If I give you a week to complete [a short] task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.
– Timothy Ferriss
Have you heard of Parkinson’s Law?
Proposed in 1955 in jest by the UK political analyst and historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson, it is an observation that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
If we consider this observation to be true, than procrastination is merely the bi-product of work where the time allocated is greater than the time required. Think about your school days, when you had weeks left to complete an assignment. If you were anything like me, you waited till the very last week, before stocking up on caffeinated drinks and pulling a series of all-nighters to meet the deadline.
The same applies to our working lives. Monday to Friday, 8 to 5; that’s what we’re assigned, regardless of the workload. When it’s light, we space it out and procrastinate, padding our time with trivial tasks and fillers. When it’s pouring, we kick into overdrive and complete tasks with incredible focus, however the stress is far from enjoyable.
Time is the common denominator in each situation, and Parkinson’s Law allows us to understand that the correct allocation of time can be the difference between procrastination, stress and optimal performance.
So how do we use Parkinson’s Law to eliminate procrastination?
1. Acknowledge your generosity with time
People typically assign more time to tasks than they need, often because they want some ‘leg room’ but also because they have an inflated idea of how long it may take to complete. Others are aware that organisations still think in the past, fuelled on the idea that the longer something takes to complete, the better quality it must be. This unfortunately translates into employees filling time. And lastly, some of us – myself included – simply don’t allocate time to certain tasks and thereby drag tasks out much longer than needed.
Identifying your pitfall when it comes to tasks and time allocation is the first step.
2. Compete against the clock
Prepare a list of your tasks and allocate time to completion for each. Then allocate yourself only half the time to complete each task. Treat the newly allocated time like true deadlines, particularly if you’re focusing on personal tasks, as you want to percieve the time limit as unbreakable – just as you would with a client who wouldn’t retain your services if you continually broke promised timelines.
With every task, you need to create a sense of urgency and this part of the exercise will take a bit of experimentation. You may learn that some tasks certainly require more than half the time, and you will need to experiment with slightly longer times without reverting back to the original time allotment. Overall, you will certainly find many tasks where the originally allocated time was inflated and the optimum period sat somewhere closer to half the time period.
3. Stop feeding the time-fillers
Email – the ultimate pest of the productivity world. Select four times in the day, evenly spaced out (for example, 9am, 11.30am, 2.30pm, 4pm) and allocate 20-30mins (adjust if necessary) to spend on email during each allotment. Stick to this, and avoid checking email in between where possible. Certain jobs may not allow this, but get as close to this model as you possibly can.
Then, learn to take action as you read emails. It’s very common to read through email with the intent of coming back to it, but this is a form of wasted time as you will re-read the email the next time. Every email read should result in some form of action. I usually choose one of three actions, based on the importance and priority of the email:
- High priority, high importance – Reply or action now.
- Low priority, high importance – flag the email and assign a time later to action. It’s very important to allocate a time, rather than having the ‘I’ll come back to this later’ mindset. If you use a project management tool, you can allocate a time there, however you can simply assign non-urgent email to be action at the last email timeslot.
- High or low priority, low importance – Automate, deligate or delete. If you have to complete it, allocate a minimal time to action it after important tasks have been completed.
Email clients also offer real-time notification, so if you’re daring enough, turn it off. Nothing feeds the procrastination bug like a ‘ping’ telling you something is more important than whatever you’re working on right now.
Similar to email, other time fillers can include meetings, Skype, social media and news feeds. Experiment with these using Parkinson’s law and learn how to work smarter, not harder or longer. Just be conscious of the line between having just enough time and setting an unrealistic deadline – what you’re aiming is quality output based on complete focus without adding stress. It takes time to hit the right spot, but once you do, your productivity will soar and you’ll officially kick procrastination to the curb.