This is the 5th of 5 posts in the series Note to self.

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Much of our lives are based on recurrence.

There are so many things in our lives that happen in daily, monthly, quarterly, and annual cycles. And to much of it, we’re oblivious. Just think about your day, beginning to end. Think about everything little mundane thing you do – it’s likely the same thing you did the day before, and you’ll do it tomorrow too.

And that’s fine. It’s human.

But what if we could limit recurrence? What are the implications?

I believe that a life less redundant is a life more lived. Living less redundantly means that we’re creating a fuller, richer body of work.

That’s the abstract view. On a more practical note. . .

When it comes to recurring tasks, there is a tremendous amount of untapped efficiency just begging to be gained by “task bundling.”

As I discussed earlier in this series, we often underestimate the amount of time that will be available to our future selves.

Indeed, time is one of the most important constraints in your task system. If you bundle tasks, you recognize that there are many things in your task “cycles” that can be done in the same temporal proximity. It’s a way of leveraging time. . . in a way.

Practically efficient task bundling - an example

Bills are a fact of life. Paying them has certainly gotten a lot easier with the advent of online payment systems. However, I bet most people could gain a lot of efficiency by bundling their bill paying activities into denser piles.

Even if you don’t schedule reminders to pay bills, you still have some sort of reminder system – otherwise, the lights would be out and the faucets dry. Whether it’s waiting for paper bills to land in your mail box or e-bills to land in your inbox, something tugs at you so that you pay up.

It’s easy to allow the event of seeing a new bill be a trigger to pay that bill. But if you do that, you’re not only losing time by paying your bills inefficiently, you’re also allowing unnecessary external control of your behavior.

Spending just 30 minutes analyzing your bill cycles will give you that 30 minutes back many times over, and you can use that time doing more productive or enjoyable things.

To illustrate, let’s assume you pay all of your bills electronically using your bank’s website. Let’s look at the actions needed each time you pay a bill. Think of these as temporal overhead costs:

  1. Stop what you’re doing and go to your computer
  2. Turn on your computer and go to your bank’s website
  3. Make sure you have enough money in the right account
  4. Pay bill(s)
  5. Take yourself away from your computer (easier for some than others)
  6. Resume your life

I think people really underestimate the time it takes to pay bills because item 4 is the focus, but items 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 all must happen too.

I’m not going to attempt to put real times on these activities because it will greatly vary from person to person. For example, some people leave their computers on all the time, so startup time is negligible.

But in general, I think I can safely assume that from start to finish, steps 1 through 6 are going to consume 30 minutes of your day at a minimum. The “disruption” aspect alone is probably worth at least 30 minutes. In other words, you’re losing the opportunity to do something else productive or enjoyable in that time.

The time spent on the focal point of the task (paying the bill) is probably tiny. I bet it’s less than one minute for most people, maybe only seconds. Paying the bill is like a variable cost. The time you spend on step 4 above is proportional to the number of bills you need to pay: one bill = 1 minute; 2 bills = 2 minutes; and so on.

An example

Let’s say you get 8 bills each month and you pay those in 4 separate events. That’s 2 hours of temporal overhead and maybe 8 minutes of actual bill paying (clicking the pay button on a website).

If you could pay your bills twice a month, you’re getting back an hour of your time each month. If you can pay all of your monthlies at once, you’re clawing back 1.5 hours per month. That’s 18 hours a year.

So spending just 30 minutes to sit down and look at all your bill due dates and make a decision about the optimal time to pay each gives you back 18 hours a year. That's more than 2 standard working days. It's a good deal.

Making it happen

Doing this “analysis” is really easy. Just write down each bill (a spreadsheet is a great way), and make note of the due date. You’ll quickly see a pattern emerge.

All you have to do is pick one or two days each month on which you can comfortably pay each bill by its due date.

Here’s an example:

</col> </col> </col>
Payee Actual Due Date Pay Date
Eelectric 3 16
Auto insurance 6 16
Mobile 2 16
Cable 2 16
Credit card 1 28 16
Credit card 2 22 16

All of these can be paid comfortably on the 16th of the month, and there will be plenty of time for the payment to get to the payee. It’s likely that the bills for these won’t arrive at the same time. For example, your electric bill may come on the 7th, but your cable bill may come on the 14th. Without making a concerted effort to pay these on the same day, you’d be likely to pay them in separate events – wasting temporal overhead.

Beyond bill paying

The concept of task bundling can be applied to all of your tasks.  It's really about recognizing that you have many tasks that can be performed in close proximity -- whether it's spatial or temporal.  Just using context-based bundling a little bit can greatly improve your productivity and add value to your day.

Try to organize your tasks by context (e.g. @home, @calls, @work, and so forth).  That way, when you're actually in those places, you can focus on the tasks you need to do there. Most importantly, it lets you filter out the tasks you can't do while in those places.

I've even seen cases where people extend the context concept to parts of the day in lieu of setting due times.  For example, you could use tags like "after6pm" or "morning". Earlier in this series, I talked about the downside to setting too many due dates. This another great alternative to using due dates because it's less likely to back you into a corner.

Wrapping up

This concludes my series on making better hurdles in life, Note to self.

I covered what I consider the four key pitfalls in task setting:

  1. Misunderstanding of what a task due date should be
  2. Bad prioritization
  3. Setting tasks that aren’t actionable
  4. Failing to bundle similar tasks

Everything I’ve discussed involves processes that I consider to be firmly rooted in my productivity workflows. While much of it was seeded by David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, these are all things that I’ve been practicing long enough to know that they work. If they can work for you too, that’s great.

Let me know.