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How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you’re into productivity, you’ll know this proverb as Parkinson’s Law. This interesting statement was made by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the famous British historian and author, in 1955 – first appearing as the opening line in an article for The Economist and later becoming the focus of one of Parkinson’s books, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.

Parkinson was qualified to make such a statement, having worked in the British Civil Service, seeing first hand how bureaucracy ticks. Bureaucracy itself is a by-product of our culture, thanks to the limiting belief that working harder is somehow better than working smarter and faster.

Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available for its completion – means that if you give yourself a week to complete a two hour task, then (psychologically speaking) the task will increase in complexity and become more daunting so as to fill that week. It may not even fill the extra time with more work, but just stress and tension about having to get it done. By assigning the right amount of time to a task, we gain back more time and the task will reduce in complexity to its natural state.

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I once read a response to Parkinson’s Law insinuating that if it were an accurate observation, one would be able to assign a time limit of one minute to a task and the task would become simple enough to complete within that minute. But Parkinson’s Law is exactly that – an observation, not some voodoo magic. It works because people give tasks longer than they really need, sometimes because they want some ‘leg room’ or buffer, but usually because they have an inflated idea of how long the task takes to complete. People don’t become fully aware of how quickly some tasks can be completed until they test this principle.

Most employees who defy the unwritten rule of “work harder, not smarter” know that, despite the greater return on investment for the company, it’s not always appreciated. That’s related to the idea that the longer something takes to complete, the better quality it must inherently be. Thankfully, the increasing trend of telecommuted employment is changing this for those lucky early adopters, but only because employers have no idea what you’re doing with all that spare time!

Let’s look at a few ways you can apply Parkinson’s Law to your life, get your to-do list checked off quicker and spend less of the work day filling in time just to look busy. This is relevant whether you work in an office or at home, since “work harder, not smarter” is a cultural idea that many individuals fall prey to even when nobody’s supervising their work.

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Running Against the Clock

Make a list of your tasks, and divide them up by the amount of time it takes to complete them. Then give yourself half that time to complete each task. You have to see making the time limit as crucial. Treat it like any other deadline. Part of reversing what we’ve been indoctrinated with (work harder, not smarter) is to see the deadlines you set for yourself as unbreakable – just like the deadlines your boss or clients set.

Use that human, instinctual longing for competition that fuels such industries as sports and gaming to make this work for you. You have to win against the clock; strive to beat it as if it were your opponent, without taking shortcuts and producing low-quality output. This is particularly helpful if you’re having trouble taking your own deadlines seriously.

At first, this will be partially an exercise in determining how accurate your time projections for tasks are. Some may be spot on to begin with, and some may be inflated. Those that are spot on may be the ones that you are unable to beat the clock with when you halve the time allotment, so experiment with longer times. Don’t jump straight back to the original time allotment because there may be an optimum period in between.

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If you work at a computer, a digital timer is going to be very useful when you start doing this. It’ll also save you a bit of time, because a timer allows you to see at a glance how much longer you have. Using your clock involves some addition and subtraction! There are free utilities available for OS X, Linux, and Windows.

Crush the Cockroaches of the Productivity World

Look for those little time-fillers, like email and feed reading, that you might usually think take ten or twenty (or even, god forbid, thirty!) minutes. These are the “cockroaches” of the productivity world – little pests that do nothing but make your life a pain in the backside, pains that you can’t seem to get rid no matter how much you run around the house with a shoe or bug spray.

Instead of doing the leisurely 20-30 minute morning email check, give yourself five minutes. If you’re up for a challenge, go one better and give yourself two minutes. Don’t give these tasks any more attention until you’ve completed everything on your to-do list that day, at which point you can indulge in some email reading, social networking and feed reading to your heart’s content. Not that I recommend you spend all your spare time that way!

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These are tasks where 10% of what you do is important and 90% is absolutely useless. This forces you to tend to the important tasks – feeds you need to read in order to improve in your work (for instance, if you’re a web designer who needs to be read up on new practices), and emails that are actually high-priority. Experiment with how far you can take this. Make your criteria for what makes an email important, really strict and the penalties harsh! That means using the Delete button, by the way – I’m not advocating violence against your colleagues.

You can experiment with Parkinson’s Law and squashing your deadlines down to the bare minimum in many areas of your life. Just be conscious of the line between ‘bare minimum’ and ‘not enough time’ – what you’re aiming for is a job well done in less time, not a disaster that’s going to lose you employment or clients.

More by this author

Joel Falconer

Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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Last Updated on May 12, 2020

8 Steps to Continuous Self Motivation Even During the Difficult Times

8 Steps to Continuous Self Motivation Even During the Difficult Times

Many of us find ourselves in motivational slumps that we have to work to get out of. Sometimes it’s like a continuous cycle where we are motivated for a period of time, fall out and then have to build things back up again.

There is nothing more powerful for self-motivation than the right attitude. You can’t choose or control your circumstance, but you can choose your attitude towards your circumstances.

How I see this working is while you’re developing these mental steps, and utilizing them regularly, self-motivation will come naturally when you need it.

The key, for me, is hitting the final step to Share With Others. It can be somewhat addictive and self-motivating when you help others who are having trouble.

A good way to have self motivation continuously is to implement something like these 8 steps from Ian McKenzie.[1] I enjoyed Ian’s article but thought it could use some definition when it comes to trying to build a continuous drive of motivation. Here is a new list on how to self motivate:

1. Start Simple

Keep motivators around your work area – things that give you that initial spark to get going.

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These motivators will be the Triggers that remind you to get going.

2. Keep Good Company

Make more regular encounters with positive and motivated people. This could be as simple as IM chats with peers or a quick discussion with a friend who likes sharing ideas.

Positive and motivated people are very different from the negative ones. They will help you grow and see opportunities during tough times.

Here’re more reasons why you should avoid negative people: 10 Reasons Why You Should Avoid Negative People

3. Keep Learning

Read and try to take in everything you can. The more you learn, the more confident you become in starting projects.

You can train yourself to crave lifelong learning with these tips: How to Develop a Lifelong Learning Habit

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4. See the Good in Bad

When encountering obstacles or challenging goals, you want to be in the habit of finding what works to get over them.

Here are 10 tips to make positive thinking easy.

5. Stop Thinking

Just do. If you find motivation for a particular project lacking, try getting started on something else. Something trivial even, then you’ll develop the momentum to begin the more important stuff.

When you’re thinking and worrying about it too much, you’re just wasting time. These tried worry busting techniques can help you.

6. Know Yourself

Keep notes on when your motivation sucks and when you feel like a superstar. There will be a pattern that, once you are aware of, you can work around and develop.

Read for yourself how the magic of marking down your mood works.

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7. Track Your Progress

Keep a tally or a progress bar for ongoing projects. When you see something growing, you will always want to nurture it.

Take a look at these 4 simple ways to track your progress so you have motivation to achieve your goals.

8. Help Others

Share your ideas and help friends get motivated. Seeing others do well will motivate you to do the same. Write about your success and get feedback from readers.

Helping others actually helps yourself, here’s why.

What I would hope happens here is you will gradually develop certain skills that become motivational habits.

Once you get to the stage where you are regularly helping others keep motivated – be it with a blog or talking with peers – you’ll find the cycle continuing where each facet of staying motivated is refined and developed.

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Too Many Steps?

If you could only take one step? Just do it!

Once you get started on something, you’ll almost always just get into it and keep going. There will be times when you have to do things you really don’t want to: that’s where the other steps and tips from other writers come in handy.

However, the most important thing, that I think is worth repeating, is to just get started.

Get that momentum going and then when you need to, take Ian’s Step 7 and Take A Break. No one wants to work all the time!

More Tips for Boosting Motivation

Featured photo credit: Japheth Mast via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Ian McKenzie: 8 mental steps to self-motivation

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