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I'm sure you've heard of Parkinson's Law, or at least the modern-day generalisation of it. It states that "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."
When I first heard this, back in the mists of time, I thought Mr Parkinson was damn right, had a chuckle at a very accurate observation on the human condition and thought no more of it.
But recently, I've found that Parkinson's law can be harnessed and turned into a very simple, useful tool that can help you drastically cut down the time it takes to do almost any task. Here's how it works.
Parkinson's law means that however much time you allocate to a task, you will use up all of that time in completing it. Why is this?
I think it is all down to focus, clarity and work-rate. Say you have a task that you think might take you an hour or two. If you resolve to complete it within the next hour, you know you don't have any time to waste so you will tend to focus solely on it and so work more quickly and efficiently. If you set a longer deadline, you just leave more room for procrastination and time-sucking fuzzy focus.
If you are not convinced, think of the last time you worked on a deadline. Didn't your focus, clarity and work-rate increase steadily as you approached the deadline?
So here is a simple way to harness Parkinson's law to generate focus, clarity and work-rate for everyday effectiveness: Always have yourself on a micro-deadline, and an agressive one at that for small tasks, or chunks of big tasks. Estimate how long you think it will take you to do your next task (or chunk thereof), knock off 50% and make that your micro-deadline. Then set your timer and get started (or if it is a computer-based task, use http://e.ggtimer.com/).
"Knock off 50%? You must be kidding", I hear you say. Well, I think that since we are used to NOT working with deadlines, we tend to over-estimate how long things will take. A good illustration of this is when we are hit with an unexpected, last minute deadline and have to finish something in record time. In my experience, we normally make it – or there abouts – because we tend to the deadline.
I have been trying this agressive, micro-deadline setting over the past couple of months for a whole range of tasks, at work and home, and have found it is a surprisingly effective way to get individual tasks done more quickly. Normally I over-run the deadline a bit, but end up finishing much more quickly than the original estimate and light years faster than I would have done without a deadline.
Deadline day is generally very stressful because we know we have to complete something crucial by the end of it. Of course, we don't want to have that sort of stress in our everyday lives. That is why I am talking about effectiveness here, not productivity.
This micro-deadline approach should be used to shorten the length of time it takes you to do individual tasks by squeezing out the time wasted through wavering focus and procrastination. What you do with the saved time is up to you. You could squeeze in another task, but maybe using some of the time to recharge the batteries with a nice cup of coffee or a stroll round the block – and thus putting you in a better state of mind to do a great job on your next task – would be more effective.
If you decide to experiment with this approach, I'd love to hear your experiences, or comments here.