Sumo wrestling and tango dancing? Red wine and learning Japanese? How about working less and getting more done? I’ll introduce you to an interesting set of characters that helped introduce one of my favorite productivity tips of all time. Without further adieu, let me introduce you to Tim Ferriss and Cyril Parkinson.
I’ve had it happen. I’ve had a small project that could be done in just a few hours but wasn’t due for months. I should have just done it. But instead, it went on the to-do list and stayed there for weeks. Finally, after several bouts with mental procrastination, I started to work. Instead of just cranking out the project, I slowly and distractedly meandered my way though revisions. Spent days instead of hours and finally finished with a result that may have been marginally better than something I could have done with a few hours of intense concentration. Have you ever had a seemingly small project that had a really long time frame to do it? Did the project or task grow in relation to the time you had to do it? Do tasks really swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for their completion? Welcome to the entertaining thoughts that make up Parkinson’s Law.
I’m sure to many readers Tim needs no introduction but for those who are unfamiliar- Tim Ferris is a productivity/life-hacker/investor/chef who launched his platform on the back of his NYT Business best seller, The Four Hour Work Week. Although I don’t agree with everything he says, the Four Hour Work Week truly changed the way I think and made its way onto the list of my favorite books of all time. While the book probably merits its own eventual review, the premise is that working efficiently, even for a few hours, can expand our productivity exponentially. Tim challenges many of the assumptions that traditional employees face every day and expounds upon the idea that busyness is much different than productivity. Ferriss’ primary role for many is a motivator and entertainer. He introduces plenty of new ideas but does so in a way that is entertaining and engaging for a layperson. I like the ideas he sets forth for dreaming big and using efficiency as a way to work less on unimportant things and really focus on the things that produce results. One of the most entertaining nuggets (aside from the 80/20 Principle) was the introduction of Parkinson’s Law to a new generation of business readers.
Cyril Parkinson worked closely with British Civil Services and made the entertaining observation that bureaucracies tend to expand over time. For argument’s sake, we’ll take the humorous definition published in the Economist – Parkinson’s Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Basically, we tend to fill the time we have. If we have a lot, it is often filled with busyness. If we are crunched for time, we often are forced to use it efficiently. For myself, I have noticed that I tend to be much more productive in all areas of my life when I have a full schedule. I also have the incredible ability to seemingly waste hours of my day following Wikipedia links, playing on the twitters, or tweaking my to-do list if time permits.
As a student, this if often underutilized. Almost anyone who is on a college track gets things done. They get their assignments and turn them in. Papers get written and projects completed. For strong students, everything generally gets turned in on time. No matter how much time is given for completion. A four page paper could easily be written during a one hour history class for undergraduates. But give that same person a month to write about the same topic and they could easily spend 10+ hours doing the same thing! For students, do you tend to take all the time you have to complete projects or tests? Could you be more efficient with tighter constraints?
You can utilize Parkinson’s Law to accomplish more in less time. I like the idea of shortening schedules, meetings and deadlines to force action and remove deliberation and procrastination. In Ferriss’ book he even suggests taking Monday or Friday off work. Or maybe, leave work at 3pm everyday. Having fewer hours, especially in information type jobs, will force you to be completely efficient with your time. No longer will unnecessary meetings and time wasters be a priority, everything you will do must be of value. I like the idea of limiting the number of items on your to-do list and, when possible, use impossibly short deadlines to force immediate action while ignoring minutiae.
How about morning routines or packing for trips? Both of those can be done in a few minutes but with no time limits they can take hours! I now enjoy the art of productive procrastinating. I thought it was a curse, but I’ve learned that planned procrastination can actually force me to be extremely focused and attentive. Often, for assignments, I prioritize social and family time then leave just the minimal amount of time needed to do quality work on other areas of my life that are not as important.
So, is it true for you? Does your work expand with the time available for completion? In my life, yes. Instead of being challenged by this, leverage the principle of Parkinson’s law and get more things done in less time!