When a deadline is fast approaching we tend to overcome productivity paralysis. We focus, work hard, and get the task done in time. Often we surprise ourselves how much we can get done if we have limited time available. If you’re into productivity hacks, you’ll know this as Parkinson’s Law.
Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British historian, observed this trend based on his experience in the British Civil Service. He realized that as the size of something increased (e.g. the time available for a project), the efficiency dropped.
The lesson of Parkinson’s Law is that we can increase our efficiency by implementing restrictions. Traditionally working longer hours is linked to getting more work done. But this will lead to unnecessary complexity, extra stress and tension. Our goal is to work smarter, not harder.
We can apply different limitations to our work. For example, we don’t allow ourselves to take work home or we work in a café and have to finish before closing time. Because we make less time available we get more work done quickly.
I use this concept to make sure unimportant tasks, such as checking e-mail, don’t end up costing a massive amount of time. If I set aside 1-hour for e-mail it will probably end up taking 1-hour. If I limited myself to 40 minutes I can finish my e-mail in 40 minutes by prioritizing.
A good way to start implementing the law is to cut the time you think you need for a project in half. If you think you need 2-hours, give yourself 1-hour to finish the task. People often don’t realize how quickly some tasks can be completed before they start experimenting with this concept. The extra buffer of time you give yourself is often unnecessary and the task is likely not as complex as you imagine.
The law should not be used to set unreasonable deadlines. We don’t want to end up with low quality work because we have to rush. Therefore planning is very important. “Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first 4 sharpening the axe,” Abraham Lincoln said. You should plan and prepare carefully before you start.
The goal is to work smarter not harder: plan, apply limitations and as you improve your time allocation accuracy you’ll get more freedom.