Have you heard of Parkinson’s law? It’s a “law” in the same way that Murphy’s law is a law. Parkinson’s law is simply that work expands to fit the time allotted.
What does this mean?
- If you book an hour long meeting, you’ll meet for an hour, regardless of whether the agenda could have taken 40 minutes.
- If you don’t have “work hours” work will expand into all crevices of your time. You’ll find yourself answering that one last email at 1am (all the why wondering “why, why am I doing this!?”)
- If you give yourself no limit on how long you’re willing to spend on something, you’ll spend way more time on it than you had wished.
But now that you know about Parkinson’s law, you can use it to your advantage. Here are a few ways to do just that.
Pick a stopping time
It doesn’t have to be the same time every day, but I’ve found that deciding, in advance, what time I’ll stop working on any given day allows me to fully apply the principle of Parkinson’s Law. It can be difficult to ever feel like you’re “done”, but picking a stopping time helps to ensure that your work doesn’t bleed into all aspects of your life and that you get more done because you’ve given yourself a defined period of time to get things done.
I remember, 13 years ago, when I returned to work from maternity leave, I had to leave the office every day at 5:15pm on the dot because daycare closed at 6pm and they charged $1 a minute if I was late. Somehow I became instantly more productive. I couldn’t stay late if I didn’t finish on time. So I didn’t. I got what I needed to do done during the hours I had available. I became more efficient. My work product didn’t suffer; it improved. Parkinson’s law was as work.
Schedule shorter meetings
Why do we schedule meetings for 1 hour or 30 minutes? Because those are the pre-set defaults in our online calendars. But what if you make your meetings shorter? Could you cover your agenda in 20 minutes? 45 minutes? You’ll never know if you don’t try.
My consultations calls used to be 45 minutes each. Now they’re 25 minutes. Nothing was lost in the process; we just get clearer, faster, on whether it’ll be a good fit.
Give yourself a time limit
Got a task you need to finish? Don’t just start working and hope for the best. Give yourself a time limit and work against the clock. Make it a game to see if you can finish before your end-time.
I give myself 90 minutes a week to write these blog posts. From the moment I start writing to the moment I hit “publish”. Could I spend longer? Of course I could. But I’ve learned that I don’t need to when I give myself a time limit.
Time block your calendar
Estimate how long you think a thing will take, block the time on your calendar (with a little extra buffer, since humans tend to underestimate how long things will take), and follow your calendar. At the beginning of a time block, intentionally consider the thing you’re about to do. You may even want to set a timer for the mid-way point of your time block, so that you can take stock and ensure that you’re not falling down a perfectionist rabbit hole.
Want to learn more about time blocking? I recently finished a series about just that, and you can access them here.
- Time Blocking for Skeptics
- How to Make Time Blocking (Actually) Work for You
- Can’t Time Block Because You Have No Time? Try This.
Use the Pomordoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is another timer based technique. For this one, you’ll set a timer, and then commit to working on a specific task, uninterrupted (no email, no Slack) until the timer goes off. Then take a short break and do it again.
Most people find this technique not only helps them apply Parkinson’s law, but helps them to focus as well.