Bundling your tasks can be an effective strategy for time management.
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Tina Sosa rarely does anything for only one reason. If her video rentals are due, she will pay the late fee, rather than return the videos on time, if she has no other errands in the same part of town. She cancels her nightly stroll if she can’t talk with her husband and walk her dogs at the same time. And during her college years, she worked 60 hours a week while carrying a full course load. “I couldn’t spend that much time on just work,” Tina says. She found a job as a night-shift hotel clerk so she could study during the night. She also worked part time at the school library, which allowed her to keep up on the latest periodicals and network with faculty and students in her program.
Tina is proficient at packing multiple purposes into a single activity or event. Killing the proverbial multiple birds with one stone helps her accomplish a lot, while still retaining her sanity, and makes her the envy of stressed-out professionals everywhere. While 40% of the workers we studied say that work-life balance is their primary career priority, few of them feel they’ve succeeded. They attempt to achieve balance by juggling—running faster, working harder, and cramming more into their lives. And while juggling may lead to a rich and multifaceted life, it’s also exhausting and, more often than not, the cause of burnout, poor health, guilt, and frustration.
Our research identified people who found more sustainable ways of running the rat race. Tina’s strategy is what we call “bundling,” or using a limited number of activities to accomplish a variety of goals. As a coping mechanism, bundling is ages old. Before the industrial revolution, work and the rest of life were much more closely integrated. Social activities like barn raisings and quilting bees also accomplished important work. Today life is much more fragmented, with family and community time much harder to come by.
Bundlers manage their time by re-integrating their various activities. Kevin Childers, an engineer, and his wife, Nancy, who homeschools their five children, maintain a network of family members and friends who shares common interests and values. “The things we do for social activities might not appeal to most people, but to us, they’re fun. When someone in our group of friends is doing a home-improvement project, the whole family helps them out. Then we order a pizza and have a meal together.” The Childers would probably forego most socializing if they couldn’t accomplish something else at the same time. “Most of our friends are as busy as we are,” Kevin explains. “If we don’t find ways to combine work and fun, the fun is undoubtedly what would get left out.”
Bundlers engage in fewer activities while getting more out of them—a sort of “multipurposing.” Camille Harrels, an Omaha-based healthcare consultant, recently capitalized on bundling’s advantages when a business trip had her shuttling between Detroit and New York City. Her husband’s parents live in upstate New York, roughly halfway between her two destinations. Camille’s husband, David, and the couple’s two children spent a week with David’s parents, while Camille joined the family on weekends. “What could have been a draining ordeal turned out to be fun,” said Camille. “David’s parents got to see the kids for the first time in more than a year. And the kids spent time alone with their grandparents while David and I went to a spa for a weekend. I also had much less travel stress than if I had flown back and forth from Omaha.”
Because bundling is the ultimate in “mix-and-match,” you can’t use this strategy if you have a lot of rigid boundaries in your life. Camille regularly takes one of her preschoolers and their family’s nanny along with her on business trips. While not shocking, it’s an idea that doesn’t occur to most frequent business travelers. Bundling also requires advance planning. Every Sunday night, the Childers family maps out the week’s activities on a white board to find out where they can double up on pickups, deliveries, and errands. “We don’t get nearly as much done if we miss our Sunday planning session,” Kevin says.
There are few downsides to bundling, although it’s not a good strategy for people who want to drink deeply of pure experiences. Steve Piersanti, a book publisher who loves camping, community service, and quality time with his teenage sons, meets all three needs by volunteering as scoutmaster of his sons’ troops. Camping with a scout troop may not be the same experience as camping in blissful solitude. But, bundlers are willing to live with tradeoffs. Serious bundling also requires a passion for efficiency that some people can’t tolerate. “I’d like to stay home and just try to accomplish one thing in an evening, not seven,” the husband of a typical bundler told us.
If you don’t have the appetite for planning that extensive bundling requires, or if you’d rather not spend all of your energy maximizing efficiency, bundling can still be used as a part-time approach that will buy you a few important minutes of freedom. Small-scale bundling tactics include planning errands in a way that uses your time effectively, finding ways to combine trips or purposes when traveling creating ways to achieve multiple objectives at home or at work, and looking for ways to more closely align your professional and personal lifestyles.