The 4-hour Workweek Series: Parkinson’s Law, or How Do I Get Things Done Faster

How would you listen to this blog post in double time?

While most people can conceive of the how the 80/20 rule works and most people understand how to implement the idea into their daily lives. There are other things that Tim Ferriss covers in his book that are not altogether as simple to put into practice. That’s part of why we decided to take The 4-hour Workweek and break down the concepts in the book to a series. For this next idea that Tim presents, we need to re-think how we use our time. At least, how we interpret which actions to take as we travel through time.

As you might already know, you have very little control over time. Time continues whether you like it or not. But you already knew all this. So then, let me ask you, how do you use time? If you are scratching your head, let’s try this another way: when you are working to get things completed, how do you use time to your advantage? If you are still scratching your head, that’s not a problem – what I have to say next will probably change your life.

There is a little known fact of time and it goes like this: work, the things that we have/want/must do, expands to fill the time given. That’s right, you read that right. Work expands to fill the amount of time we give it. Say you gave your self thirty seconds to read this blog post, you would read blips of it in thirty seconds. Say you gave your self thirty years to study this post; the complexity and amount of work you will have done in that time will have grown to obscene levels.

But let’s put this into practice real quick, that’s what make this series really fun. I hope that you still have that 80/20 list I told you to write up last time. If you don’t then no worries. What you are going to do is this, take a piece of paper and fold it in half three times. That’s right, half that way, then half the other way, then half the other way again. This should leave you with a small piece of paper. Now, I want you to write the three most important things that you need to get done tomorrow on it. That’s right, just three.

Take a moment to write the three most important tasks that you need to accomplish tomorrow.

I am going to assume that you wrote all three of those things down. Now, here is where the trick comes in. Work doesn’t like to live in a vague world without deadlines. And when you wrote down your three things, you probably didn’t write what time you have to be finished with those three things. Did you? Okay, so what you are going to do is this, next to each of those three items that have to be completed tomorrow, write down the time they need to be done by.

So you might be scratching you head saying what is this going to do for me? Look down at your list, you have established the three most important things that you need to do tomorrow and the time that they need to be done by. To see Parkinson’s Law in action, I want you to reschedule all of the deadlines for midnight tonight. What would you need to prioritize, what would you need to say no to, what would absolutely have to be accomplished in order to get all of those things done by midnight? Now take this thought experiment one step further. I want you to reschedule all tomorrow’s most important tasks and I want them done in the next hour.

The question isn’t can you do your most important tasks in a hour; the questions is how are you going to get those three tasks done in the next hour?

If this tickled your thought process, you should make a habit of limiting resources that you extend to your work. And in more ways than just time. If you caught on to why we folded the paper down to a smaller size, than you saw Parkinson’s Law in action. We limited the workspace and you had to limit what you wrote on it. You can do this with plates, bowls and cups to limit portions of food. You can limit the amount of technology you carry with you, thereby limiting the complexity of work you can accomplish as you go about. You can carry only cash in your wallet and no debit cards to limit the amount of expenditures you can make. You can limit the number of books in your house. Limit the amount of clothes in your closet. Limit the amount of friends you have on social media.

The point is, unlimited is not helpful and most times it is really counter-productive. When we conscientiously limit the length of time we use, the number of tasks we are performing and the tools to implement our productivity, a strange effect can be seen: the most important work happens in the least amount of time with the least number of tools.

What would your work day look like if you did only the most important in less time?

What if you did it in even less time? What if the game was to see how little time is needed? And what if you took a 40 hour work week and consolidated the most important tasks to four hours a week, what would you do in those 4 hours?

The twelve week year, Parkinson’s law, and quantified goals

Recently I was thinking to myself about how I needed to make a point to plan this/next week what I would like to see happen over the next year. Instead of sitting down and staring to plan, I went and started looking for a book in the stacks. What do I mean by the stacks, well, I went to Library Genesis and found a book on time management.

You want to speed things up in your life?

So the basic idea here is that we all have this conception in our brain of what we want to see happen, and a lot of times we don’t take the time to sit down and write it out. Well, as it so happens, if you do this, you are like most people.

You might be asking, what’s wrong with just knowing what I want to do and what I have to do and just doing that? Well, nothing really… Except that, according to this study you are 20% more likely to achieve your desired results when you write what you want to accomplish down vs just thinking about them. A 20% increase in success is no big deal, I guess. I mean, if you want to achieve results, you can just wish that you’ll do what you need to.

But let’s say that you take the time to actually write down what you want to see happen for your life, i.e. you want to lose weight, get fit, become wealthy, go to the moon, what ever it is. And lets say that you make deadlines for your self, i.e. my fifteen year goal is to go to the moon. Okay, and let’s say that you break down that goal into a 10 year epic, and a 5 year journey, and your 3 year vision. Are you following me:

  • 15 year goal
  • 10 year epic
  • 5 year journey
  • 3 year vision

Now, what if I asked you to take some of the objectives from your 3 year vision and I asked you to have 1-3 items completed by the end of the year. Could you do it? Of course you could, and you know that you could. But let’s say that we get to the end of the following year and you didn’t get that big objective done. Would you have excuses? Oh yeah.

Why would you have excuses? You knew that your big goal of going to the moon required getting this one thing done this year, why didn’t you get it done, or put if off till the last second making a poor effort towards it?

If your answer isn’t anything other than ‘because stuff got in the way’, you have got bigger problems that are beyond the scope of this book. Do you want to know how I know that stuff got in the way? Well, it is because of a little known law called Parkinson’s Law. What this law says is that a task expands in scope according to the time that is allotted it. So if you give your self a year to get something done, you will have an entire year go by before you get it done (if at all).

But what if we made a change in our definition to what a year is for the time being? What if we decided that instead of 12 months, we are going to use 12 weeks as our arbitrary line in the sand to get something done? You would have less time to allow for stuff to get in the way. You would, wouldn’t you?

So the premise of this book is redefining what your time horizons. It is quite clear that using annualized thinking gets us trapped in thinking that we have more time, enough time, plenty of time. But what ends up happening is that we aren’t taking the time to say no to what isn’t getting us closer to the moon.

I strongly encourage you to take the time to read this book, regardless of where you are in the world or what time of year it is. You have the ability to draw a line in the sand at any point in your life and say that you are going to make things different. So what’s stopping you from doing that today?