You may have heard of Parkinson’s Law — “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
The law was first noted by one Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay about English bureaucracy in the 1950s. Over time, however, Parkinson’s Law has come to seem much less funny and a lot more true.
In the journalism business, with its constant high-pressure projects and myriad deadlines, we’re intimately familiar with the law — how a big job you’ve been stumped on for weeks can suddenly be completed (quite brilliantly, in some cases) in a matter of hours as your deadline clock ticks toward zero.
To beat Parkinson’s Law requires self-discipline and smart planning. (A well-maintained to-do list is a must. And a good hypnotherapist wouldn’t hurt, either.)
Here are two things you can start to focus on to beat this classic productivity sapper:
SET A FIRM TIME LIMIT FOR TEDIOUS TASKS
And then make those tight limits tighter and tighter.
“Clean out basement” or “Reorganize closets” could take up the whole day – if you ever got around to it, which you won’t because you don’t want to lose a day of your life to something so mundane. But if you set a clear limit of one or two hours, you might get something done this Saturday (and then if necessary, plan another short stint of work for another weekend.)
Take one of your projects. Think of the time limit you would normally set for that project. And then cut the time limit in half. Get started! Once your instinct for competition has been excited, you’ll often find that you can finish jobs — just as well as you typically do — in far less time than you thought.
For instance, when productivity guru David Allen travels for speeches on Getting Things Done, he doesn’t start packing until 35 minutes before departure. “I know I can pack in 35 minutes,” he says, “but if I start any earlier, I could spend six hours on it. Giving myself a deadline forces me to make decisions that I don’t want to make ahead of time — and I’ve accepted that about myself. I’ve got bigger battles to fight.”
DO THE BIGGEST THING FIRST
And save the routine tasks you like doing for later. One reason Parkinson’s Law exists is that big projects are intimidating. Moreover, our temptation is typically to work on stuff we like before stuff we don’t. Break up your big, important projects — especially the ones you’re kind of dreading — into short sprints that you do every morning (for an hour or 90 minutes) when you’re at your freshest and most creative. Result: Your progress should be a lot steadier, with far fewer dramatic deadline emergencies. Then save the more routine tasks, especially the ones you like, for later in the day when your mental reserves are lower and your work might otherwise drag.
Repeat each day. Forever.
This article originally appeared in INSTORE in July 2013.