How to Get More Done in Less Time: Parkinson’s Law

(Note: In Part 1 we discussed how to save massive amounts of time each day by reducing the frequency at which you check/respond to email. In Part 2 we briefly discussed how to cut out distractions that keep you for working on the task at hand. Now on to the third and final installment of this series…)

Meetings. Putting together a presentation. Writing a paper or blog post. Shuffling papers around in the office. Studying for an exam. Entering data into an Excel spreadsheet.

Ever notice how, at times, you find yourself spending wayyyy longer on a task than you know you should be spending to complete? I know I do. Or did, at least, until I discovered the beauty of using Parkinson’s Law to my advantage.

What is Parkison’s Law? You can view it here on Wikipedia, but I think Tim Ferriss summed it up quite nicely for us:

Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I give you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials. If I give you a week to complete the same task, it’s six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.

We can use Parkinson’s Law to our advantage by setting extremely clear, and borderline impossibly short, deadlines for various tasks and ‘To-Do’ items. I’ve been instituting this over the past couple weeks and WOW, I can’t quite express how much of a life changer this has been for me.

Personally, I’ve found Timer to be an invaluable source for helping me produce more output with less input (time) when doing anything at a computer. Heck, I’m using Timer right now as I type this. You can set the countdown timer for however long you wish – it will fill up your screen when it gets to zero – and it’s amazing how the ticking clock will keep you inexorably focused on action steps instead of deliberation and procrastination. 

Again, quoting Ferris:

If you haven’t identified the mission-critical tasks and set agressive start and end times for their completion, the unimportant becomes the important. Evern if you know what’s critical, without deadlines that create focus, the minor tasks forced upon you (or invented, in the case of the entrepreneur) will swell to consume time until another bit of minutiae jumps in to replace it, leaving you at the end of the day with nothing accomplished.

How else could dropping off a package at UPS, setting a few appointments, and checking e-mail consume an entire 9-5 day?

Many of us subconsciously realize this, but never actually set self-imposed deadlines to force us to get more done in less time.

While I’m not necessarily proud of this, I unknowingly used Parkinson’s Law to allow me to get an A on almost every exam I took in high school and college; it didn’t take me long to realize that I got the same grade whether I started studying a week out from the exam, or only 24 hours (and sometimes as little as 1-2 hours) before taking the exam.

Why? Whenever I began studying far in advance, I’d inevitably allow myself to become distracted by phone calls, the internet, outdoor games with friends, you name it, as I knew deep down that I still had plenty of time to study. But when I knew I had a major (and quite difficult) exam looming in only 5 hours or less, it FORCED me to shut out anything that would steer me away from doing well on the test.

In fact, I recently received this text from a friend of mine who had graduated from his doctorate of physical therapy program, and was preparing for the physical therapist licensure exam, “So you know how in Undergrad you were the greatest Crammer of all time. Any advice for someone who has an upcoming licensure exam and is feeling really lazy about studying?”

I had to laugh upon receiving that text, as I didn’t know which was more unnerving: The fact that I was known in college for being a talented crammer (if we can even attempt to glamorize that “skill”) , or that an up-and-coming practicing PT was looking for advice on studying for the licensure exam!

Now, I am certainly not advocating procrastination. And, to clear my conscious….should any individuals be reading this that are currently enrolled in an educational institution, my advice to you is to study in advance for your tests, dang it!

But it brings up a valuable point. Deadlines, whether self-imposed or not, allow us to ignore minutia and focus on the important. So I encourage all of you to begin setting deadlines on those “open ended” tasks that can take hours on end to complete, and adhere to those deadlines!

This is especially true for us perfectionists in the crowd that agonize over every single detail within a project we’re working on. Set an unrealistic deadline, and stick to it. The earth will continue to spin, I promise.