Because productivity is a measure of how much of a particular task or set of tasks you can produce in a given period of time, most productivity tips center around doing more within that same period of time.
Things such as:
- Adjusting your environment
- Prioritizing what is most important
- Being selective of when you do important tasks (some periods in the day we’re more productive than others)
- And timing and tracking yourself
However, despite all this work to make yourself more productive, have you ever noticed that, when stakes are high and you have to deliver, you can do the same thing that typically takes you a full four hours in just two or three?
This is Parkinson’s Law in action, or at least a modern application of it pertaining to personal production, and it could just be one of the single most powerful productivity principles of all.
What is Parkinson’s Law?
First described by C. Northcote Parkinson in a 1955 essay, what eventually came to be known as Parkinson’s Law states that (in Parkinson’s words):
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
To put it simply, this means that if you give yourself four hours to complete a task– having proven that it can be completed in four hours previously– but give yourself less time to do the same amount of work, you’ll typically still get that same work done despite having less time available.
This suggests that we’re rarely, if ever, maximizing our powers of concentration as well as hinting at just how powerful they are.
Since its introduction, Parkinson’s Law has become increasingly popular in business and workplace circles. But not just because it sounds good, because you can easily test it out for yourself and see that it’s true.
This has even been confirmed in recent research, with one study funded by the Swedish government finding that retirement home nurses who switched from a traditional eight-hour day down to six-hour days had a reduction in stress, sick leave days, and most surprisingly an increase in total productivity when compared to the full eight-hour days.
This then begs the question: how do you make the best use of Parkinson’s Law in your own life to get more done in less time?
How to use Parkinson’s Law to increase your productivity by 50%
I’ve heard some incredible stories of people utilizing this simple principle. However, I can’t speak on their experience. I can only speak of my own.
With that said, I’ve seen consistent productivity increases of at least 50% when consciously utilizing Parkinson’s Law to its fullest.
By that I mean if something took me three hours before I can tend to cut that time down to two hours consistently (33% reduction in time, 50% increase in productivity over time). Any more than that is pretty hit-or-miss depending on my motivation and other factors.
Here are some tips for structuring your time, and your process, to make the most of Parkinson’s Law:
1. Use a Pomodoro-like system to focus and track time
Using a Pomodoro system, or something similar, is one of the most important steps in making full use of this principle. That’s because it’s all about concentrated effort.
Without concentrating your effort, and monitoring that concentration and your associated productivity, you can’t be sure you’re actually increasing your productivity (and you’re likely not to).
My new favorite software/app is Timing, which is a Mac-specific time tracker that can track everything you do on your computer automatically (with a little setting up in the beginning) in addition to creating custom tasks in Pomodoro (25-minute or other) chunks.
2. Take frequent breaks
Taking frequent breaks is important for utilizing Parkinson’s Law because of the nature of the concentrated effort you’re asking yourself to perform.
The brain gets tired, and without frequent breaks, it shuts down and can’t function the same way. You can only increase your productivity by learning when to stop and being able and willing to step away, even if it’s only for five minutes every hour or two.
3. Reserve it for the most important task (You can’t do it with everything)
Another consequence of such high-intensity work is that you can’t do it all day long.
For that reason, you need to be very selective about which tasks you choose to work in this way. My suggestion is to pick the one or two absolute most important tasks associated with your profession and reserve this kind of workflow for them only.
For example, I’m a writer (as you might have already caught on to). I’m currently writing a novel, so the two primary tasks for me with regards to that project are story crafting/world building where I design the story and the actual writing of it. I don’t use this process for any other work I do.
Sure, I time myself every minute I’m working, track everything, and seek to improve my productivity across my entire workflow in other ways. However, this concentrated effort is so demanding it’s not realistic to keep up all day long.
4, There will always be fluctuations (learn to show up anyway)
You’ll always have fluctuations based on your mood and energy level, so push forward and you’ll have regular blasts of productivity with this method.
Nothing ever works out perfectly, and this method is no different because there are so many different factors to take into consideration. However, if you stick to it and utilize it fully, I can tell you from experience that you’ll see an unbelievable increase to your productivity in little to no time at all.