Repetitive tasks and finding greater productivity

September 2, 2017

The human mind and working of the human brain have been the subject of innumerable studies, and have over the years, inspired both discoveries, and the spread of myths and urban legends. A popular myth is that human beings utilize only about 10% of the capacity/capability of the human brain; it even inspired the critically panned Hollywood movie Lucy. While it’s been proved that the brain is almost always working at full capacity, the efficiency is probably very low. As any programmer knows, efficient scheduling is an extremely challenging problem, and scheduling tasks for the brain is no different. In this post, I’ll also use the words brain and mind interchangeably, as I’m just too lazy now to decide on ground rules as to where which term is to be used.

The challenge of handling repetitive tasks

It’s said that repetitive tasks are the bane of the human mind; human error is known to creep in, when the task doesn’t challenge the brain. However, we keep hearing of people who get into the zone, a magical place where we realize how ridiculously easy it is to keep doing whatever we are doing, and to be able to keep doing it for arbitrarily long periods. We often have the need to do something like this, and many of us rue that we don’t seem to be able to do this at will. For instance, when biking on a long, straight highway, with practically no change of scenery, all that one needs to do is to get in a rhythm of breathing and pedalling, and keep repeating that cycle (no pun intended) for as long as it’s needed. For an endurance bicyclist in reasonable shape, if one can cut out all other extraneous thoughts, it ought to be possible to eke out an extremely impressive amount of mileage, without really being very fast (all metrics, i.e. speed, mileage traveled etc are relative, but their description is still relevant as they allow comparison with ourselves).

Importance of being able to handle repetitive tasks

We know the mind is known to get bored with repetitive tasks, but is it also true that we try to subconsciously avoid repetitive tasks? For me, the novelty of doing something new is a very strong motivator, but I tend to see a drop in interest to keep doing the same thing, even if it is something I enjoy. I love bicycling, but when I try to establish a training regimen which calls for me to spend a set number of hours on the trainer each day, I find it harder to find motivation to do it, though I rarely see a lack of motivation to complete a long day of riding. As a result, when I was doing the Transam Bike Race, it was really a repetition of a long day’s riding, several times over, and after a few repetitions, there were occasions when the motivation to stay on the ride was really low, particularly when the conditions were very hostile.

We see mottos like ‘Strive for greater efficiency’ and the like,but what does it really entail? How can we be more effective or efficient? If we really oversimplified problems, I guess we’d all be happier, if we managed to get more things from the ‘desired’ pile, while staying away from the danger of getting into time-sinkholes which result in getting little useful/desirable work done. Here then, are my tips to try and get more useful work done.

1. Minimize time-sinkholes

While optimizing anything, we need to keep in mind the law of diminishing returns, as it takes more and more time to get efficiency to increase, and beyond a certain point, the time spent in increasing the efficiency far outweighs any actual gains from the increased efficiency. We need to identify and fight the urge to optimize without keeping an eye on the costs, as that’s a definite time-sinkhole. Social media is both a boon and a bane, so be judicious, and stay out of unending flamewars and troll-feeding.

Pearls Before Swine - pb170108comb_ts.tif

2. Capture tasks adequately

It’s important to capture all tasks that need to be accomplished, and probably also record the estimated time it would require, to complete it. Don’t forget to capture time-windows for task completion, where they are relevant. Use any means that suit you best. Tools like trello can be helpful. Other alternatives like plain old paper ‘bulletjournals’ can be a good idea too. Thanks Farhana, for pointing me to

3. Seek out repetitive patterns in tasks repeatedly, and complete them

Having discussed the issues we face with repetitive tasks, why are we now trying to seek them out actively? So that we can get them out of the way, with minimal fuss. By consciously trying to go into a ‘repetitive function’ mode, we can try and land into the zone more often, and get a lot of tasks done. Though repetitive tasks are boring, we can train ourselves to be extremely efficient at handling them, and with practice, get them completed before the boredom can set in. We may also need to make it a habit to make the seeking out of the repetitive tasks itself into a repetitive action, till we start doing it subconsciously. Every time you pass the kitchen sink, check for dishes, and unless you are in the middle of another task, clear away the dishes as and when you encounter them.

4. Avoid getting into tasks, depth-first

Do you spot something else while in the middle of a task, and take it on instead, relegating your current task onto a ‘stack’? You are doing a depth-first traversal of your tasks!

Doing a depth-first traversal of tasks is very dangerous, as it leads you to falsely believe you are accomplishing tasks productively, while totally disregarding priorities and task scheduling! Hours (or in really bad scenarios, days or even weeks) could pass before you realize you’ve made little or no headway into the task you’d originally started working on.

Maintain a prioritized task list, and follow each task to its logical conclusion, only stalling them, or pushing them onto a stack, if circumstances dictate it, such as you need to await a response from a fellow collaborator. Revisit your task list and stalled items list often, to ensure you’ve not forgotten about any tasks you’ve started.

5. Reduce number of open windows, tabs, threads on the mind

Minimalism is in. You may have multiple monitors to increase efficiency, but continously close down unnecessary open terminals, browser tabs, and threads on the mind. The amount of time we waste in trying to find the correct terminal or tab, in a huge pile, is not negligible, and all of that saved time leads to increased productivity without your having to do any extra work to achieve it.