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.”
Then I thought about an obscure 1955 magazine article and changed my mind.
Parkinson’s Law: Work Expands to Fill Time
In 1955, a 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. It’s okay to scroll Facebook, watch YouTube videos, or stare into space. But if you apply deadline pressure to yourself, you’ll work more efficiently.
Imagine a college student the night before a term paper is due. That student writes more in an evening than they did in a month. When a deadline looms, they cut the fluff and focus.
Imagine a news reporter or live blogger at a fire, explosion, or press conference. They don’t have time to fret about word choice, grammar or style. They gather facts and write fast.
Many modern business leaders incorporate this lesson into their daily lives.
Bestselling author and Stanford professor Jim Collins, for example, never works without a stopwatch. He chooses a time for every task — 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there — and won’t allow himself to spend more time than he’s budgeted on any activity.
When he only has 7 minutes left to complete a task, he’s forced to narrow his focus and ignore the rest. This means he doesn’t waste time tinkering with details that don’t matter.
When I have unlimited time, I could spend weeks writing a magazine article or a blog post. So I decided to take a cue from Parkinson’s Law.
I set an eggtimer and force myself to contain the task to a time limit. When the timer buzzes, game over. Sometimes it works; other times I break my own rules. But it helps. I have a better sense of how long tasks take. I’m more aware of the clock.
And I’m traveling to New Orleans. Better productivity makes up for my time away.