Accountability and Time Constraints

#11. Set a time limit on your most important goals — apply Parkinson’s Law

As a perfectionist, I can easily spend hours working on something until I’m completely happy with it. For example, after writing an essay I once spent more than 30 minutes creating a title page and debating which fonts and margins to use.

While this perfectionist approach may be beneficial in some situations, it is a very inefficient way of doing things.

Let me use this blog as an example. In the past, I have delayed publishing certain blog posts by months because I wasn’t happy with them. At times I have also devoted 3–4 hours editing and re-editing posts.

Yet the reality is that the amount of improvement from the extra effort is not worth it. It is a law of diminishing returns.

How to overcome this

The key is time-constraints.

Parkinson’s Law states that the time to complete a piece of work expands into the time that you allocate it. If you give yourself 6 hours to do a project, it will take you 6 hours. Give yourself 1 hour, however, and you may be surprised to find you can finish it in that time.

But surely spending 6 hours will produce a better result? In actual fact, it’s often the opposite.

Some articles that I have spent multiple hours writing, I look back and don’t think they were very good. In contrast, some of the articles that I have produced under pressure have been much better. For example, I wrote “Give Me Your Attention” in a 5 minute window between a busy day at work and heading out for the evening. This time pressure forced me to come up with something and I was very happy with the result.

It’s true that not everything I write in 5 minutes will be great, but I will come up with many more ideas in twelve 5 minute windows than in 1 hour. This relates to the law of quantity vs quality which I discussed previously.

Applying this in life

It’s not as easy as promising to yourself that you will finish by a certain time. In an ideal world this is what you would do but often it doesn’t work.

The best way is to create time constraints externally. Promise you will send someone a draft at a certain time. Start working on something a certain period before a deadline. Set up a meeting or a phone call to discuss your progress.

The windows of time that I schedule for writing these posts is always bound by a deadline. Perhaps I’m meeting someone for coffee in 45 minutes, or I have a talk to attend in 30. As I write this, I’m looking forward to a birthday meal with a friend.

The more you create accountability with someone else, the more likely you are to pull through. Twin this accountability with deadlines and a fixed schedule and you will be surprised by what you are able to produce.