Parkinson’s Law: The Key to Being More Productive

by Mark on January 7, 2010 · 4 comments

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
– Cyril Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law, The Economist, November 19, 1955

Parkinson’s famous quote above is both simple and profound in its implications for productivity. It implies simply that we can eliminate most of the work required to complete an objective by moving up the deadline. It also means that we can dramatically increase the rate at which we accomplish our goals since we can eliminate most of the work that is involved. How does moving up the deadline accomplish this?

How Tight Deadlines Can Make You More Productive

1) Tight deadlines force you to focus. I talked about this in Monday’s post. When you have little time to accomplish something important, you will focus your attention more intensely on getting it done and be able to ignore distractions more easily.

2) Tight deadlines force you to stop procrastinating. This goes without saying. You simply have little time to spare and must get on with your work.

3) Tight deadlines force you to prioritize. When time is short, you need to focus on tasks that are high impact and generate big results. Tasks of low value need to be ignored.

4) Tight deadlines force you to be creative. The more aggressive the deadline, the more creative you are going to have to be to complete the objective in the time allotted.

What if?

As a thought experiment, what you would do if your newborn baby would die if you didn’t earn $1,000,000 by one year from today? This is an extreme example that obviously isn’t very realistic, but the point is to force you to think. What you would do if your child would die if you didn’t earn $1,000,000 by thirty years from today? My guess would be that your approaches to meeting these deadlines would be radically different. If you only had one year, you would be extremely focused, you wouldn’t procrastinate, you would prioritize carefully, and you would be very creative. With only a year to work with to achieve such an important deadline, you would be forced to find ways to generate results quickly.

What it comes down to is that most of the activities that you spend time on will contribute very little  in terms of results unless you force yourself to stop spending your time on low-value activities. The best way to do this is to significantly reduce the hours you have to finish something. Work and gases are a lot alike. Gases expand to fill their container. Work does the same thing.

How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

1) Set goals with a deadline of a year or less. Six months or less is even better. If your goals are longer than a year, then break them down into shorter-term goals. The added benefit of short-term goals is that they improve your motivation. It’s harder to maintain passion about goals that won’t be realized until far into the future.

2) Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm. Take lots of notes about ways for getting better results. Write down as many possibilities as you can think of. You don’t need to use them all, but it’s important to get the ideas flowing. Creativity is a must. Remember that if you do things the way you have always done them, you will get the results that you have always gotten.

3) Limit the number of goals you set. Setting numerous goals dilutes your focus, something that is often in short supply in this day and age. Select a very few goals that are most important and most exciting to you.

4) Place limitations on the number of hours you will work on your goals. If you feel the need to burn the candle at both ends to reach your deadline, maybe you need to focus more, prioritize a little better, or be a little more creative. The more hours you work, the less effective you will be.

5) Pay attention to your energy cycles. Once you reach a goal, you can then give yourself some recovery time to recharge before moving on to the next short-term goal. If you are feeling burned out, maybe you need to take something off of your plate for the time being. You can always come back to it when your energy and mental focus recovers.

6) Educate yourself. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to. Try to find someone who has done what you want to do and learn from them. With all the resources available on the Internet, this is becoming easier with each passing day.

What are you waiting for? Set a few goals that excite you with tight deadlines and go for it!

What are some things you can do to make yourself radically more productive?


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