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Incremental vs. Batch Processing: Examples, Dos, and Don'ts


I'm thinking about when we should do things in small bits during the day/week, and when we should "save them up" to process as a batch. Following are some thoughts.

  • Email: Email management is the canonical "batch is best" time management example. We need to differentiate processing (emptying), monitoring (triage), and checking (read, don't act, and leave in inbox - waste). I suggest using monitoring for incremental (but don't go nuts), and processing for batch (use the minimum # times that you can get away with, given your job).

  • Custom workflows: Switching my financial workflow (incremental processing of receipts weekly, reconciling as a batch for monthly statements) was a big productivity improvement for me. Details under "Balancing your checking account" in Custom Workflows For Knowledge Workers. Are there repeated processes in your work that can be split up into separate incremental and batch portions?

  • Projects: Incremental! Trying to do a task that's too large is demoralizing, and leads to procrastination. That said, there are times when you're in the zone, and you should consider changing your plan and staying with it until productivity drops. Most of the time incremental is best - "making simultaneous progress on multiple projects" is how I put it. Even 10 minutes can help.

  • Around the house: A lot of incremental opportunities, such as putting things away when done with them. Batches include washing laundry and doing dishes after a meal. Related: Waitress as Organizational Guru, via Collection Habit Infection, Routines, And The Value Of Creating Space.

  • Writing: A specialization of project execution, I'd vote strongly for incremental: In general, steady, small steps work much better than binging. My academic clients in particular are susceptible to the latter ("I'll get this done this summer/on sabbatical.")

  • Blogging: A specialization of Writing, I made this shift a while ago, and it's really helpful. As Chris says in How to Blog Almost Every Day, "Find 20-40 minutes in every day to sit still and type." I enter items into my idea capture system throughout the day, and have ~20 of them pulled out into draft HTML files at any one time. I add to these during the day as thoughts on the topics come come to me, or if I get the urge to do some image surfing.

Can we abstract some heuristics? To get you thinking: Use incremental when the job is large, or when breaking into small steps has a big payoff for the final project. Use batch when many items of the same type can be done more efficiently together. For example, when set-up and take-down are significant percentages of the job.

I'm curious: What's your thinking around incremental vs. batch? Any examples? What Do's and Don'ts can we come up with?

Reader Comments (4)

Great post, Matthew!
I would just add that in my experience batching has the risk to become procrastination.
"I'll do X this together with Y and Z next week" sometimes mean "I won't do X, nor Y, nor Z next week." This happens when I must do X, Y and Z but I don't like so much!
So I use batching very carefully and sometimes prefer incremental even if it is a bit less efficient.

November 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

Thanks, Andrea. Good point re: putting things off so they can be done together, but never happening. I hadn't thought of it that way!

November 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hello Matt/everyone. Back after a long hiatus. Had a lot of personal stuff to deal with but I am in a comfortable spot now. Hope to respond more frequently, I think I havent been here in 11 months!

Anyhow on batch processing...

I would think the default option for most jobs is to do it in batch as it is usually more economical/efficient.

Some exceptions:

1) Tasks which will create meta problems if they are done all at once. Like if I was to clean my entire house this might take 2 or 3 days I would have to miss work, miss email, etc. Other problems would occur beyond the initial task.

2) Tasks which require different types of thinking. This is almost obvious as it is the opposite of the idea of doing things on a large scale because they all require the same type of thinking. Certain tasks like organizing an office might require:

pattern recognition as you actually sort through stuff;
memory recall as you try to decide what types of stuff are likely to need a filing system;
creative thinking as to how best to approach the problem.

Tasks like this usually cannot be accomplished in one sit down. Or they are often accomplished wrongly, as one tries to finish the task and is forced to say, choose between letter size or legal size filing cabinet. You hurriedly buy the letter size on grounds that it saves space (isnt it obvious? we dont use legal size) but it turns out you really need that legal size because every so often you get projects on legal size paper that dont fit otherwise and cause enormous problems. That kind of decision really should not be done in "hurry up" mode.

3) Interrelated tasks. Similar to no. 2; these are tasks that have complimentary steps or steps that are being done in parallel or steps that rely on one another.

For example. I am trying to find a system to monitor my dad if he leaves the house.. He is is 88 and does that sometimes. I am talking to medicare; looking at a do it yourself project; as well as pricing different commercial plans. I am pursing both of these tasks simultaneously.

each one has different steps, like I have to talk to his doctor to see if he will okay it, then talk to medicare etc.. I am thinking of doing it myself as the pricing plans are pretty steep, so research it call friends etc.. However if Medicare comes through and will pay for it; then I wont have to pursue that do it yourself angle. .At this pt. I really dont know which plan will work.

So if medicare comes through and pays, then some of these plans will go by the wayside... So it makes no sense to try to accomplish these tasks all at once.

This relates to another post I am burning to write re: Action Folders and I how I use them. STay tuned.

See you all. Good to be back. JP

November 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjp in MD

Hi JP! Happy to have you back. I like your analysis. Let me play with it: #1 seems like an orthogonal diminsion. The cases I think of are the two you identify below: heterogeneous vs. homogeneous. You're bringing in the main point: The cost of doing them together vs. separately. Homogeneous benefits come from economies of scale, I think. Working through a Calls list involves similar mechanical and psychological, execution (you give good examples). Your point in #1 involves overload and balance, which we need to consider for /any/ to do list. #2 is the heterogeneous case, a strong argument. #3 sounds like straight project work - loading into your head the components so you can take efficient action. Again, a consideration for any to do list.

Great to have your tasty cognition again, JP :-) Looking forward to your post. I don't teach Action Folders, though I know folks who use them effectively.

December 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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