Do You Equate Busy With Productive?

I was at lunch recently with my family and my sister-in-law (hi Nic) commented on how she’d enjoyed reading my last newsletter. “It must take you ages to put that together. There’s so much in it,” she said encouragingly.

It was a lovely compliment, and to be honest I felt a teensy bit awkward about responding truthfully. “Not really…” I finally answered, somewhat sheepishly.

Why did I feel discomfort about admitting my newsletter didn’t take “ages” to complete?

I think it’s because there’s a deeply held, unconscious belief, and it’s a belief we have all internalised, namely:

Quality output means hard work, long hours and lots of input.

We tell ourselves that important tasks necessarily take more time. We tell ourselves that the longer we work, the more we will achieve. Neither is necessarily true and both ideas are worth trying to flip on their head.

At least that’s what ‘Parkinson’s Law’ tells us.

It tells us that the time it takes to complete a task SWELLS or GROWS BIGGER in response to the perceived importance and complexity of the task.

If I give you an important task and say I want to see the result in two weeks, it will probably take you the full 2 weeks to complete it, even if you could, under pressure, do the task in less time.

You will just unconsciously fill the time with unessential tasks or you will complicate the task beyond what is necessary to justify the filling of that time. In your mind, you have decided it will take 2 weeks to complete the task, in large part because this was the timeframe mentioned or this is what is usually expected.

However, if, instead of 2 weeks, I only gave you 24-hours to complete the same task, you will likely produce a result of equal or greater value in a much shorter space of time.

Equal or GREATER Value!! For less time.

That’s Parko’s Law.


Same Result, Less Faffing About

How does this work: Basically, imminent deadlines create a time pressure that narrows your focus to just the most important tasks. You get the absolute essentials done, and this is enough for the result.

If you’d been given more time, you would have just used that time to faff around with non-essential activity, whilst maintaining an air of productivity. We waste time because we have an abundance of time.

We might be prepared to accept this loss of valuable time when someone else is paying our wages and we’re “stuck at work between 9 and 5”, but if we work for ourselves, or if we want to progress our career by impressing, then we want to get the most out of each day, and work smarter, not harder.

In our personal life we are often guilty of the same thing; we fill our days with unnecessary activity, yet tell ourselves we are being productive, when in truth, we are just being busy.

This is where Parkinson’s Law is your friend.

We can get more bang for our buck if we put this together with Pareto’s Principle, then we have 2 concepts that work together even though they are saying contrary things.

1. Pareto says: Limit tasks to the most important to reduce work time (80/20).
2. Parkinson says: Compress working hours to focus time on the most important tasks.

Tim Ferris cleverly links these two ideas, as above, in his book, The 4-Hour Workweek.

It’s the equivalent of trimming the fat, and leaving what’s essential!


How To Be Truly Productive In Life

According to Ferris, we can bring these principles into our life by asking one simple question a few times each day:

  • Am I being productive or just busy?
  • At this point, it might help to say a little about true productivity.

    Ferris describes the difference between Efficiency and Effectiveness like this:

  • Effectiveness is doing things that get you closer to your goals.”
  • “Efficiency is performing a given task (important or not) in the most economical matter possible.”
  • We place efficiency before effectiveness at our peril.

    Yes, we all do it! We get so darn caught up in being busy, we forget to stop and check that we are spending time on the right things.

    To avoid this, I routinely ask myself the following questions:

  • What should I be busy with that will get me the best outcome?” or
  • What is the most important use of my time right now?

  • You can apply this same principle to other areas of life by challenging certain stories in your head, for example, that it will take years to reach certain personal goals, like say a health goal or to increase your income bracket, or to retire with sufficient funds to serve the lifestyle you want.

    Change can happen much faster than we anticipate. I see it all the time with my coaching clients…When people start to get very clear about their goals, and very clear about the action steps that will ‘move the needle most’ towards realising that goal…they quickly become more effective in their daily life and get amazing results that much faster. That’s because they know exactly what to focus on to get where they want to go….and they override the old stories that keep meaningful outcomes at a distance.


    3 Ways To Apply Parkinson’s Law To Your Life Immediately

    Next time you have a task that needs completing or some personal changes you want to create:

    1. Try giving yourself a much tighter timeframe to complete the task. It must be both challenging and realistic, so play around with this. You’ll get better at judging what you are capable of by experimenting.

    2. Reward yourself for meeting your self-imposed deadline. Finishing early could be seen to just bring the next task forward. “All work and no play” is no fun. So punctuate your successful completions with satisfying rewards. Results = Rewards (which is in itself motivating)…Then move on to your next job.

    3. Don’t be a perfectionist. Near enough is good enough in many cases, and perfect is just an excuse to be hard on oneself. Instead of wasting time picking holes in your work, trying to make it better – decide what is a sufficient result…then use your spare time to have more fun!

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