Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Batch Your Input Tasks to Maximize Output

by Andre · 3 Comments

By now, the concept of batching is familiar to nearly everyone who reads productivity books and blogs. Usually batching is illustrated with a specific repetitive process, like checking email. By checking email fewer times each day in the most infrequent intervals possible (this might be once a day for some, every two hours for others). Most professional writers strongly prefer writing in continuous blocks of several hours rather than chipping away at a piece of writing in whatever windows of time make themselves available.

While it’s popular to apply batching to individual processes, you can also apply it on a broader basis. All work can be split into two basic categories: input and output.

A friend of mine travels frequently and downloads his email to Outlook right before boarding his flights. While airborne, he answers these message offline, so that the next time he’s connected, all of his replies are sent in one shot. This is an example of batched output. While he was working on email, he didn’t have the option of getting incoming messages by hitting Send/Receive. He could only write email, making it simpler to finish the task in one sitting without having to react to incoming mail, especially replies to the messages he just sent.

But that’s still batched output for one task. If we look at our task list, we can streamline it by identifying which actions are output tasks, and which ones are input tasks. Actions that begin with verbs like write, change, configure, call, install, and so on are clearly output functions. Actions beginning with verbs like read, review, or check are input functions. By marking out which is which, we can make work much more efficient by handling each group separately.

If you can discipline yourself to do all your input tasks in one stream — processing your inbox and in-basket, reading your RSS feeds, reading documents — you’ll avoid blunting your momentum when it’s time to actually produce things. If nothing else, when it’s time to focus on output, you’ll be more aware of the impulse to fall back on an input task as a tool for procrastination. You might only decide to batch a subset of your output tasks, but the awareness of categories lets you keep track of whether you’re wearing the “output hat” or the “input hat.”

You’ll probably find that output tasks are the ones that have been sitting around the longest. If they’re couched in a long list, mixed indiscriminately with input tasks, they’re especially convenient to ignore. Even if you don’t actually execute each category as a batch process, it’s instructive to separate them just to see which tasks need more attention.

Using priority codes for separation

If you use a digital list manager, it’s easy to arrange your items into two blocks, with the output tasks listed first. Since the implementation detail will vary on different software titles, I’ll stick to the one I use: the Palm Desktop. The general concept should be easy to apply to other software.

If your task list doesn’t already display the Priority column, go to Sort By dropdown menu and select Priority, Due Date. Then, to the left of each task, you’ll see a default priority code of 1. If you click on this number, a dropdown menu appears that allows you to change that number. Identify which tasks are input functions, and change their priority to 2. The 2 items will display below the 1 items. You can change the priority code of a task directly on a Palm device, but the list sort won’t necessarily reflect the changes.

Separating on a paper planner

If you use a paper list manager, it’s fairly labor intensive to rearrange your list items into input and output categories. You might want to use some notation, like a checkmark, to identify the output tasks. If your list is short, like a dozen items, I recommend taking the extra time to actually write out a new output/input prioritized list.

It’s worth sorting out your list into these categories at least once, even if you don’t take the next step of batching your work, just to see if there’s anything you’re avoiding.

(Photo credit: 96dpi)

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Tags: GTD · Productivity


  • judyofthewoodsNo Gravatar // Sep 23, 2008 at 6:33 pm

    The input and output jobs are what I have been calling passive and active jobs, although I am still somewhat active when being passive. The active jobs are the ones I do when my energy level and presence of mind are at their highest, like in the morning, whereas in the evening I am better at just reading, and writing the odd comment ;-)

    judyofthewoods’s last blog post: Chair Organising Panniers

  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Sep 23, 2008 at 6:48 pm

    I never thought about separating input tasks from output tasks. It’s an interesting idea.

    Vered – MomGrind’s last blog post: A Weekend In Napa: 3 Days, No Internet, No Problem

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