Productivity Tips: Batching, Filtering, and Pipelining

by Mike Shea on 4 September 2010

Thirty second version

Batching is the processes of grouping activities by common characteristics like location and doing them all together, like a grocery list. Filtering is the process of removing or blocking sources of stuff you don't really want. Pipelining is the process of passing stuff between different systems so you do the right thing in the right place at the right time with the right tools. These three concepts can be used everywhere to simplify one's life and help one focus on the things that deserve the most attention.

Reading about these ideas doesn't help you, however. Doing them does. Go do.

Grocery lists for your life

One of the biggest problems people have with productivity systems is a failure to use them everywhere. Someone might have a great day-planner they use for work but then they go home and their world falls part. Other people might have great systems for picking up groceries but lousy systems for dealing with the over-commitments coming from their friends. We don't tend to think about a single system for everything, but that's exactly what we need. When we realize that going out and doing three things in one car trip is no different than having a list of the four things you need to do at your computer, we can start to see ways to do this in other places too. These three techniques; batching, filtering, and processing; can be used everywhere.

Batching

When you write a grocery list throughout the week and then use that list to buy all your groceries once a week, you're batching. If you have a list of phone calls you want to make and use that list when you have some free time for the phone, you're batching. Batching is the simple act of grouping similar tasks together, not by category but by the actions required to fulfill them. World of Warcraft players know all about batching. They find four quests that require picking up little bits of shit from the same general area and they do them all at the same time for four times the gain with the same amount of time and energy.

Getting Things Done style action lists are a way to batch. I use Ta-da list by the awesome guys at 37 Signals to manage a "home" list that is generally filled with things I can do at my computer. An "at computer" list would probably work better but this seems to work just fine for now. I found recently that ta-da list worked better for me than my Moleskine for home projects because, while I carry my Moleskine everywhere at work, I don't usually have it at my desk at home. I do, however, have my iPhone, iPad, and my Macbook at hand. It makes sense to have my to-do list where I can get to it easily. This way, even my list is batched with the tools I need to complete the items on it.

Constantly look for ways to batch things together. Strengthen those action lists. Group like things together. Like Rework says, find ways to use the byproducts of your actions for some other gain. Who knows, maybe your pontifications on time management can generate a couple of bucks with some well-placed Amazon referral links!

Filtering

Anyone who deals with more than ten emails a day knows about filtering. Establishing some basic logic to filter out stuff we're not interested in is becoming easier to do in some systems. In others, its lacking. Filtering is the simple method of removing stuff before it reaches you. When you mute your TV during a commercial break, you're filtering. When you turn off the ringer on your phone so you can have some nice relations with your lady-friend, you're filtering. When you finally ignore that friend of yours from grammar school on Facebook who won't quit talking about the fucking Tea-baggers, you're filtering.

Filtering can be done everywhere. You can filter internet sources with things like Google Reader and Twitter. You can filter distractions at work by closing your door and disconnecting your PC from the network while you work on your boring-ass monthly status report. You can even filter out parasitic friendships that tend to drain your energy with some careful negotiation and some sly phone number changes.

Some basic rules to filter things out of your life can go a long way to help you stay happy and focused on things that really matter. For example, I try to avoid any source of information that doesn't make me happy or teach me something I can use right now. I can't completely filter out mainstream news, but I can turn it off or quit reading it on the web. This is one of the reasons I tend to avoid popular techie libertarian sites like Boing Boing, Slashdot, and Game Politics. Too many of their stories just piss me off and life's too short to be pissed off. Instead I seek sites that entertain me like The Onion or The Oatmeal or sites that teach me things I can use like many of my D&D blogger sites.

Filtering means I pay for shows on iTunes rather than watching them on TV. Yes, it costs me a buck (or three bucks if it's Mad Men in HD) but I've never seen a standard television ad in my home in four years. It costs me to filter that stuff out but it's worth the money to me.

Think about adding email-style filters to the rest of your life. Tie off all those hoses of bullshit that people have placed in your door. Remove all those sources that don't make you happy but you feel some weird-ass obligation to keep going. You don't need to know everything. You don't need to be on top of every new event. Relax and only let in the things that are really important to you right now.

pipelining

Have you ever emailed yourself something to your home address so you could deal with it when you get home? What about printing out something you needed to work on and placing it on your desk so it was there when you were ready to edit? These are acts of pipelining, pushing stuff from one processes of your life to another so you can deal with it using the right tools at the right time in the right place.

I had a lot of trouble figuring out a pipeline for Twitter on the iPhone and iPad. On my Mac, I had a pretty good pipeline for Twitter. I used Tweet Deck to read my incoming tweets. When someone sent a link of interest, I opened it up in a browser but went right back to Tweet Deck and surfed through more tweets. Every time a link of interest came up, I just opened it in a new tab. When I was done reading tweets, I went to my browser and started going through the tabs. The pipeline was Tweet Deck for actual tweets and passing links to Google Chrome to read articles or watch videos.

On the iPhone and iPad, the multi-tasking isn't good enough to do that yet. Twitter on the iPhone lets you read an article from a link in a tweet but you have to stop your act of surfing tweets to do so. I don't want to read articles as soon as I come up on them, I want to push them off to read later. A friend of mine gave me the solution, using "Favorites" as a way to mark tweets I want to deal with later. Now my pipeline is to read tweets, favorite the ones for later, and open up their links when I'm sitting at a computer.

I use a similar trick with the before-mentioned Ta-da list. With Ta-da list, I can add links as to-do items for home rather than reading them at work. If something interesting comes up that I don't want to deal with at work, I just add the URL as a new action for home. When I get home, I open up Ta-da list and start reading links. Likewise, when I find an interesting article related to my job, I forward it to my work email account (an account I only read while at work). This way I have a cross-work-life pipeline to pass information to the right sphere of my world.

Arranging the right set of tools in the right order with clear ways to pass stuff between them is the key to pipelining. The entire Getting Things Done system revolves around a pipeline: capture stuff in your "inbox", process it and organize it into projects and action lists, review weekly, and do the things on your action lists. Finding faster ways to run things through your pipeline, or simpler tools to do the same job as more complicated ones, can make life a lot better. Paying off bills the minute they show up using your bank's automated bill payment system is a lot nicer than waiting for a stack of bills to show up and then spending two hours writing checks.

Good pipelines move stuff through your life, from inputs to outputs. They become automated processes that let you quit worrying about shit and just enjoy the life you have.

Using these everywhere

We all do each of these things in different parts of our lives. The key is to spend some time thinking about how these very effective tools (like writing a grocery list) can be used everywhere else. Too much pontification about your productivity system might lead you to a Merlin Mann-style breakdown, but thinking about your own individual system can help us get rid of those regular stresses, make our lives more efficient, and give us the free time and energy to focus on the important things in our lives.

Thinking isn't enough, though. You have to do this shit to get any value from it. So go do it.

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