The Most Commonly Overlooked (yet the Most Significant) Productivity Obstacles 1


Much has been blogged about Parkinson’s Law which is an adage that states:

 

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

 

This concept was first created by Mr. Cyril Northcote Parkinson as part of the first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955. Mr. Parkinson was studying the British Civil Service and was curious why the number of its employees increased even as the size of the once mighty British Empire decreased.

The Story: Where Most People Fail

A typical example of this principle is a retired worker who has to go shopping. If this person only has this one task to do today, he or she might spend a great deal of time preparing the shopping list, then finding coupons, and finally going to the store and spending hours locating the perfect products to purchase. This example illustrates how someone with a lot of time could potentially spend hours performing one task that would normally not take much time.

Now I don’t know anyone who extends their work to fill their day, but I’m sure someone does. I did, however, once have a coworker who employed an interesting type of work-delay system. She would always exaggerate the amount of time any task would take just to avoid being rushed. For example, if a coworker asked her to complete a task in a week, she’d always say she was way too busy and couldn’t complete it until two weeks. She once confided in me that prolonging due dates didn’t mean it took her longer to perform a given task, it just took all the pressure off her and allowed her to work as stress-free as possible.

Do some people actually expand their work to fill the time available for its completion? Many productivity gurus, including Tim Ferriss author of The 4-hour Workweek, have fastened themselves to this anecdotal phrase and attempted to show us how it applies to all work. In a recent article by the Study Hacks Blog called Debunking Parkinson’s Law (http://calnewport.com/blog/2008/06/11/debunking-parkinsons-law/), the author stated, “To Ferriss, and other how-to writers, it’s (Parkinson’s Law) interpreted…to mean that individuals will procrastinate and drag out tasks to fill an arbitrary work day. To Parkinson, however, the adage was meant to highlight a truth about large bureaucratic organizations: growth can be unrelated to work.” The article continues to say, “If you read deeper into Parkinson’s work, you soon discover that he is not making a general claim on how humans procrastinate. He is, instead, summarizing a rather rigorous statistical proof he devised to explain observations of a very specific context: the British Civil Service.”

After reading the article I began to think back to my college days and how I procrastinated. I remember on countless occasions thinking that a new homework assignment would take days to complete. I remember dreading the thought of spending all that time in front of the computer hammering away when I could have been having fun with my friends. When I finally did write the paper, it only took a few hours. Thus, I suddenly realized that I was spending more time dreading about doing a task than actually doing it.

Another example, a friend in college was once working on a one page marketing summary. Just as he finished the summary, his computer’s battery died and he lost everything he had spent the last twenty minutes writing. Instead of taking the time to rewrite it, he spent three hours trying to find a tech support person that could help him retrieve his lost paper. A computer glitch had caused him to greatly expand the time needed to complete a project. Don’t confuse this type of procrastination with Force Majeure or an unexpected, unavoidable circumstance. Yes, my friend’s computer did not save his homework, but he procrastinated for hours avoiding the inevitable: simply rewriting it.

I call this type of behavior dread and avoid. We all have tasks that we hate doing, can’t stand repeating, and those that we avoid at all costs. But deep down, we know they must be completed. Yet for whatever reason, they don’t get done. Some people refer to this as procrastination. However, if you are actually getting things done, but simply not completing smaller tasks due to prioritizing, then you’re still being productive. But if you aren’t getting as much done as you know you should, then you are definitely not being productive. And these little avoided tasks have a tendency to multiply until you feel overwhelmed.

The jury’s still out on how work expands to fill time; but for the majority of us, we don’t have enough time and need to find simple ways to become more efficient.

Let’s examine some of the reasons why most people fail to overcome these obstacles:

 

  • Being a perfectionist. Most of us have a tendency to make absolutely sure that what we do or create is completely polished and checked numerous times before it goes public or out to the client. There’s nothing wrong with striving to give your best, but there’s a very fine line between a detail-oriented person and a perfectionist. Being too much of a perfectionistic means you expand each task to take up twice, or even thrice as much time as it should take.

  • Procrastination. It’s all too easy to set unnecessarily distant deadlines and fool yourself that it’s not going to make much of a difference if you postpone today’s work on a particular task till tomorrow or indefinitely. After all, you’ll “eventually get to it”, right? But without a level of urgency, little gets accomplished. If you’re setting up deadlines that are too far ahead, or constantly postponing tasks and projects, you’re not going to be productive.

  • It’s easy and comfortable. Let’s face it – checking your email leisurely for 30 minutes is easier than creating a time limit of 5 or 10 minutes and quickly working your way through your inbox before the timer runs out. Starting to work on a task without any time boundaries is easier than giving yourself no more than 90 minutes to write and edit an article. Thus, the time boundary creates a sense of urgency.

  • Someone else can do it quicker. I tend to want to do everything myself and this can really slow me down especially if I’ve never done the task before. For instance, I once spent weeks setting up a web page when I could have easily paid a third party a minimal fee to use their perfectly coded page. We all experience this type of tunnel vision at some point. Had I known it would have taken weeks to complete, I wouldn’t have attempted it. But that comes with experience.

  • Disturbances. Distractions are a killer. You need to eliminate disturbances and distractions at all costs if you want to be productive. Turn off all electronic distraction, get away from the TV, and put on earphones if you have to; do whatever it takes to get some alone time. And eliminate time wasters at all costs.

  • Crazy busy. This one is hard to overcome and some of us are just busier than others. However, if you find that you have bitten off more than you can chew, then maybe it’s time to eliminate certain things in your life that are eating away at your time. Is your commute too long? Do you have too many hobbies? Is your workload too heavy? There can be many factors at play here and some might be difficult or impossible to eliminate. If that is the case, then look at ways to reduce the amount of time you spend on certain tasks.

 

We’ve likely never been taught – or conditioned – to overcome these obstacles, even though we probably confront them every day. It requires a complete focus, deliberateness and a sharp mind. But once you train yourself to see the obstacles and notice that you are avoiding certain tasks, or not being efficient, then you’ll be able to start working towards a more productive system.

 

So what are some next steps you can take to overcoming productivity obstacles?

 

  • In his legendary productivity book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey simply wrote: Put first things first. Prioritizing is as important today as it was when his book first came out in 1989. One effective way of prioritizing tasks it to find a to-do app, such as TaskLabels, that allows you to easily add tasks, prioritize tasks, and then stack them up based on importance. Once you’re finished with one task, move on to the next one. It’s that easy.
  • Start time blocking (AKA time boxing). We’ve covered this incredibly efficient time management technique here.

  • Start using the Pomodoro technique. This is essentially another version of time blocking, except that each block of time has 25 minutes. See here where you can apply the Pomodoro technique for maximum efficiency.
  • Make time each day or week for tasks that you are avoiding or have been avoiding for a long time. Realize that the longer you avoid them, the longer you will have spent avoiding them.

  • Create a sense of urgency for each task so that you will get them done. Push yourself a little harder and you’ll soon be able to intuitively assign just the right amount of time to all of your tasks.

 

What’s your productivity weakness? Let us know and also tell us how you’re working to overcome it.

  • Nora Joy Wilson

    Thanks for this article! It really puts things into perspective to consider how we trick ourselves into letting small tasks become these huge monsters. I’ve become more and more aware of how I do the same thing to myself: if there’s one thing that I really don’t want to do today, then it becomes this evil, dreaded, burden. But if there are 5 things that I don’t want to do, then the first thing isn’t so bad. Reminding ourselves of how relative life can is a key to freeing our minds (and schedules, too).