Do you wish there were more hours in the day? Or that there were two of you to get things done?
Sorry to break it to you, but you’re out of luck on both fronts.
If it feels like there is just too much to do and not enough time to do it, let me introduce you to a law that might just help (…and not the legal type!)
Parkinson’s Law, established in 1955 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, is not a strict scientific law per se. Rather, it is a consistent observation about human behavior that explains why so many of us are terrible at managing our time. It states:
Work expands so as to fill the time for completion.
Understanding Parkinson’s Law can help you improve efficiency in how you work, restructure your time, get more accomplished, and have more free time for other pursuits. What’s more, effective time management and productivity can reduce stress and improve your overall happiness and mental health.
Let’s explore further…
The Perception That More Time Spent = Better Result
The length of time given to a project often influences a person’s perception of the quality of the end product. It’s common for people to think that taking a long time on a project means it will be of a higher quality, because more time invariably means more thought and consideration and, thus, a more polished result. Right?
Well, no. That is often not the case. The assumption that a project completed quickly and efficiently must not be of the highest standard is false. It depends on the type of project and the knowledge of the people that are working on it.
You’re reading an article right now, so let’s use writing as an example. Writing can be hard and time consuming; it can also be smooth and flow quickly. The more you research and write about a particular topic, the easier it gets to write other, similar material. And just like any other skill, the more you write, the better at it you get.
A person that never writes may spend several hours on a single page, while an accomplished writer may be able to produce a quality page in well under an hour. But, if you’re the latter and you’ve been commissioned by the former to write something, you may find yourself answering questions like, “Did you do a good job?” and “Did you copy this from somewhere?”
The Conscious And Unconscious Expansion Of Work
If you share the above perception that longer equals better, you can convince yourself you need far more time to complete a project than is actually required. You may estimate that you need three days to finish when you only needed three hours.
And so you end up filling the time with unnecessary research or nitpicking over details that just don’t matter because you think you need to invest more time to produce a quality piece of work. In this case, you are unconsciously expanding your work to fill the time you’ve allotted.
Sometimes, this process of expansion is far more conscious. Consider the following scenario in a retail setting. An employee has a cart of merchandise to restock by the end of their shift. Does the employee hustle to get it done soon so they can move on to a new project before the end of the shift? Or do they casually stroll around, filling out the time as they put the merchandise away? The latter tends to be much more common.
How many times have you worked alongside someone who was not interested in working efficiently, but just wanted to stretch out their duties until they could go home? Understandable, perhaps, if you are in an unfulfilling job, but people do the exact same thing in their personal lives by procrastinating until the last minute.
As Parkinson’s Law demonstrates, “Work expands so as to fill the time for completion.” That expansion of work, whether conscious or unconscious, personal or professional, robs you of quality time.
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Reclaiming Lost Time
How do we reclaim lost time? We must start by reevaluating the way we view productivity. Working long and hard is not better than working fast and efficient if you’re just doing pointless busywork. Time spent on a project needs to be meaningful and forward moving. Time invested needs to be productive.
Next, we must improve our work habits. If we do not, then we are likely to keep procrastinating and letting our work fill out our available time. But how do you improve work habits? Practice.
It’s purely a mental thing that needs to be cultivated with regular effort. When you find yourself veering off course, you have to refocus your efforts and dive back into the meat of your project. The more you do it, the easier it gets to be, and the more natural it feels.
One Helpful Technique
A good place to start is with the Pomodoro Technique. Essentially, you divide your time into half hour blocks. You spend 25 minutes working on a task and then take a 5 minute break. After four blocks, you take a 15-30 minute break and then repeat.
The key to making the most of this time management technique is to plan how you will get from start to completion beforehand so you can make the most of the time you devote to the task. Regularly putting yourself into the head space of, “it’s time to be productive now” helps to train your brain to focus on what’s in front of you and slip into that head space in the future.
Don’t Delay Your Deadline
Another important factor is how we set and view a deadline. The thing you have most control over in the definition above is “the time for completion.” In other words, the deadline.
A deadline needs to be viewed with importance. It is something we must see as an absolute so that we do not brush it off or procrastinate until the last minute. Some people find it helpful to turn their work into a competition to race against a looming deadline, rather than looking at it as something far off in the future.
Again, this is a matter of practice and mental training. The shift becomes a habit the more you practice.
Best place you can start with deadlines is by cutting your estimated time in half. Think it will take a whole working day? Give yourself until lunch. A week, down to four days. Two weeks, down to a week. And so on.
The less freedom you give yourself to procrastinate and engage in busywork, the more you will train your brain to hone in on what’s important to get the job done.
But do make sure you are leaving enough time to fulfill your responsibilities well. Do not let quality suffer.
Don’t Aim For Perfect
The progress of some people is derailed by perfection paralysis. You fall into this trap of wanting to pick the ideal words, draw the straightest line, polish the best presentation, or submit a perfect final product. The truth is that perfection is unattainable. No critic will ever look as harshly at a product or piece of work as the perfectionist herself.
More time spent on a project does not necessarily mean a better end result. It can, however, utterly ruin a project that was actually finished dozens of hours ago.
Be Happier For It
Inefficient use of time and procrastination causes so much unnecessary stress in your life. You always feel like you’re rushing, you may not get your work accomplished in time, and you end up running behind as you constantly try to play catch up.
Take control of your time in your personal and professional life. An efficient schedule and strict (but realistic) deadline can help keep you on track and ready to pursue what you want out of life.
Time management is a skill that needs to be planned, developed, and nurtured. After all, we all have the same 24 hours in our day. Understanding Parkinson’s Law and the way it affects your life and approach to tasks is a great place to start making the most of yours.