Breaking Parkinson’s Law: Six Ways to Deliberately Constrain Your Workflow

“I might as well put some action in my life/Breaking the law, breaking the law…” — Judas Priest, British heavy metal band.

“[Parkinson’s Law] is the magic of the imminent deadline… The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.” — Timothy Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week

Breaking Parkinson's Law: Six Ways to Deliberately Constrain Your Workflow by Laura Stack #productivityIn an essay published in the The Economist in 1955, British historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson formulated his most famous axiom: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Though originally applied humorously, Parkinson’s Law hits uncomfortably close to the mark. You can apply it to everything from committees to finance to corporate structure—and people have.

I believe it’s especially applicable to personal productivity. Have you ever noticed how super-productive you can be on the most tightly scheduled of days, whereas time just seems to get away from you when you enjoy a lighter schedule? It happens to us all.

But what if it didn’t? Imagine what you could accomplish if you set out to break Parkinson’s Law daily. Imagine how we might change the world if we all did. Let’s picture what that might look like!

1. Set deadlines for everything. While you may like the idea of having no set due date for your next report, I guarantee you’ll start putting it off right away, then put it off some more…and then you may never finish it. While a deadline doesn’t guarantee you’ll finish a task or project on time, at least it gives you something to shoot for. If nothing else, set milestones for yourself, representing a certain “distance” into the task per given amount of time. Better yet, combine deadlines and milestones and assign both to everything, even subtasks and minor items, so you won’t dawdle.

2. Refuse to multitask. If you don’t set clear boundaries between tasks, they’ll inevitably interfere with each other. If nothing else, just shifting gears slows you down, as you clear the mental slate of one set of data in exchange for another. Imagine doing this four or five times within a ten-minute span; a fair portion of that time might end up wasted. If you multiply that lost time by the 48 ten-minute intervals in the “typical” eight-hour workday, you can see how this might represent a problem.

3. Be done when you’re done. Rather than succumb to perfectionism, know when to let go. As a writer, I’ve found that releasing a book or article to the world can almost feel like abandoning a child. But if you don’t cut the umbilical once a project has fully matured, you might dilute its impact with constant revision, and you’ll definitely hit a point of diminishing returns before long. Do your very best work, of course, but don’t overdo any task.

4. Challenge yourself. Once you’ve trained yourself to swim laps in an Olympic-sized pool, you can’t go back to dog paddling without being bored silly. Sure, you need R&R, but don’t rest on your laurels too long or you’ll backslide. If a task no longer challenges you, move on to something tougher; otherwise you’ll find wasteful ways to fill up the empty time your competence creates for you.

5. Plan for next. Don’t dwell on it, but always know the next item on your list. That way, you don’t need to waste time between tasks.

6. Always have work on hand. Suppose you finish what you’ve planned five hours into your workday. Don’t waste the rest of it! Instead, reach for your “someday” list: the roll of important but non-urgent things you’d like to take care of but keep deferring in favor of high-priority items, required daily tasks, and crises. If you’ve been itching to tweak your report production flow or brush up on your information processing capacity, now’s the time.

More is Less

Taking it easy always uses up more time than working hard…and if taken too far, it gets boring and wasteful. Rather than let your time slip away, tighten your focus: stick strictly to a time budget, restrain your instinct to multitask, move on immediately whenever you finish something, and always push the envelope. The more efficiently you can complete your tasks, the more time you can recapture for better use.


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