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How You're Sabotaging Your Productivity

Time is a ruthless beast that no amount of money can tame or console.

You have the same amount of hours in a day, week, month etc. as the richest and most powerful people on that planet. At least until Elon makes it to Mars and has an additional 40 mins to his ‘day’ but you get the idea.

Let’s lay out a scenario that we’ve all probably ran into: Your boss, teacher, spouse, kennel-master, or whoever give you a task and one week to complete it.

What follows is probably something like this: you either start on it right away and take the full week polishing and refining it until the deadline.

The other option is feel a twinge of panic and start on it right before the deadline.

You’re not alone. There’s at least one other person I can say with absolute certainty this happens to all the time too, me.

This can be summed up pretty simply by something called Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands to fill the time available for it’s completion

That one sentence probably hits home for a lot of you. I know it does me and sparked a change in the way I both view tasks and estimate them.

First, how did this come about? C. Northcote Parkinson first made this observation while working for the British Civil Service and his findings were first published in an article for the Economist in 1955

Don’t get me wrong, Parkinson’s Law sounds really cool and will probably make you sound really smart throwing that out casually in conversation, but it’s probably more of a principle or an observation. In other words, it’s not immutable and it’s not written in stone. You can’t go out and build a house in a day. Parkinson’s law is more about a reflection on how we think we’re using our time and forcing us to look at things with a more critical eye.

No many how many productivity blog posts you read, this won’t magically solve your time management problems. However, it might show you where they are.

Instead of diving deep into the principles and inner workings for Parkinson’s Law, I think it’s more important to focus on some of the core tenets and how we can use it to get more done with less.

More time gives us more time to complicate things, it’s our nature. This isn’t really a bad thing, it’s us wanting to do the absolute best possible job we can with a given task. The downside is we tend to over complicate things.

This is something that’s become especially prevalent with the rise of ‘information work’

With a shorter time frame, problems can become less complex and therefore easier to solve.

Now that you’re all hopped up on motivation, let’s look at some ways to witness Parkinson’s Law in action.

Estimate how long you think a task would take. It helps with something small and low stakes. Something like reading, actioning, and responding to email.

Take an educated guess at how much time you think it should take. Got it? Great, now reduce by 25–50%. It’s really easy to just reduce by 80–90% and not come anywhere close and loose the whole point of the exercise. (See Stock-Sanford corollary: If you wait to the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.)

The idea is to really focus on hitting your deadline, forcing you to eliminate non-essentials with laser like focus to get your task done.

Most people, myself included, can be really bad at estimates. I estimate software tasks and bug fixes all the time, and it’s still something I don’t consider myself great at.

One thing that’s really helped me both refine my estimates and see where my time leaks are has been to install the Harvest app and track the time spent on a task. Harvest is a time tracking service most freelancers are probably familiar with, but tracking things besides just billable time has made a huge improvement on how I manage and estimate my time. Plus, that little orange ‘H’ that floats in my task bar is a great reminder to snap back into focus.

Once you have a rough baseline on how much time a given task might take, that’s when you can start refining it. Start by blocking off a predetermined amount of time, say 25 min since this nicely lines up with pomodoro timers.

Now, eliminate all non-essentials for finishing your task. Turn off slack, turn off your email, phone on airplane mode, disable all notifications on computer and phone and throw on some binaural beats, preferably a track that’s at least as long as the time you’ve blocked off. Binaural beats are a whole other topic, but think of them as a playlist to keep your brain engaged. I like YouTube since Spotify typically has shorter tracks which distracts me when changing tracks.

Next, go into a black hole of productivity. This may not work exactly for you, but the idea is to cultivate flow state.

Once that timer goes off, it’s totally likely you’ll be in zone and want to keep attacking your task, if that happens go with it. Your trying to produce something or solve a problem, not hit X number of pomodoro iterations in a day.

Once you come up for air, take a look back and see what you’ve accomplished. Oftentimes, the difference from a short sprint of hyper-productivity will dwarf the normal process of dragging something out for as much time available.

For extra refinement, install something like RescueTime to see where you spend your time (on your computer) or start taking detailed notes in 15–30min increments.

There’s a good chance you’ll be horrified at first seeing how much time is pissed away, but that’s the idea. Find the leaks, then plug them.

At the end of the day, Parkinson’s Law will not help you magically accomplish more with less, but give you the tools to do so by stripping away the non-essential and focusing the minimum solvable task.

Let me know how Parkinson’s Law has helped you refine your tasks and how it’s helped you accomplish more with the same amount of time.

After all

Time is the great unifier. No matter how much money you have or get, you can’t buy more, or add more hours to a day.