Have you ever wondered why a project that you have two weeks to complete ends up taking the whole two weeks, when you can finish a similar project with a shorter deadline in 48 hours?
Remember when you had a whole semester to complete a paper for class? We would always plan to get it done early so that we weren’t writing our paper while also taking final exams. And yet, how many of us ended up still writing the night before the paper was due?
I can say that I was one of those people with the best intentions who still ended up pulling an all-nighter to meet the deadline.
But not any more!
As with every other issue, if you can identify and isolate a problem, you can find a solution. And that’s what we’ll do today.
In a 1955 article in the Economist, C. Northcote Parkinson opened by saying that “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
The rest of the article went on to discuss the relevance of this on the growth of bureaucracy. These days, however the opening quote has been divorced from the bureaucracy discussion and is used to identify problems in productivity.
The idea is that if you have a few hours to write a report, you will sit down and do it. You will have to. The time crunch doesn’t give you many other options.
If you have a week to complete the same report, it will start to feel much more daunting. It will grow more complex and intimidating as time passes. Even if you manage to finish a draft early, you will then spend a whole bunch of extra time changing and expanding the work you already did.
I have found this problem to be very real in my own life. I don’t have studies to show that it is a problem for everyone, but I have learned anecdotally that I am not alone.
If you are not an adherent to Parkinson’s Law, then congrats! You can quit reading now. Come back Thursday for a new topic.
If you are like me, however, read on for some solutions!
Breaking the Law
Set Your Own Deadlines
The first trick for beating Parkinson’s Law is the simplest and potentially the most difficult: Set shorter deadlines.
If your boss gives you an assignment that needs to be completed in a week, give yourself two days. If you want to lose 10 pounds this year, give yourself six weeks. If you want to read 30 books this year, figure out how to do it in the first quarter.
Setting deadlines that are more pressing than your “real” deadline is a pretty obvious solutions. The problem is sticking to it.
Your self-imposed deadlines need to be just as “hard” as those imposed by the outside world. If you can easily blow past your deadline, then you will. Some other work will pop up and will take precedence.
I know, because that’s what I did in school! I set an arbitrary deadline for myself ahead of when my papers were actually due. Then as that deadline approached, I would gradually bump it back further and further until it eventually lined up with the due date.
The way I corrected for this later in life at work was by forgetting the real deadlines.
When a deadline was assigned, I added it to a Word document with all of my deadlines on it. I then assigned a self-imposed deadline for that task. The self-imposed deadline went into my calendar and my to do list.
When it came time to do my work, I did not know how much of a buffer there was between my self-imposed deadline and the real deadline. I was forced to take my self-imposed deadlines seriously.
Once I built a habit out of taking these deadlines seriously, this step became unnecessary. Now I can set a self-imposed deadline and meet it without tricking myself. You may have more willpower than I used to, making the middle step unnecessary. But if not, it is worth a shot.
Time Block Routine Tasks
Have you had days where you feel like you’ve been working hard all day, only to realize that all you’ve really done is read and respond to emails? This can be another application of Parkinson’s Law.
If you don’t put a time limit on your emails, they will expand to fill far too much of your day.
Email is a controversial subject in the productivity space. Most productivity gurus will tell you to check your email once or twice per day. This makes sense. By batching all of your email work into one session, you increase your focus and efficiency.
The problem is that this doesn’t work for most of us. We need to be able to respond to our bosses shortly after they email us. We need to respond to clients in a timely manner. Checking email once a day would be great, but it may not be practical for you.
In that case, I recommend putting time limits on email and other routine or administrative tasks.
For example, you could decide to spend a half hour at the beginning of your day and a half hour at the end of your day responding to emails. For any urgent emails that need an immediate response, you can limit yourself to five minutes.
Holding yourself to these time limits forces you to get down to business and get the work done. This allows you to move on with your day and get more productive work done.
The Impossible Deadline
Joel Runyon over at Impossible HQ recommends thinking about what you want to get done each day and then planning to complete those tasks by 10am.
Doing this will force you to prioritize and work very efficiently for the first few hours of your day. It will also ensure that you complete your most important work every day before your willpower wanes. You’ll be surprised by how much getting into this habit can relieve stress as your afternoons are entirely filled with bonus tasks without pressure.
I also should note that I titled this section “The Impossible Deadline” because it was suggested by Impossible HQ. It is actually quite possible, albeit difficult to get used to at first.
Our work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Using this knowledge, we can increase our productivity by decreasing the time available for tasks.
While it may seem at first glance that less time will lead to a worse outcome, this actually tends not to be the case (up to a point, of course). The limited time forces us to prioritize and to work efficiently. It pushes our brain to recognize that we don’t have time for distractions and tangents.
In short, we can do more work in less time. Which seems like a productivity win to me.
Have more tips for beating Parkinson’s Law? Share with us in the comments!