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Thomas De Moor for X-Team

Posted on • Originally published at x-team.com on

How to Be Productive When You Have Too Much Time

Ever had a lot of time to do a few tasks? If you have, chances are that you ended up not doing as much as you'd hoped. Even worse, you may have done less than you would have on a day where you'd have much less time.

This isn't unusual. It's a well-studied phenomenon called Parkinson's Law.

But what is Parkinson's Law exactly? And how do you overcome it so you do the things you want to do, every day, regardless of how much time you have? That's what this article will cover.

What is Parkinson's Law?

Parkinson's Law is the idea that work expands to fill the time that is available for its completion. The British naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson came up with the term in an Economist essay from 1955.

For example, suppose you have a month to complete a project that should take two weeks. You will either complete the project in two weeks and keep adding details to it because you're a perfectionist or you'll do very little until the deadline starts looming, after which you'll complete the project in a hurry.

In both cases, the two-week project turned into a four-week project because that was the time given to it.

That's not me, you may think, and perhaps you're right. Perhaps you would complete the project in two weeks instead of four. But Parkinson's Law genuinely exists. Scientists have successfully replicated it several times in the workplace:

  • In this study, members of a logging crew were found to be significantly more productive when they operated under task restrictions.
  • In another study, a group that was given twice as much time to complete a task performed slower than the group that was given just enough time.

So contrary to what you might assume, having more time does not usually mean having more time to get things done. It means having more time to waste. No one is immune to this, but it's also not unavoidable.

6 Ways to Overcome Parkinson's Law

Parkinson's Law comes into effect when you have too much time. The trick, then, is to ensure that you set deadlines for your personal and professional projects that give you just enough time. Doing so isn't easy, particularly for projects you've never done, but you will get better at it over time and there are plenty of good guides to help you set a good deadline.

Second, don't just set one deadline that is weeks or months out. Set mini-deadlines that encourage you to complete tasks within a short timeframe. Daily goals or at most weekly goals. This will require you to create a relatively detailed plan with tasks and deadlines, but that exercise will aid tremendously in completing your project properly.

Third, give your day a sense of urgency by setting a fixed time when you stop working. Not only is this good for your mental health, but it means you have to get stuff done before, say, 6 PM. You have less time to do things and will waste less time as a result.

Fourth, time-box your tasks. Before you begin a task, ask yourself how much time you think it will take and strive to complete it within that time. Use a time tracker like Toggl. Find that sweet spot of just enough time so you don't compromise on quality but also don't waste time.

Fifth, reward yourself for completing tasks. When you're done and you still have time, take a break. Watch a YouTube video. Play a few Escape from Tarkov games. Grind some coffee beans. When you associate rewards with results instead of with time spent, you will get more done.

Finally, defeating Parkinson's Law requires a change of thinking. Instead of thinking How much time do I have? ask yourself How much time do I need?. It's that change in perspective that will ultimately help you overcome Parkinson's Law and be productive even when you have too much time.

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