Tightening the Time-Belt: How to Take Advantage of Parkinson’s Law

Have you ever noticed that when you budget out your time for a given project or meeting, you take exactly that amount of time, even if you have half the amount of work or information to cover that you normally do? What you are experiencing is known as Parkinson’s Law, which is that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Put another way, if you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do. So if you set aside three hours to complete one aspect of a project, it will take you all three hours to do so. But if you budget only one hour for that exact same task, then it will only take an hour.

Why the discrepancy? When you allow for more time to complete anything, you also allow room for distractions to come and lay waste to your careful plans. Say you’ve got five hours set aside to work on brief. Thirty minutes into those five hours you get a phone call. You’ve still got four and a half hours and you’ve made good progress in the last half hour. You can take the call, no problem. So you chat a little, find out what you need to do and start a secondary to-do list, maybe work on it for a short time before you remember your brief. Oh, yeah. The brief. Gotta get that done. Four hours to go, now.

Forty-five minutes later you hear temptation calling your name: Facebook. Just a quick scroll through your news-feed, only a minute or two on Candy Crush, and sixty minutes and ten cat videos later, you’re down to two hours and fifteen minutes to finish writing your brief. Woops. You reluctantly close down Facebook, silence your phone, and buckle down to work and whip out that brief with fifteen minutes to spare, patting yourself on the back for a job well done because you also had time to proofread it.

But were you as productive as you think you were? No, not really. You didn’t save yourself fifteen minutes, you wasted three hours because it only took you two to get the job done. So, now what? If your work is going to expand into whatever space you’ve allotted for it, what can you do about it? Here’re a couple of tips to help you increase your productivity.

1) Ruthlessly cut back your time. Calculate how long it will take you to complete a task and instead of doubling the time just to be sure you have enough to get everything done, halve it. Less time forces you to focus on the task at hand, eliminating distractions and nullifying temptations to waste your precious time and energy on other things. Multitasking, a time-waster if ever there was one, becomes impossible, which means that you are devoting your full mental capacity and ability to what you are doing.

Halving the time does not mean that you are halving the quality. In fact, because you are so focused on your task, it probably means you are producing higher quality stuff because you have fewer distractions dividing your concentration and interrupting your flow.

2) Don’t give more time to a meeting or project than it’s worth. I know, that sounds like the same thing as cutting back your time, but it’s really not. What it is is prioritizing your day and not giving greater emphasis to things which do not deserve it. If you have a weekly project update meeting which drags on and on with inevitable regularity and nothing productive emerges from the dragging, it’s time to cut that behemoth off at its figurative knees. You’re making the meeting much bigger than it needs to be. Allot less time, and you’ll still get done everything you need to get done. You won’t be sacrificing any of your effectiveness, but you will be giving room for decisions to be made more quickly. If time is of the essence, don’t waste it in a wheel-spinning meeting. Dig in, get done, and move on to other priorities.

Make Parkinson’s Law work for you instead of against you, increasing your efficiency and decreasing the amount of time you waste.

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