Configure for Scope

Let me tell you about my laundry.

I do laundry once a week. It used to take me approximately 40 minutes, once the laundry was out of the dryer, to fold it and put it away. (No, I’m not QUITE weird enough to time myself doing laundry. But I have a playlist of upbeat songs on Spotify to listen to when doing chores, and when I’m done a chore and shut off the music I can see how long it’s been playing. Neat side benefit!)

I figured 40 minutes was too long, so I wanted to shorten it down. I didn’t really pay much attention to “laundry efficiency” prior to this, so there was some definite low-hanging fruit with regards to efficiency gains. Changing one thing turned it from 40 minutes to about 10-15.

What I used to do (40-minute version) was take the clean laundry out of the basket, fold it, and put it in the right stack. Then I’d take all the stacks and put them away. What I do now (10-minute version) is separate everything by the stack it’s going to go in first, then fold all the items of each category in a row. This wasn’t the way I used to do it because it seemed like extra work – an extra step of pre-separating. And that’s true, it was extra work; but only about 60 seconds’ worth, and it made the rest of the task take only about 25% of the time it used to take.

That’s because it’s easier for us to configure our thought processes around one kind of task, activity, or puzzle and then get into the zone than it is to have to do the mental step of first figuring out what kind of question this is, and then answering it.

Here’s a different example: my oldest kid, as part of her current home-school work, has these daily math exercises that are a series of easy problems, but graded on speed. It’s an attempt to make the basic building blocks automatic and reflexive, so they come at her rapid-fire. Once she’s ready though, she can crush it. You can probably imagine doing the same. But imagine that the questions that came at you rapid-fire weren’t just simple math equations. Imagine that it was a jumble – some math equations, some state capitals, some spelling questions, some geometry puzzles, etc. Even if each individual question was on the same overall level of simplicity, having to figure out what kind of question you were answering each time would slow you down dramatically.

Your day-to-day professional “to do” lists can have that effect on you. Often we categorize them based on the types of projects, but maybe we should look at them in terms of the scope instead. For instance, imagine that you have three big accounts you’re working on. For each account, you have to do a bunch of market research, assemble some contact lists, do cold outreach, and prepare a pitch deck. For some people, their to-do list might look like this:

  1. Do Johnson Account Market Research
  2. Assemble Johnson Account Contact List
  3. Send Johnson Account Emails
  4. Prep Johnson Account Pitch Deck
  5. Do Mattison Account Market Research
  6. Assemble Mattison Account Contact List
  7. Send Mattison Account Emails
  8. Prep Mattison Account Pitch Deck
  9. Do Berkly Account Market Research
  10. Assemble Berkly Account Contact List
  11. Send Berkly Account Emails
  12. Prep Berkly Account Pitch Deck

That makes some intuitive sense – get everything done on the first account, then move to the next one. But I posit that you’d actually be better off arranging your day like this:

  1. Do Johnson Account Market Research
  2. Do Mattison Account Market Research
  3. Do Berkly Account Market Research
  4. Assemble Johnson Account Contact List
  5. Assemble Mattison Account Contact List
  6. Assemble Berkly Account Contact List
  7. Send Johnson Account Emails
  8. Send Mattison Account Emails
  9. Send Berkly Account Emails
  10. Prep Johnson Account Pitch Deck
  11. Prep Mattison Account Pitch Deck
  12. Prep Berkly Account Pitch Deck

Note that with the first list, you have to shift mental gears between every task. You have to change your mind’s focus on totally different exercises using totally different skills, again and again. That can really wear you out and disrupt your flow. In the second list, you’re minimizing the number of shifts you need to do. You’re doing a bunch of market research and letting yourself be immersed in the task. Then when it’s done, you’re assembling contact lists and can really get a rhythm going, etc.

When you have to self-manage your time, it’s easy to forget how important “wear and tear” on your focus and attention can be. Give yourself the smoothest flow you can, and watch the tasks get easier.

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