Finish Every Task in Half the Time

Smart time management with Parkinson’s Law

Over the past few months I’ve been on a mission to optimize my time and efficiency of task completion. This will not be the last time you read about my pursuit of optimal time utilization – I’ve got a lot to say about the topic. I’m pretty sure I am driving my coworkers crazy, but hopefully they are at least enjoying the ride. After all, our time is so short, we owe it to ourselves to optimize everything we do.

Have you ever noticed that if you give yourself one hour to complete a task, it will always take the full hour to complete? Even if the amount of work required may be closer to fifteen minutes. How about the reverse – a task come up at the last minute to which you would normally allocate an hour but you only have fifteen minutes. You miraculously are able to pull off the miracle and complete the task in an unheard-of time frame. This is what’s called Parkinson’s Law; you can read all the details on Wikipedia, so I’m not going to cover that today.

The first step toward combating Parkinson’s Law is to acknowledge that it exists, just like any bad habit. If you understand that the time to complete a task will expand (or more importantly contract) to fit the time allocated, you can use this to your advantage by allocating a realistic time in which to complete it. Procrastinators perform their own form of Parkinson’s Law by ignoring the initial time estimates and simply waiting until the last minute, forcing the task into a short time frame. I don’t like to procrastinate.

There are a lot of techniques people use to control the Parkinson’s Law effect. The one which I’ve employed lately is pretty old school – a timer. But not a kitchen timer, because I’m not sure where you would find one of those – I use a timer app on my phone instead. The one I chose is appropriately named “Timer.”  You put a widget on the screen with an amount of time which you preset, and with one click the timer starts.

I have been timing everything lately. If I don’t, that 30 minute blog post will take 2 hours and it won’t be any better than if I had just stopped at the 30 minute mark. When the timer goes off, that’s it, I’m done, move on. Johnny B. Truant, one of my favorite online personalities/authors, goes into great detail about how he’s optimizing his writing by using a standard kitchen timer. You can read his blog or catch up on his podcasts from his Web site for all kinds of great insights into his time management. When his timer goes off, he stops, mid-sentence or not.

Another great example of Parkinson’s Law getting out of control is work meetings. They always seem to take an hour regardless of the issue at hand. Lately, I’ve been scheduling 15 minute meetings; that way, even if they run long, they never reach the one hour point. If a coworker sends me a one hour meeting invite, I reject the meeting and suggest they think hard about the actual amount of time required.

I would love to hear about your ways of combating Parkinson’s Law as well. Please send me a Tweet at @wbushee, or drop me an email. After all, shouldn’t we all value our time better?

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