Productivity and efficiency are things that I enjoy trying to improve upon. I’m always looking for quick hacks and long-term systems to get things done faster and better, both because I like trying to improve all areas of my life, and because I’m well-versed in procrastination and not finishing the things I set out to do.
One of the things I’ve found to be helpful in this area is taking advantage of Parkinson’s Law. In the productivity space, Parkinson’s Law is quite well known, but I can only assume that most people have never heard of it.
A quick Google search describes Parkinson’s Law as “the old adage that work expands to fill the time allotted. Put simply, the amount of work required adjusts to the time available for its completion. The term was first coined by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay he wrote for the Economist in 1955.”
As an example, if you have a project due in one month, if you’re like most people, it’ll take you one month to do that project regardless of what’s required. This is how I operated all throughout school. Every assignment took exactly as long as the given timeframe because I always procrastinated on starting it and ended up cramming everything into the last few days. In effect, that project took me only a few days to finish, yet the mental burden of that nagging deadline was present for the entire month.
The good news is that once you’re aware of how Parkinson’s Law works and what your personal tendencies are, you can actually benefit from it. The trick is to just give yourself less time to do things.
That may sound counterintuitive, but it has been quite effective for how I operate. Giving yourself less time to work on something doesn’t mean not giving yourself enough time; the goal is to find the perfect balance so you don’t have enough time to procrastinate, but you do have enough time to finish the project without becoming overwhelmed or stressed out or having your work suffer. If the project and deadline are significant, then you of course should still leave yourself a buffer in case there are any setbacks or complications, but in general, many tasks that we tend to drag out could be done much quicker if they had a more pressing deadline. If you have less time to do something, you’re more pressured to work effectively and stay focused on the task at hand. If you don’t have time for distractions, then there won’t be any distractions.
The biggest benefit of this practice for me has been the alleviation of the mental weight associated with unfinished tasks. This newsletter is a great example of that. At this stage, I’m trying to write and send out a newsletter once a week, but instead of giving myself a week to write it, I start and finish it on the day that I send it out. While this does make the process more difficult in some ways, I think it’s helped prevent the commitment from becoming too overwhelming. If I didn’t do it all in one day, it would hang over my head all week and I wouldn’t be able to relax and be present in the other things that I’m working on, and in turn probably wouldn’t get anything else done either. Every day I would tell myself that I should start working on it, and the more I put it off, the bigger the task would feel, and the more I would start to resent the whole process. By doing things in one day instead of seven, I avoid attention residue and completely eliminate the burden from the other six days of the week. The added pressure also helps me get it done faster and is a great tactic to get over perfectionism. It likely also helps to expediate the process of learning how to write.
So the next time you’re wanting to be more focused on a task, or have a project hanging over your head, I’d encourage you to try giving yourself less time to work on it. If you’re a chronic procrastinator like me and can’t see any way around that, try deferring the task to a time closer to the deadline. By purposely choosing to procrastinate ahead of time, you free yourself from the obligation of the task until you start it. It’s basically a more effective, guilt-free way of procrastinating.