Single-Tasking, or a Little Bit at a Time: What's Productive, What's Realistic, and How Do You Work Best?
I keep reading a ton about the whole art of single-tasking and batching tasks lately. But while I get that it works for some people… I’m not entirely sure that I’m 100 percent on board.
There are definitely times when the single-tasking is a necessity. It can definitely help get stuff done more efficiently in a lot of cases. However, I think there are some caveats to that rule. For example, I write pretty much daily news pieces for Bicycling, while I’m working on three different new books. Now, productivity literature today would tell me to set days of the week, or even just block chunks of time each day, for each project. But because—like 99 percent of people working—when a ‘due ASAP’ piece comes in, I can’t say, “Sorry, I only do news articles on Fridays.” That doesn’t work with a news cycle, and the news cycle is my job.
I was actually just reading The Power of Less, and while it’s an awesome read that’s making me think critically about what work I’m doing and taking on, one of his examples of ‘bad work’ made me furious. He compared two reporters at a newspaper, one who writes one long feature a week and one who turns in a short piece every day. As you can imagine, he’s a fan of feature-length guy. The problem with that, of course, is that someone has to write the newsy stuff for the paper!! (Which, as you might have noticed, is largely my ‘weird news’ beat at Bicycling. And there’s nothing bad about it!) So, while there are some good tips there, it’s sort of unrealistic to assume that everyone can just ‘deep work’ all the time.
Another example I heard recently was someone saying he does all of his podcasting on Mondays. But since our show relies on guests who are nice enough to take an hour out of their days to talk, I have no intention of telling them I can only talk between 9 and 5 on Mondays. We would never have any guests! So, batching into days is impossible.
From a time standpoint, it’s a similar case. A lot of the time, deadlines are tight, and between how we live right now (all over the place), scheduling my day into hours (i.e from 9-12, Bicycling, from 2-2:30, The Outdoor Edit, 3:10-3:50 whatever…) rather than tasks is a fool’s errand. Again, even daily batching is F-ed.
Let’s dive in to where it’s been great, and where it’s kind of dumb.
Batch Tasks / Single-Task
Work that is due RIGHT NOW
Sometimes, I get newsy articles assigned that are due as soon as humanly possible, because that’s how the news cycle works. When those come up, that’s when I shift into single-task laser-focus mode and get to work on those, pushing off whatever tasks I’m working on that aren’t as time sensitive. This probably has some productivity experts crying, but that’s how deadlines work in the real world.
This was a recent switch for me, and the impetus for writing this article. After reading a few things about batching tasks and single-tasking, I shifted from my daily work on a few long-term projects to actually having days of the week where I take a few hours to focus in on these. I still work on them during the rest of the week—on a daily basis, I try to do something administrative, even if that’s as small as scheduling an interview or as big as conducting said interview—so that when the weekly chunk of time hits, I’m not just doing admin work, I’m actually using that time to dive into transcribing, writing, getting things moving forward in a serious way.
I’ll talk in a second about the more daily marketing and writing stuff, but with a project like Shred Girls that’s demanded pretty much all of my spare time and attention in the last few months, I definitely found big chunks of time were the way to go when it came to dealing with the actual tasks of editing, laying out a book, making up the press copy and releases, doing all of the merch designs, creating the website—all of that was a lot easier to handle when I just sank into it in a serious way and devoted bigger sets of time to it. I’ve had Deep Work on my To Read list for a while now, but even without reading it, I think this is what he’s talking about. It’s absolutely the best way to get a ton done, but I definitely don’t think it’s the only way forward—or realistic when you’re working as a freelancer and have multiple projects going on at all times!
I run the logistics for Aspire Racing in the fall, and it took me a year of working my butt off to realize that the way I needed to handle booking trips and handling logistics was to actually just spend one afternoon a week totally immersed in the schedule and calendar and booking out the weekend. If I did a little every day, I spent way more time reminding myself of what I’d already booked and how the puzzle pieces fell together, but when I did big batches of it, it was a lot easier to fit the pieces together. (Again, there are tons of follow-ups throughout the week, but at least the majority of the work is done.)
Every Friday, I’m in Quickbooks dealing with invoicing and going through expenses. I hate it more than anything, but the one day a week makes it tolerable—and keeps me on top of everything. During the week, if I finish something and know I need to invoice, I just make a note on Friday’s schedule to get it done.
Do a Bit Daily / Jump Around
A lot of my daily ’10 minutes here and 10 minutes there’ stuff comes from Learning New Skills—using apps like DuoLingo, video courses like the Ryan Leech Connection, and the Precision Nutrition certification course I’m taking. These aren’t things that you can slam for two hours once a week and actually end up learning. I need the short sessions daily to absorb and actually learn the info, otherwise, it would just be forgotten by the time I tuned in the next week. So, those are quick daily tasks that break up my schedule. No batching to be had!
This was actually the impetus for writing this article. I was trying to shift my habit of adding just one piece to Shred Girls Book 2 every day into spending two hours once a week diving in. The problem, though, was two-fold. First, the two hour chunk was surprisingly hard to find, and when I did find it, I ended up working on web and marketing stuff for Shred Girls rather than writing. Necessary, but not the point. Second: I found that I missed writing about Lindsay, Ali and Jen on a daily basis, and the longer I went without writing about them, the less connected to them I felt. Even when a daily writing session is only two minutes, it still reconnects me with who the characters are, and keeps the plots going in the back of my brain. For nonfiction, I can do big, focused blocks, so I swapped the nonfiction long-term projects to that style and it’s worked a lot smoother.
Marketing & Emails
Again, this is a daily thing—getting stuff running with Shred Girls, keeping the SaddleSoreWomen.com site/books/newsletter moving, pushing out the podcast, all that fun stuff that adds up to the umbrella title of “marketing” isn’t something that can get batched into a day. It’d be great to just do Monday is Shred Girls, Tuesday is Saddle, Sore, etc. but sadly, that’s not how things stay moving, especially when you’re dealing with other businesses and people. Ditto batching emails: twice a day, as per productivity experts, would be lovely, but as a journalist and someone running her own businesses, you can’t just let email sit all day! (Or, at least, not for full days, especially when waiting for a response.)
Phone Calls and Interviews
This is a gray area for me, because I’d actually really prefer to batch these so I could just spend one day a week dealing with all calls, meetings and interview sessions. It rolls smoother that way, and avoids the crazy planning that we often have to do to guarantee that I have Internet accessible at random times for Skype calls. But real life doesn’t work like that: the people on the other end of the phone take priority, and for things like podcast interviews and interviews for the projects I’m working on, I can’t force people to be on my schedule. Would batching be great? Hell yeah. Is it realistic? Absolutely not.
I’ve come back to this post about ten times this week in order to finish it. That’s how a lot of my posts get written, to be honest! I start with an idea, drop it into a draft, and then come back and add a paragraph or two when I’m feeling it. Occasionally, I can get into deep work/single-task mode on it—especially on the business end—but I find that for me, writing in here is my fun writing time and my therapeutic writing time, so I try to give myself the grace of writing in whatever style I feel like on here!
Moral of the story? I’m sure batching and single-tasking are the most scientifically proven way to get deep work and focused work done. However, in the context of our normal actual-real-life jobs and side projects and … lives in general, it’s just not a realistic way to do all work. I think it makes more sense to figure out a rhythm that works for you right now—and let yourself tweak it as needed!
Let me know in the comments: where do you fall with your work style?