Inertia is a property of matter by which it remains in an existing state of rest or uniform motion until an external force changes things.
For example, if you need to push a heavy object like a boulder, the initial push that gets it rolling is the hardest push. It takes disproportionately more energy to do that initial push compared to rolling it along the ground. Once it’s already moving, rolling the boulder along takes far less energy. In fact, it would keep rolling of its own accord if it weren’t for the external forces we call friction and gravity. And the more mass the boulder has, the more inertia it has, so the more energy the initial and the ongoing pushes will take.
This is a perfect metaphor when it comes to the tasks we perform. Each task is like that boulder we need to push along until it’s at its final resting place. And it’s the initial push that takes the most energy. Big or small, starting new tasks takes more energy than the work that comes after. And this tendency for a new task to feel slow, difficult, frustrating, and boring, at least until you get into it, is what I call Task Inertia.
Task inertia is the reason that on days when you’re switching between multiple projects, engaging in disparate conversations, and generally running around like a crazy person, you tire faster and feel frazzled at the end of your workday. It’s why when you’re busier than ever you seem to get less work done.
Contrast that feeling with the days when you’re deep into a single project that stimulates you and time seems to fly by while the work itself feels effortless. That’s because you’ve overcome task inertia.
Where task inertia really gets us is when we’re doing a lot of task switching, or are constantly being interrupted. It can take people up to 20 minutes to get into flow with a new task or project. This means that if we switch between four projects in one day, we’re potentially throwing away up to 80 minutes of productive time. Considering that most coworking managers flip between a lot more than four projects and tasks in one day, not to mention the endless barrage of conversations, it’s no wonder they don’t feel like they’re getting anywhere.
Dealing with Task Inertia
The main goal when combatting task inertia is to stay working, as often as possible, on the same project or in the same mindset. This is how.
Know your priorities.
Never start your day without knowing what your primary goals are. Your first task of the day should be reviewing and organizing your work for the day. Always.
Do you use a project management system? Have you found a way to organize the system that works well for your team?
Our team at Habu uses powerful Meistertask project boards, one for each department or major project, and a short, weekly priority meeting to identify the critical tasks we need to complete each upcoming week. The idea here is that these are tasks we agreed we can finish the following week. If something isn’t complete on the list at the end of the week, we need to talk about why it isn’t finished, reset our expectations, and analyze our working habits.
Additionally, our team starts each week with a team standup, where all team members describe what they plan to complete before the end of the week. Likewise, we all begin each day by privately reviewing which tasks we need to perform that day to stay on track with our weekly goals.
I’m regularly amazed by the coworking space teams I meet that don’t use or don’t suitably utilize a project management system. I can’t stress this enough. Know what you’re working on or, in the case of finding yourself aimlessly browsing Facebook, what you should be working on. It’s a game changer.
As I mentioned previously regarding emails, batching can provide a generous boost to your productivity. While an individual email likely takes less than 20 minutes to write, an entire batch of emails may easily take over an hour. Instead of tackling emails as they come in, deal with them at specific times of day in large quantities. This keeps you in the same communication mindset, which improves your efficiency at writing responses. It probably makes you a little more polite in your writing as well.
Batching isn’t just for emails. You can also use it for social media promotion. At Habu, I batch all of my social media promotion by pre-writing all the content in the same document. I never write content in the social media platforms themselves, which are rife with distraction. This allows me to deliver a consistent message on each platform, but experiment with variations and styles based on the audiences of individual social media networks; something I wouldn’t likely consider or have time for if I weren’t batching.
Also referred to as chunking, you can group together all sorts of tasks. Take an inventory of your workday at the end of your workday and see what you did that could be batched.
The Pomodoro technique is a framework wherein you work for a set chunk of time, usually 25 minutes, followed by a five-minute break, then repeat. There are variations to this framework and a lot of underlying history. If you want to read more about Pomodoro you can start here.
At first glance, the Pomodoro technique sounds like it would exacerbate task inertia. However, experience from millions of practitioners has shown the Pomodoro technique to be incredibly useful for reducing distractions and getting into a flow state. I believe its effectiveness has to do with three core tenets of the methodology.
When doing a Pomodoro, you can only work on one task. If you finish early, you then do what’s referred to as overlearning: go over what you’ve have done, review your results, and note what you’ve learned until the timer goes off.
When breaking, you are not allowed to work or exert too much mental effort. Just let your brain marinate for a few moments, or dream about what to do this weekend. Maybe go for a short walk.
If you are interrupted, you must inform, negotiate, and note for later. As in, “I’m in the middle of something important/urgent right now, can we talk at 11:00?” Add that to your to-do list for the day. Never switch tasks during a Pomodoro.
The Pomodoro doesn’t jive with everybody because at first, it can feel a bit awkward. But give it a try for a week and see if you are getting more important work done. I think you’ll be happy with the results.
The reasons for poor time management on coworking teams vary from space to space. The common culprits are:
- inexperienced managers or team members,
- poor or no project management,
- a reluctance to spend money on software or tools,
- information overload, and
- too many ideas with too little focus on execution.
I could fill a book with time management tips and strategies for coworking managers, but the ideas I’ve put here are a perfect starting place for claiming back your lost time. You don’t need to do all of them, of course. Experiment with each, one at a time, and adopt the practices that work well for you.
Remember, at the end of the day, time is the only resource you can’t get more of. Not in this universe, anyway. All we can do is free up more of it for the future. So, guard it preciously, spend it wisely, and do whatever you can to make more of it available for tomorrow.
You’ll feel great. And your community, friends, and family will thank you for it too!
About the author: Ryan Chatterton is Marketing Director for Habu, a software to manage coworking spaces. He founded Coworking Insights. Formerly with Impact Hub and Parisoma, Ryan now has over 5 years of combined experience in a variety of roles in the coworking industry, including marketing, events, operations, sales, software, and partnerships. Connect with Ryan via LinkedIn or