While flipping through a recent issue of The Atlantic, I landed on an article called How Civilization Broke our Brains: What can hunter-gatherer societies teach us about work, time, and happiness? It featured a drawing of a man in a hammock surrounded by lush greenery and blue skies. It’s idyllic at first glance. But a closer look reveals the man is lurching out of the hammock as he looks up at the phone-, envelope-, and other work-shaped clouds closing in on him.
The article explores the tension between the productivity mind and the leisure mind, pointing out that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had considerably more downtime than the average American does today (who, according to the piece, spends approximately forty-four hours weekly working), even though they lacked the modern conveniences we so happily utilize—checking our email on our phones while our pasta boils in pots on gas stoves.
The man in this photo is relaxing, but it’s not his leisure mind at play. His productive mind has taken over, plaguing his downtime with frets about work and other responsibilities. Talking about the Sunday Scaries, the infamous anxiety many feel on Sundays as the workweek nears and the sun sets on the leisurely weekend, author Derek Thompson writes:
“Guilt about recent lethargy kicks in as productivity mind gears up, and apprehension about workaday pressure builds as leisure mind cedes power.”
It’s not just an elegant way of talking about the Sunday Scaries; it’s pinpointing something real, something so many of us feel: guilt for having spent time doing something of leisure when we could have done something more productive, like reconciling our budgets or Marie Kondo-ing our underwear drawers.
I feel it all the time. Or I used to. Due to a layoff, I recently became a stay-at-home mother of two: an infant and a toddler. My hands are busy. On top of my mom duties, I keep a steady stream of projects that require me to use my brain in different and, dare I say, more intellectual ways than I do while painting with my three-year-old—like writing and marketing my children’s book.
Most importantly, I don’t feel guilty when I shut off the list of productive things I need to do and I tackle my other list, my leisure list. . . . My lack of guilt can be mostly attributed to a process I adopted right around the time of my layoff: batching my work.
And yet, I don’t feel like I’m so busy all the time. I don’t feel overwhelmed. And, most importantly, I don’t feel guilty when I shut off the list of productive things I need to do and I tackle my other list, my leisure list, the one that allows me to bring my best self to all of my responsibilities: the to-be-read list of books.
My lack of guilt can be mostly attributed to a process I adopted right around the time of my layoff: batching my work. I learned about this process at such a serendipitous time that I didn’t even think before I started doing it; I just dove right in.
My downtime is fleeting and spotty at best. What used to happen is that when the time arose in which I could get some work done, I would get to my computer and would spend the majority of that small break trying to decide what to focus on. Do I respond to emails? Do I edit the article I was working on? Do I need to do some more research? Because I hadn’t had any process in place, and could never determine which task was most important to work on given the time I had in front of me, I would oscillate between the many.
Switching from task to task without making meaningful progress was damaging to my productivity, and, according to an article in Psychology Today, it was promoting stress and fatigue. The article continues:
“Multitasking creates an illusion of parallel activity, but actually it requires mental switching from one task to another. This drains the glucose fuel needed by the brain, making the brain less efficient and creating the feeling of being tired.”
Bouncing around tasks like this made my work suffer. My productivity brain was hurting and my leisure brain yearned to be ignited. Because my work was so unproductive, I never fully allowed my leisure brain to show up, to enjoy, to recharge.
Then I heard of work batching and I got busy—in a productive and leisurely way—immediately.
Work batching is a highly Googleable concept, but here’s what it looks like for me:
On Sunday nights, I dedicate ten minutes to thinking about my forthcoming week. I identify what my priorities are, thinking as small as tiny tasks and as big as lofty goals. I then assign an overarching theme to each day, Monday through Friday. If I have fewer than five themes I want to focus on in any given week, I’ll double up and repeat the theme later in the week. In the example below, you’ll see I only have three themes. This is because there are three big pillars I’m currently working on. I use Wit & Delight’s Stay on Track Desktop Notepad to write out my work batching, but you could use any journal or calendar. For work batching, your success relies on your dedication and planning; you could use a scrap of paper if it helped keep you organized.
To keep this how-to as simple as possible, here’s a rudimentary example of how I batch my work:
Monday: Article writing
Tuesday: Book marketing
Wednesday: Article writing
Thursday: Email planning and scheduling
I will generally leave Friday open so I can fill it in later in the week with the theme that I couldn’t get to or want to spend more time on. The themes above are broad, but they’re specific enough for me to focus when I get to my computer. If I have time on a Wednesday to get some work done, I will not open my web browser, check email, or go on social media once I open up my laptop. Instead, I will open up Word and get to work on whichever article I’m writing, because I reviewed my work batching planner that morning and reminded myself that my focus for that day was article writing. Yes, I still check my emails throughout the day and complete other menial tasks, but when I have a chunk of time to which I can devote myself to getting real work done, I don’t have to think about my priority; I already determined it on Sunday night.
The single most beneficial part of work batching for me has been deciding in advance what I will be working on the next time I get to my computer. If you’re at your computer all day, work batching can still benefit you if you are able to separate your time into themed tasks, such as creative work, responding to emails, research, and writing, for example.
Your process would look different from mine, and, of course, not everybody can batch their work into themes as broadly as I do. If that’s the case, consider writing a hierarchy of themes in each day. The single most beneficial part of work batching for me has been deciding in advance what I will be working on the next time I get to my computer. If you’re at your computer all day, work batching can still benefit you if you are able to separate your time into themed tasks, such as creative work, responding to emails, research, and writing, for example. Doing this work on Sundays take all the doubts and questions out of the work during the week, making Sundays a little less scary. (And yes, I still experience Sunday Scaries sometimes.)
This simple process has led to better focus, much less wasted time, and—amazingly—a lot of success for me. I’ve been able to increase my workload while decreasing the amount of time I put into it strictly because I’ve been more focused. And if those weren’t enough reasons to keep up this process, when I have some time to tap into my leisure mind, I do it without regret or remorse; I do it fully and without thinking I should be doing something else. This fulfills me, and the next opportunity I get to spend some time working, I approach my batched themes with more energy and a clearer mind.
Though I didn’t have the terminology when I implemented this process, batching my work has helped me weave in and out of my productive and leisure brain, showing up for each better than I had been before.
Kolina Cicero is enamored with stories – reading them, writing them, getting lost within them. Other things she loves include yoga, traveling, and taking cooking, Italian, and writing classes. Her first children’s book, Rosie and the Hobby Farm, was published in July 2020.
BY Kolina Cicero - February 7, 2021
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.