The Time Paradox: A Surprising Way to Prioritize Your Life

Last week my friend sent me this text message:

Leaving tomorrow for New Orleans for work. Have a free seat and hotel if you’re interested. Coming back Tuesday.

Anyone would have jumped at that offer. New Orleans? Free?

But my knee-jerk reaction was, “I’m too busy.”

I’m about to fly to Cincinnati for a 24-hour visit, then fly to the Caribbean for 10 days. I have an enormous stack of “to-do’s” before I leave.

So my first inclination was to say: Sorry. Too busy. Bad timing.

Then I realized: if I stay home, I’ll work less efficiently. If I feed myself tight deadline pressure, I’ll perform at peak efficiency.

Work Expands to Fill the Time Allowed

In 1955, an obscure British historian named Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote an essay in The Economist beginning with a line that would become known as “Parkinson’s Law”:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

By keeping a relaxed schedule, you’re denying yourself the need to prioritize. Suddenly it becomes okay to waste 20 minutes channel-surfing, watching YouTube videos, or just staring into space.

Does Your Performance Peak Before a Deadline?

College students experience this the night before a term paper is due: they write faster in one evening than they have for the past month. When a deadline is looming, they cut the fluff, focus on the most critical research, and type, baby, type.

Breaking-news reporters (I used to be one) experience this when they’re reporting from the scene of a fire, explosion, or press conference. They don’t have time to fret about word choice, grammar or style. They ruthlessly prioritize: gather facts, cut the fluff, and write fast.

Start Timing Yourself

Stanford professor and bestselling author Jim Collins famously carries a stopwatch everywhere he goes. He budgets time for certain tasks — 30 minutes for this, 1 hour for that — and doesn’t allow himself to spend more than he’s budgeted.

He ruthlessly sets priorities, both consciously and subconsciously, throughout his day. When he glances at his stopwatch and sees he only has 7 minutes left to complete this task, his mind is forced to instantly make decisions about what to do — and what to leave in the dust.

Paula Times Herself.

I have this problem: given a limitless amount of time, I could spend hours — DAYS — writing a magazine article or a blog post.

So I decided to start following Jim’s footsteps.

I set a digital eggtimer and force myself to contain the task within the limited amount of time I set. When the timer buzzes, the task must be complete. The article must be written. The post must be posted.

So here’s your challenge: “Schedule” brief chunks of time. Set deadlines. Be ruthless.

Like This? Check Out This Related Post: Do More By … Doing More? A Counterintuitive Way to Boost Your Productivity


  1. says

    This is absolutely true. I always find myself most productive when I create a list of tasks to complete with a time by which to complete them. Otherwise, I will just goof off and find myself with nothing done by the end of the day.

  2. says

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed by all these little tasks i’ve had to get done with the wedding… and now it looks like everything is falling into place because I just sucked it up and started doing stuff till it was done.

  3. says

    This is such a great post! I’m a journalist myself, and you are totally right about the motivating power of deadlines. It’s incredible what you can accomplish if you just declare “this is HAPPENING by this time.” If you give yourself a willy-nilly deadline, then it just won’t get done. Or it’ll take way longer than it should have.

    Personally, I’m a big fan of the, “I have this much to do and it MUST be finished before I go to bed tonight” type motivation. Or the “You have to finish this before your laptop battery dies in two hours” deadline.

    • says

      @Melissa — I like the “before your laptop battery dies in 2 hours” deadline … I haven’t thought about intentionally leaving my laptop unplugged, but that might be a great motivator!

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