An important part of creating a scheduled to do list is to do each step in its entirety before moving onto the next step. Why is that?
Our brains are not good at context-switching. Often we think about this as switching between different tasks, but we incur switching costs when we switch between different types of thought within the same task.
Creating a list of tasks puts your mind into brainstorm mode, estimating the time for those tasks puts your mind into calculation mode and scheduling those tasks puts your mind into construction mode.
Each of these modes of thinking operate differently and take time to switch between. By staying in the same mode, you increase the speed at which your brain works.
One of the best ways to improve your performance is to leverage your working memory. Working memory is needed when we’re brainstorming new tasks, estimating existing tasks or composing those tasks into a schedule.
For instance, when you are itemizing things, you’ll often go through what you’ve already written down to see “what you missed”. This “what did I miss” process triggers the brain to generate new ideas by comparing them against the ideas you already had.
If you’ve unloaded your working memory by switching to a different thought process, you need to spend the time to re-load your working memory. If you don’t, you’ll likely wind up generating many of the same ideas you already had, which can waste time and can cause you to prematurely think you’ve thought of everything.
Similarly, when estimating tasks, it helps to keep in your head what you’ve already estimated for other tasks. We don’t estimate in a vacuum. If you already estimated 2 hours to write a blog post, you can use that as a benchmark for the detailed e-mail you need to write your boss.
Bottom line: by staying in the same mode, you increase not only the speed at which your brain operates, but its effectiveness too.
The disadvantage of batching your work into each step is that it takes longer to discover problems. If one task is going to take all day to do, there’s no need to estimate the remaining tasks. You won’t discover this until the end if you process all of your tasks in each step.
When you are learning the process, it can be helpful to work through each step with one task at a time, until you get a feel for how it works.
As you develop your gut around how long tasks take, you can add a step between itemizing and estimating your tasks which let’s you eliminate tasks that aren’t worth estimating, because you know they won’t make it onto your schedule.
Finally, if you have a large set of tasks, it may be valuable to pick a batch size, like 10, and process that many items in each step through to the end. This prevents you from overwhelming your working memory, helps you identify issues earlier, while still optimizing how often you switch thought contexts.