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Cut the Whole Loaf

Sometimes the best productivity tips come from the most unusual places…

We buy unsliced bread. And I can’t believe how many years we would go to the freezer, un-thaw the loaf in the microwave, slice off a couple pieces, and then put the rest back in the freezer for next time. In retrospect, I must have been insane! Why didn’t I just cut the whole loaf? By taking a few extra seconds to cut the entire loaf the first time saves us from unthawing the loaf, getting out a cutting board and knife, making a mess on the counter, and wasting time and energy with the microwave on every subsequent use. The small additional time is more than compensated for the next time we want a slice of bread. Is eating so urgent that the important task of managing our time wisely should be delayed?

Seems obvious, but how often do we make similar, if not more damaging, mistakes in other areas? We switch tasks at the drop of a hat. When we return we must get physically setup (desk, papers arranged) and/or electronically setup (software started, files opened) as well as mentally adjusted (recalling where we were, purpose, next steps). For example, do you stop what your doing whenever your phone rings? How about when a new email comes in? Here’s some that I’ve noticed lately:

  1. Email – This is probably the biggest killers if you leave your email notifier on during the day since it happens so often. Every email then requires a switch in metal focus, software applications, and usually some small follow up. When finished you’ll then have to close some software, restore some others, perhaps rearrange your windows again, make another mental shift before you can get back to where you were. Why not queue it up like the loaf of bread and process it all at once, while you have the software open and your in the right frame of mind?
  2. Drop In’s – When an urgent task is dropped on your desk, do you drop everything or do you say “I’ll get right to that as soon as I hit a milestone on my current task”? Honestly, what percentage of urgent tasks couldn’t wait at least an hour to get started? Ask yourself what would have happened if you were on lunch break or in another meeting when the item popped up.
  3. Processing Letter Mail – When you get your mail do you set it down, perhaps open a few and then leave paper (some important, some garbage) around? Think how wasteful in time this is, not even considering the extra mess it creates. Personally, we are now getting setup in our kitchen with the necessary letter openers, files, cheques, and recycling box so that mail can be started and completed in one step. (This is simply GTD/inbox zero for you paper mail.)
  4. Cleaning up – This is one we’ve struggled to help our kids understand; that part of playing is cleaning up. If they don’t cleanup now they will have to do it before they play next time. At that point it will require more mental effort to recall where things are and where they go. Plus, perhaps the next time they want to play they only have a few minutes which isn’t long enough to finish cleaning up from last time. Adults do this to all the time. Look at your desk.
  5. Meals – This one could go either way, and it may be personal as to which is preferred. If you believe that a meal isn’t over until the tables cleared, food cleaned, and dishes put away then the house will be much cleaner, but it may not be the most efficient. This is the route we have chosen and recognizing the penalty we pay for switching tasks we have purchased a few scrub brushes with built in soap to save us from filling the sink if there is only a couple of dishes. The alternative point of view is to look at meals as separate tasks (prepare, eat, clean) in which case you might want to group them together (this is what most people do with dishes, no?) The second is probably most efficient because it does minimize the task switches but in this case We’ve chosen the former because the queue of dishes looks bad and causes some mental stress. For it is not the most effective.

The last point is a perfect example of the decision process that one needs to go through when dealing with task switching. We need to weigh the cost of queuing the next task against the cost of switching tasks (twice), including the cost of making the mental switch. The mental switch is perhaps the hardest to quantify but the most recent advice seems to imply it is much bigger then one would guess.

Unfortunately, in many cases, we don’t even think about this. We simply switch tasks, slowly letting the urgent eliminate the important and taking longer to get the simplest tasks complete, like getting a slice of bread.

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