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 I’m about to catch a flight to Cincinnati for my 10-year high school reunion, and 24 hours later, I’m catching another flight to the Caribbean for 10 days. While that sounds enviable, it means I have an enormous stack of things I MUST accomplish before I leave.
So my first inclination was to say: No. Sorry. Too busy. Bad timing.
Then I thought: I became a freelancer for exactly this reason — so I could say yes to these opportunities.
On the other hand, I have a mile-long list of tasks that MUST be finished before I leave for Cincinnati/the Caribbean.
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.
In other words: I could go to New Orleans AND finish everything by deadline.
And I did. (By the time you read this, I’ll be in the Caribbean.)
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 share this experience 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 important research, and type, baby, type.
Certain personal finance bloggers
named Paula (I won’t name names) experience this when crunching out her tax form on the morning of April 15. With mere hours remaining before the post office closes, she tosses out the small deductions, focuses on the most critical information, and files, baby, files.
Breaking-news reporters (I used to be one) share this same experience when they’re reporting from the scene of a fire, explosion, or scandalous press conference. They have no time to fret about word choice, grammar or style. They ruthlessly prioritize: find the facts, cut the fluff, and report “first and 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 an eggtimer (a digitial one, of course) 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 I challenge you, my readers … use a stopwatch. Set an eggtimer on your desk. “Schedule” a one-hour time slot in the middle of an evening for a productive task. You’ll find that you get more more accomplished than you ever did before.
Read a Related Post: Do More By … Doing More? A Counterintuitive Way to Boost Your Productivity