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)

Tags: Productivity

Comments

  • JCNo Gravatar // May 6, 2009 at 10:48 am

    I can’t express how timely (I did not intend the pun, really) this article is.

    My wife and I have griped about doing dishes and usually procrastinate doing them. A few weeks ago, I wondered just how long it took to do them. It turned out that an average load only takes 10 minutes. I continued to time it and found that it almost always came out to 10 minutes. This is what I’d been dreading? I couldn’t believe it.

    I made up a quick spreadsheet program and imported my tasks in from my favorite GTD app, Tracks, and have been profiling my time to completion. This in conjunction with your article is helping me to be more motivated and fight procrastination (and plan more realistically when I underestimate).

    I gained unexpected productivity from sorting sorting the tasks by estimated time. I just powered through the majority of my 5-15min tasks. This kind of goes against the GTD idea that it’s hard to switch between tasks of differing contexts or types of work, but it gave me some good focus. It also motivated me to try to beat my estimates. I guess I’ll see how the longer tasks go.

  • Challenging the productivity police — Mindful Time Management // May 8, 2009 at 8:09 pm

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  • lindaNo Gravatar // May 14, 2009 at 7:56 am

    Your insights about over and under-estimating the amount of time allotted for a task have given me a new outlook on productivity.

    I’ve been doing a great job of following my to-do list but I became a slave to following my to-do’s. I’ve implemented a new system of writing in a journal every morning to determine what my goals are so that I can tweak my to-do list.

    Now that I know about our inherent urge to fritter allotted time it’s like I have a great new tool in my mental toolbox.

    Thank you so much!

  • Ferienwohnung KroatienNo Gravatar // May 30, 2009 at 8:01 am

    Thank you for this wonderful article of you I really the “Leveraging your concentration threshold is a three-step process” and I think it really works on me. I should recommend this to my friends and colleagues.

  • Paul Maurice MartinNo Gravatar // Jun 23, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    It’s interesting to see this in black and white. Paying attention to deviations in my own ability to concentrate is a habit I picked up at work myself. It started when I noticed that I could be really tired of one task and feel that I needed a break – but it was really only a break from that task that I needed. I could turn my attention to something else that needed doing and get back to the first task with more energy later.

  • Jim TressorNo Gravatar // Jul 30, 2009 at 7:17 am

    I think it’s interesting that Parkinson’s law doesnt really apply in a lot of situations, and yet still gets so much press because of its applicability in hierarchical organizations. Here is an interesting article on why Parkinson’s Law isn’t always necessarily applicable: http://www.mindreign.com/en/mindshare/Global-Economics/Less-is-More/sl35291137bp353cpp10pn1.html

  • RogerNo Gravatar // Sep 19, 2009 at 4:31 pm

    My concentration levels can fluctuate hugely based on the food I consume. I generally feel frequent distractions when my stomach is full and not so many when I eat lighter foods like fruits. Fluctuations also happen based on what time you are attempting to do a particular work. I generally work without distractions early in the mornings but things are different when I work at nights

  • wiseinvestorNo Gravatar // Feb 23, 2010 at 6:34 am

    I first hear of Concentration Threshold but I felt that it is very true. Need to determine and allocate myself the optimal time to complete tasks.

    But the Parkinson Law is what many people experience and that is why bosses and superiors always gives deadlines.

  • Six Time Management Tools from Julie Morgenstern // Jul 17, 2010 at 4:46 pm

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  • Mike | Outofstress.comNo Gravatar // Aug 1, 2010 at 3:21 am

    I totally agree that when you are under a bit of pressure, you tend to complete the work really fast, often to an extend that you get surprised at your working ability. I have noticed that I have the ability to complete a task in less than one fourth the time I usually take to finish it when I don’t have a set deadline.

  • John GoalNo Gravatar // Sep 2, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    I think you nailed it with parkinsons law, work does seem to expand to fill the time available. Sometimes this can work in your favour by encouraging you to work more quickly which can be handy if you are working to a deadline, but if you give yourself too much time to do something, it can sometimes have the opposte effect and cause you to procrastinate! I find one of the best ways to manage my time is to estimate how long something is going to take, and then allocate a specific period of time in my day to it. This works, most of the time!

  • kahve oyunlariNo Gravatar // Nov 23, 2010 at 7:33 am

    I think you nailed it with parkinsons law, work does seem to expand to fill the time available. Sometimes this can work in your favour by encouraging you to work more quickly which can be handy if you are working to a deadline, but if you give yourself too much time to do something, it can sometimes have the opposte effect and cause you to procrastinate! I find one of the best ways to manage my time is to estimate how long something is going to take, and then allocate a specific period of time in my day to it. This works, most of the time!

  • kahve oyunlariNo Gravatar // Nov 23, 2010 at 7:34 am

    My concentration levels can fluctuate hugely based on the food I consume. I generally feel frequent distractions when my stomach is full and not so many when I eat lighter foods like fruits. Fluctuations also happen based on what time you are attempting to do a particular work. I generally work without distractions early in the mornings but things are different when I work at nights

  • JennyNo Gravatar // Dec 13, 2010 at 3:58 am

    Actually, I am always having problem with managing my time. I never succeed to complete all the tasks that I plan to do that day. But, interestingly, if I plan more things, although I cannot complete all of them, the amount of things that I complete is more than the days that I plan less things to do.

  • Dave GlassNo Gravatar // Feb 10, 2011 at 2:54 am

    I like that this article is not extremely pushy on telling you EXACTLY how to manage time.