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(This article is from today's issue of my newsletter)
One of the basic rules of time management is that it is much faster to group similar actions together. This rule is the basis of the batching which I advise in Do It Tomorrow. By dealing with emails in batches rather than haphazardly throughout the day you can process them much faster. The same applies to paperwork and minor tasks.

This rule doesn’t just apply to the order in which you do tasks, it also applies to the structure of a task itself.

I’ll give you an example which I regularly come across in my own life. Something I often have to do is put the tables and chairs out for one of my seminars. I use folding tables which are kept in a storage cupboard. Three folding chairs are put out per table. These are kept on a chair rack.

Now which do you think would be quicker?

1) Get out one table, put it in the right place, unfold the legs and turn it over. Then get three chairs off the rack, open them and put them behind the table. Repeat this process one table at a time until all the tables and chairs are in position. OR

2) Get out all the tables and put each of them on the ground with the legs uppermost and still folded. Then open the legs of all the tables. Then turn all the tables over. Then put all the folded chairs on top of the tables. Then open all the chairs and put them behind the tables.

As I’m sure you’ve realised the answer is 2). It’s not just a bit quicker. It’s a lot quicker (and I have tried both ways so I know from experience!). What’s more it is a lot less boring. And what’s more if you get interrupted and can’t finish it completely, it doesn’t matter so much.

The key to efficient action is whenever possible not to do your actions in the sequence ABC ABC ABC but instead go for AAA BBB CCC. However, funnily enough, ABC ABC ABC often seems more natural at first and we often find ourselves doing these tasks in the less efficient way.

Have a think about some of your repetitive actions. Are you doing them according to the AAA BBB CCC formula? Take cleaning a house for instance. Is it quicker to tidy, dust and vacuum each room in turn, or quicker to tidy every room, then dust every room and then vacuum every room? Another example would be filling in a spreadsheet. Is it quicker to fill it in row by row or column by column? I’ll leave you to answer that one!

Reader Comments (7)

Hi Mark
Yes, I agree with this one in principle but the problem I have is that sometimes I get really bored with doing something in an AAA BBB CCC sequence so I sometimes switch to the ABC sequence just to give myself something different to do. I have noticed that it is less efficient but I find it a more pleasant experience. I think this is the same conclusion that they came to when studying factory workers - the workers were happier when they were allowed to do all parts of the production process rather than only one repetitive part. And happier workers are less likely to go on strike! :-))
October 16, 2006 at 10:17 | Unregistered CommenterNicky Perryman
If you've got a really long AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA sequence then you'll achieve much the same effect in staving off boredom but retain some of the gain in efficiency by breaking it up into chunks, e.g. AAAAA BBBBB CCCCC AAAAA BBBBB CCCCC etc.
October 18, 2006 at 13:14 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This seems extremely relevant to SuperFocus, which can dictate a pattern of ABCABCABC, or AAABBBCCCAAABBBCCC, or AAAAAAAABBBBBBBCCCCCC, depending on how we load Column Two with our bigger projects A, B, and C.

The tension I experience comes between wanting to see A, B, and C on my list vs. the Column Two rules forcing me to interleave whatever appears in Column Two. If I write only one project at a time in C2, then I can work AAAAAAAA as you are suggesting, but I need a separate list to remind me of B and C, along with a separate queue to store projects that I want to succeed A, B, and C. This essentially combines 3T and SF.

In theory, one can relinquish control of all this by letting C1 itself be the queue, as well as the parking place for active projects B and C. I guess I am wanting more control than that. Perhaps I will learn to trust SF more, but until then I am using these external lists to force SF/C2 to give me what I want.

It would be lovely if some set of rules for C2 could produce the AAABBBCCC pattern within SF proper--I have pondered this but not found an answer yet. Something to keep in mind while experimenting with SF variations.
April 24, 2011 at 17:59 | Registered CommenterBernie
How about using three lines for A: A1,A2,A3, so you see Task A three times on each page?
April 24, 2011 at 19:18 | Registered CommenterCricket
Excellent idea, Cricket!

I often have a sense of relative importance about my projects, such "A is twice as important as B," meaning that I'd like to give it twice the attention.

I could write A on two lines as you suggest, and B on one. Each page, A gets two blocks of my attention, and B gets one. I like it!

My one hesitation, which I ought to ignore, is that it might fill up C2 faster and lead to earlier dismissal. Considering that I am one who needs help with dismissal and page rate, filling C2 can only help.
April 24, 2011 at 20:29 | Registered CommenterBernie

I'm not quite clear about what you are asking. The article is about grouping similar actions together within a project, not about how you group projects themselves.
April 25, 2011 at 23:15 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Mark, of course you are right. The "AABBCC" notation got me thinking of more recent conversations in which we talked about multiple projects, and then it seems I got carried away!
April 27, 2011 at 5:31 | Registered CommenterBernie

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