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Habits and Batching

One of the most high leverage tools available to us is habit. We are the sum of the things we do, our habits tend to be the things we do most and therefore we tend towards being the sum of our habits. Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit is a great primer on this. An interplay I'm increasingly interested in is the one between habits and batching (or habits of batching).

A typical example of a habit is something we do every day, like going to the gym or writing in a journal. But a habit more broadly is anything we regularly do as a result of a trigger. So going to the gym as soon as we wake up is a habit, but so is checking our email the moment we get a notification.

Many things lend themselves well to becoming habits. Always defaulting to whatever doesn’t come with potatoes, going to the gym immediately after waking up and automating everything that needs doing more than twice are example of habits I believe make my life better.

One of the most common forms of productivity reducing habit is reactively dealing with things that have setup or switching costs costs. If the machine to make a nail takes five minutes to warm up and then 10 seconds to make a nail, then the habit of waiting until I need a nail then going and making one will lead to each nail taking five minutes and ten seconds. If I wait until I need 30 nails and do them in one go, it will take 10 minutes in total, or 20 seconds per nail.

This is called batching. By grouping similar tasks together we save on setup and tear down times, and in many real life scenarios, also complete the individual tasks more quickly as a result of increase flow.

If we can develop a habit of batching tasks which benefit from it, we can expect to complete them more effectively. One of the most common examples of this is deciding to look and and respond to email at only one or two points in the day. By doing this we save the switching costs associated with being interrupted by email notifications and dramatically reduce the amount of time required to deal with our inbox.

The Interplay between habits and batching is one of those things where once you've seen it somewhere, you start seeing it everywhere. Particularly in the sense that the solution to a lot of bad habits, it's to replace a trigger response which is "do x immediately" with a trigger response "add x to a batch".

Processing the batch may then, in itself, be a new habit to be formed. E.g. Adding things to a todo list is a habit which can show immediate results in terms of reduced mental load, but it will quickly fall apart if you do not have a habit or set of habits which mean the list gets regularly prioritised and processed.

So a useful mental model I've now explicitly added to my arsenal is; "is this an example of a thing which would be better dealt with by two new habits, one to reactively add it to batches and another to process those batches".