Time management is tough. For all of us.

Here’s how I handle it.

If there’s one principle that has guided my time usage as an adult, it is this:

Work expands or contracts to fill whatever time it’s allotted.

If you give a task 3 hours, it will take 3 hours. If you give it 3 days, it will take 3 days. If you consistently put in 60 hours a week, your workload will require 60 hours. If you restrict yourself to 45 hours, you’ll find a way to do it in 45 hours.

This principle is generally referred to as Parkinson’s Law.

Over the years people have asked us how we’ve made time for each successive child (we have 5 sons). There is no secret sauce. Every day we have 24 hours at our discretion, so not surprisingly our days take 24 hours to complete just like everyone else. The addition of each child has forced us to “get things done” with the same amount of time. Less essential things fall away.

To borrow words from T.S. Eliot and bend them for this setting, Where is the essential lost in the important? Where is the important lost in the good?

All this being said, I don’t pretend to have this time management thing figured out. It’s tough no matter how you slice it, regardless of how much much experience you have. But this principle has been a powerful reminder that putting in more time — on a task, an assignment, at work — might not be any more effective than spending less time and focusing on the essential over the good.

Here’s one of many examples of this principle in my life: Recently I took a graduate entrance exam twice. The first time I gave myself 3 days to study. The second time I gave myself 3 weeks. I received the EXACT same score both times. That isn’t to say studying more isn’t worth it, but it definitely doesn’t guarantee a better outcome.