Has this ever happened to you? You had an assignment, and the deadline was far away. You didn’t work on it much, but in the back of your mind, that insistent little voice was always whispering, “I gotta get this assignment done.”
Suddenly, the assignment is due in two days, and you’ve barely even started! You panic. You skim through the reading, type at lightning speed, guzzling down enough caffeine to keep you awake for days. Your assignment was on your boss’s desk on time.
Your strategy worked, but the rest of the day, you were left struggling to keep your eyes open, and your grade wasn’t that great. The assignment didn’t take long to complete. You had all the time in the world to work on it, so you didn’t. This story is all-too-common.
Procrastinating and then stressing yourself out to get all of our stuff done is something you probably still do today, albeit to a lesser degree. Because of it, you’re less effective than you could be, and you are spending more time than you should on easy tasks.
The More Time You Give A Task, The Longer It Will Take
Have you ever heard the saying, “work expands to fill the time available for its completion”? This saying is Parkinson’s Law. Your tasks are like water…if you pour a cup of water into a bowl, the water will spread out, covering the extra space you gave it. A task that could fit into one hour will spread out to fill a week if you allow it.
Parkinson’s Law is all around you. You can find it at work, at home, and in schools with projects, chores, and pre-exam cramming. I doubt it will take you more than a minute to find an example from your own life. Unfortunately, Parkinson’s Law doesn’t work the other way around. Your work won’t shrink to fit the time you’ve allocated it.
People tend to give tasks a lot more time than needed, giving themselves room for procrastination and overthinking. Eliminating that extra time makes you focus on doing the work instead.
By acknowledging Parkinson’s Law, not only will you be able to complete most of your tasks in half the time and gain more free time, but you’ll also have a clearer mind as you’re not stressing over all the tasks have to do this week.
Now that you know what Parkinson’s Law is, it’s time to put that knowledge into action. Here are a few strategies to help you regain your time:
1. Assign All Your Tasks A Time Limit
The problem with to-do lists is that they tell you what to do but not when or for how long to do each activity. One way to fix this is to give each of your tasks a deadline and a time limit. Which tasks take longer to complete, the ones that bring you closer to your goals or the ones your boss assigns you?
I’ll bet it’s the ones your boss assigns you. Your boss gives you deadlines. You either complete it within the given timeline or you start looking for a new job. Most people have trouble sticking to deadlines they assign themselves. With no one holding them accountable, they know there will be no consequences for their inaction. If that’s you, have a friend hold you accountable or gamify the tasks by setting rewards and penalties.
2. Track Your Time
Now all your tasks have time limits, but how do you know whether that time limit is realistic? The answer is time tracking. Time trackers help you get a feel for how long certain activities take you. They give you insights into how you’re spending your time and how much time you’re wasting on distractions.
After using the time tracker, you’ll have a pretty good estimate of how long a certain task should take. You could even challenge yourself to complete that task quicker than you did the previous day.
“The most efficient way to live reasonably is every morning to make a plan of one’s day and every night to examine the results obtained.” – Alexis Carrel
3. Schedule Your Tasks In 30-Minute Chunks
People usually schedule their days by the hours. At 9:00, do this and at 10:00, do that. But, many tasks don’t need an hour. You could easily complete them in 15-30 minutes. So instead of giving each of your tasks an hour, try scheduling your day in 30-minute chunks.
Use the insights you discovered from your time tracking to determine how many portions a task requires. Using the Pomodoro technique has the same effect; work in short sprints, giving your full attention to one task for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break.
4. Break Down Complex Projects
Some projects are so complicated you don’t even know where to start. For these tasks, it’s very easy to overestimate the time required to complete them. The truth is projects like these are just a group of many tasks. By breaking down the project into individual tasks, you can set a time limit for each task, and from there, determine how long the entire project will take you.
For example, say you wanted to start a blog. The tasks would be to set up web hosting, design the blog, and write 10 posts. By knowing what the tasks are and estimating how long each of these tasks would take, you can create a relatively accurate timeline.
“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
5. Set a Time To Stop Working For The Day
You have a lot to do. I get that. Usually, this means you have work overflowing out of the office and into your home. You have to get this work done today–it doesn’t matter whether it’s done in the office or at home. You let the work expand to fill the extra time you gave it.
Instead, try setting a deadline for your office work. For example, your entire to-do list must be done by 5 PM…no negotiations allowed. You’ll be surprised how much quicker your work will be done. Without that overflowing work, you can relax and enjoy the rest of your day.
Parkinson’s Law is an observation based on how people use their time. By acknowledging this law, you can take the steps to avoid falling in its snare.