Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Time Management System Smackdown

by Andre · 15 Comments

Time Management Smackdown How do you allocate time? Do you find yourself regularly seeking out large blocks of time to complete a task, only to find out afterward that it took a fraction of the expected time? Or do you often find yourself underestimating the time to completion, splitting up a task across multiple interruptions?

Some time management system gurus would argue that every task, however big or small, needs to be scheduled. But even critics of time management generally agree that activities requiring higher focus need long blocks of time set aside. But how long is long?

Parkinson’s Law

Even before Cyril Northcote Parkinson first postulated his “law” in an essay for The Economist in 1955, the notion that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for it’s completion” has long been a popular assumption. It’s accepted as a given that if you give people eight hours to complete a six-hour task, they’ll take eight hours. Over time, Parkinson’s Law has been reformulated in quasi-scientific locutions that sound even more authoritative: “A task will swell in perceived importance and complexity in direct correlation to the time allotted to it.”

Like Murphy’s Law, Parkinson’s Law was coined by a humorist. Parkinson wasn’t in the business of offering time management tips. While all responsible project managers will plan for contingencies, they wouldn’t seriously do so on the basis of Murphy’s Law. Everyone recognizes that Murphy’s Law is observational humor, an exaggeration for comic purposes.

Parkinson’s Law, on the other hand, is often taken quite seriously, sometimes with disastrous effects when managers attempt to increase productivity by shortening deadlines. With supervised manual labor, where wage earners are expected to look busy throughout their shifts, it’s no surprise that workers will pace their work as needed to remain conspicuously active. In those cases, shorter deadlines can actually expedite things if supervisors can tolerate the idleness that follows, which is unlikely. Shortening deadlines usually does little more than increase the display of activity, and often increases errors — which then have to be fixed, pushing completion back beyond the original deadlines.

Knowledge work is fundamentally different from manual work, but not because it carries more perceived importance or complexity. It’s different because people can move faster on demand but cannot think faster. Think rate is fixed, or at least controlled by factors other than willpower or coercion. I recently realized why I enjoy writing longhand over typing. I type much faster than my mental rate of composition, since I frequently deliberate over word choices, but longhand is a perfect match.

Like Murphy’s Law, Parkinson’s Law isn’t a falsehood so much as an exaggeration. We’ve all seen it work from time to time, sometimes on the basis of luck; but there’s a actually a deep principle behind its occasional success: it forces people to think about their process as a whole instead of figuring it out as they’re going along.

You don’t need a boss breathing down your neck to apply the principle. You can simply take any task, pick a shorter time to completion and work backward. If you had to complete your most pressing project in half the time you now have available for it, and you didn’t have the option of taking longer, how would you do it? What would you do differently?

Concentration Threshold

Concentration Threshold is a theory of time allocation expressed by Julie Morgenstern, who states it as an observation rather than a law. If you give yourself too little time to complete a task, you won’t start because you implicitly know the time frame is unrealistic. If you give yourself too much time to complete a task, you won’t start because you implicitly know that your attention won’t last for the allotted block of time.

Concentration Threshold is specific to each individual and each task. We don’t procrastinate in general; we procrastinate on certain things more than others, depending on the level of focus required. Morgenstern describes a couple of examples in her commercial podcast, SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life: The 4-Step Plan for Getting Unstuck:

Most writers that I know can only write for up to four hours a day, and if they give themselves eight hours, they’re going to spend four hours procrastinating until they’re inside that window of “I only have four hours left,” and all of a sudden they buckle down and get it done. And when it comes to paying bills it’s very similar. People procrastinate on that because what I call their concentration threshold for managing their finances is about 20 minutes. So they sit down for an hour and they procrastinate for 40 minutes until they’re up to their concentration threshold, and then they finally engage, because 20 minutes is their maximum time frame for finances.

Leveraging your concentration threshold is a three-step process:

  1. Determine what specific activity is evoking procrastination. Resist the temptation to identify yourself as “a procrastinator.” Most people who think they procrastinate all of the time, on further analysis, come to realize that they only procrastinate on a very small, but important, number of things.
  2. Determine how long it takes to complete a task including procrastination time. In other words, count the time to completion from the moment your scheduled yourself to start to the time you actually started, then from the time you actually started to the time you finished for the day.
  3. The next time you schedule the task, only allot the amount to time that elapsed when you actually engaged from start to finish, which is very likely your concentration threshold.

Parkinson’s Law and Concentration Threshold look similar, since both call for shortening time allocations. But Parkinson’s Law always advocates time reduction, acting as a pressure valve, whereas Concentration Threshold requires sometimes reducing time, sometimes increasing it.

If you work in an environment where you’re required to put in a fixed number of hours, another way to apply the principle is to determine when your attention starts to wane (well, not yours or mine, but our friends and coworkers), then schedule your break periods right before those times. Learn to look for the natural ebbs and flows of your attention and work with them rather than against them.

(Photo credit: sfllaw)


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