Idea In Brief: The cognitive costs we incur switching back and forth from deep work and tactical activities are far too significant to bear. To avoid these costs, we have to manage our schedules with intention. Time chunking is a powerful tool to help us minimize these costs. And meetings are a great place to begin.
(3 1/2 Minute Read)
One of the three principles of my Fulfilling Strategy platform is that we must actively create the capacity and time to work on our most important strategic projects. One of the best ways to find more time and create energy is by time chunking our calendars.
The benefits of time chunking include improved focus, better flow state for deep work, and lower cognitive switching costs.
That’s not just my opinion. It’s science.
What Is Time Chunking?
Time chunking (sometimes referred to as clustering or batching) is the grouping of similar tasks on your calendar into larger blocks of dedicated time. The idea is to avoid continually alternating between shorter blocks of creative, deep work and task activities like calls and checking emails, so you don’t interrupt your flow or lose time trying to regain focus.
If you’ve ever been in a meeting where the agenda bounced back and forth between strategic and tactical issues, you understand how difficult it is for our brains to bounce back and forth between different types of activities.
The loss of effectiveness and efficiency that we feel when we alternate our thinking is measurable and even has a name: cognitive switching cost.
The Shocking Truth About Cognitive Switching Costs
What if we could measure the effect of cognitive task switching? It turns out we can, and this simple but powerful research example is mindblowing.
College students performed three different tasks while being timed. The first task was to recite A through B. The second task was to count from 1 to 26. The third task was to combine the first and second tasks by switching between counting and the alphabet (1-A-2-B, etc.). Alternating between two simple tasks took three times longer than doing them separately. Here are the results.
We know that we lose time when we switch back and forth between different types of tasks, but we don’t typically understand the gravity of how much cognitive ability we lose in this process.
Consider Your Energy
Another significant factor to consider in time chunking your calendar is your energy.
- When do you do your best, creative thinking?
- When is your most effective focus time?
- When do you have your lowest energy levels?
Schedule your time chunks of activities based on how you work and your typical energy high and low points.
I do my best thinking in the morning, so I carve out 8:30 – 10:00 each day to work on my creative projects. Time of the week can also factor into the equation. By Friday, there’s a good chance my cognitive bank may be empty, so I try to do networking events, lunches, and connect with colleagues on Fridays since that energizes me.
Of course, client schedules come first, so I can’t always control my calendar the way I would like. But I do have a time chunking protocol for the part of my schedule that I do control.
Start With Meetings
To begin time chunking, I recommend starting with meetings.
Before I implemented time chunking, I used to try to spread out my meetings evenly throughout the day and the week. On paper, it made perfect sense to sandwich a one or two-hour time block to work on a big project (deep work) in between two big meetings.
But in reality, this didn’t work that well.
My “sandwiched” deep work time was affected by the outcome and demands of the meeting before it AND the mental energy tied up thinking about the upcoming meeting! For me, it was too distracting and hard to get into any real flow.
My calendar used to look like this:
Now, on a good week, it looks more like the image below. The main difference is I try not to have any meetings before 10:00 since that’s my best deep work time, and I try to backload my meetings on Thursday and Friday.
Again, I completely understand that in a large corporate environment, it can be tough to control your calendar as much as you would like. But if you can block out your most effective deep work time and be intentional about when you set up the meetings you control, you can gain some power back.
Even a little extra power can make a big difference.
Idea into Action
Here are a few ways you can put the concept of time chunking to work for you.
- When is your most creative, productive time? Block that time out on your calendar by creating a meeting with yourself to work on that high-impact project. Honor that commitment.
- Next time you schedule a meeting, look at your calendar for opportunities to time chunk your meetings in a way that works best for you.
The cognitive costs we incur switching back and forth from deep work and tactical activities are far too significant to bear. To avoid these costs, we have to manage our schedules with intention. Time chunking is a powerful tool to help us minimize these costs. And meetings are a great place to begin.
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