

All this switching adds up. Researchers have found that some of the most common switching costs include difficulty refocusing and lost productivity. And that’s not to mention the toll multitasking it takes on your mental health.

By batching, you allow your brain to only focus on similar activities during a given time period.

Before we dive into how to effectively batch your work, a quick clarification. Batching isn’t the same thing as time blocking. Here’s the main difference.

  • Time blocking is more of a prioritization technique. You schedule time in advance for certain work so you can be sure the important things get done and non-priorities don’t get in the way.
  • Batching is about what you do during a certain period of time, limiting a given period to one specific kind of work, so you’re not switching lanes as much.

How to found your project buckets for batching

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For first-time batchers, the best place to start is to figure out what kind of “buckets” you can use to separate your tasks. For example, as a marketing director, I often do the same kinds of work throughout each week:

  • Training/learning new things
  • Admin work and email
  • Team training, meetings, and feedback on team member projects
  • Focused deep work on strategy, brainstorming, and project implementation
  • Analyzing and reporting results

If I try to spend every day of the work week switching back and forth between all five of these buckets, especially multiple times per day, I end up feeling like I haven’t accomplished much (not to mention I’m exhausted). If I can instead carve out focus periods assigned to each of those buckets for 30-60 minutes at a time, it’s a whole different ball game.

To found your own project buckets, try tracking your work for a week. This gives you a general sense of which kinds of tasks you do, and you can start organizing them into batching buckets.

In some cases, you might found that there are certain one-off tasks that don’t fall into any category. If that’s the case, it’s time to delegate—or automate. Here’s how to know when it’s time to automate a task.

Once you have your buckets, set aside blocks of time on your calendar for each one. For example, see if you can make one or two days a week your meeting blocks, when you have whole mornings or afternoons open for people to book calls with you.

When you’re in a time block for a specific bucket, keep doing work in that bucket until the time block is up. If you finish a specific task, see if there’s something else in that same bucket that you can work on. Use a notebook next to your desk or a sticky note on your computer to drop ideas or to-dos that come to mind but aren’t part of the current bucket.

Power up your batching

A few weeks into this new schedule, and you’ll be a pro at batch work—it won’t feel like a struggle to consistently stick to your buckets. But there are still ways to make these batch periods even more effective.

  • Try using the Pomodoro technique with your batch work. It will help you stick to a time frame for batch periods, and there are Pomodoro apps that can keep you on track.
  • You can also use music tools like Focus@Will to set timers and allow your brain to enter a less distracted working period using headphones. When your set work period is up, the music will stop, and you’ll hear a soft chime indicating that it’s time for your break. I’ve used this tool for years and have found it to be very helpful.
  • Try using an app blocker to block apps and websites that you shouldn’t be on. For example, if you’re in your writing bucket, block Slack and email. If you’re in your email bucket, block anything you might be tempted to use that’s not email.

As you shift into this new flow, make sure you let relevant team members know what you’re doing and make it clear on your calendar what you’re up to. Also make time to revisit your buckets regularly to be sure that you’re still batching the right things, delegating the right things, and automating the things that don’t need that human touch.

This was a guest article from Laura Briggs, Marketing & Partnerships Director at Lawyerist. Lawyerist is guiding healthier law firms through their website, podcast, coaching, and popular book, The Small Firm Roadmap. You can found Laura as the host of The Lawyerist Podcast, where she’s interviewed experts like Jason Fried, Pat Lencioni, Jenny Blake, and Dr. Heidi Gardner. Want to see your work on the Zapier site? Check out our guidelines and get in touch.

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