I used to furiously switch from task to task, completing small tasks as they came up while also working on a larger, longer term project. This felt good, like I was accomplishing things quickly — each small task crossed off the list was like increasing my score in the game of productivity. But while the small and often less important tasks got done right away the large, often more important project would take longer and longer.
Not only that, despite the hit of dopamine with each completed task, small tasks took longer as well. It felt fast, but it really was slow. Revisiting a task (or series of tasks) dramatically increase the total time it takes for completion. Frequency is just as important a productivity metric as duration. A six-hour task will actually take seven or eight if you split it up.
This is true of small tasks as well. Answering a single e-mail actually takes 15 – 20 minutes of total productivity despite even if it only takes you a few minutes to type it up and hit send. There is a missed void of productivity loss while you switch back from the e-mail to the more complicated task you were previously working on. Respond to ten e-mails right as they come in and you’ve over lost two hours of time. Respond to the ten e-mails in a single batch and you’ve only lost the 15 minutes.
Further, the act of refocusing takes a tremendous amount of mental effort. Frequent refocusing can mentally drain you leaving you unable to perform optimally even if you have the time to do so… a classic case of ego depletion.
Shutting out distractions and grouping small tasks into one large task provides a dramatic improvement to overall productivity and mental well-being. Inversely, you’ll be most productive with larger tasks when you work on them for longer periods of time.
Personally, I’ve found this challenging. I get fatigued after a certain amount of time and my inclination is to take a break and work on something else. I’ve learned I need to press on, as it could be days or weeks before I have time to circle back to the project that might only need another hour or two before its ready for the next stage.
If you can be disciplined and focus for long periods of time, shut out distractions and resist the temptation to grab some low hanging fruit you’ll find yourself significantly more productive. It starts to feel like magic, you’re able to “generate” more time. You spend the same amount of time working but more is accomplished.