Get More Done By Giving Yourself Less Time

by James Scott Bell

You’ve probably heard Parkinson’s Law articulated, even if you didn’t know its name. It was formulated by C. Northcote Parkinson, one of those appellations whose authoritative grandeur makes you stand at attention. He was actually an English naval historian and novelist, and quite prolific. So it must have been with some consternation that his most famous work turned out to be the little book Parkinson’s Law, which arose out of a satirical article about government bureaucracy.

In short form, Parkinson’s Law holds that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. As explained in this article, the adage…

…signifies that the more time we dedicate to a certain task, the longer it will take to complete it, even if we could have gotten the task done just as well in a shorter period of time.

For example, according to Parkinson’s law, if we’re given a week to perform a task that it can normally take us a day to complete, then we will end up unnecessarily stretching our performance of that task, until it takes us a week to complete it.

This is why publishing houses give writers deadlines. And why writers almost always find themselves massively stressed in the weeks before a manuscript is due. They could have been early with the book, but they aren’t because they’ve expanded the work all the way to the deadline. It’s almost magically perverse.

This is why it’s important for indie writers to establish SIDs—self-imposed deadlines. Otherwise, it’s just too dang easy to loaf about you manuscript, especially if it’s giving you some trouble.

The article suggests the following:

To account for Parkinson’s law in your work, you need to start each task by identifying its scope, and trying to determine how much time it will realistically take to complete it.

That is, don’t ask yourself how much time you have to complete a task. Instead, ask yourself how much time it should realistically take you to complete that task, and do your best to complete your work within that timeframe.

In other words, set your own deadline based on what you could realistically accomplish if you parked your keister in the chair each day and did your work!

Further, you can put time constraints on a micro level as well. Let’s say you have four months to write 70k words, and you know your writing schedule and daily quota can easily get you there. Don’t get cocky.

Instead, figure out what you can optimally produce per week, up that number by 10%, and make that your goal.

You can even go smaller. Every now and then I give myself five minutes to write 250 words. I’ll often use Dr. Wicked’s Write or Die for this task. Nothing jump starts the writer’s mind like forced, fast writing (with the possible exception of a double espresso).

Final bit of advice. Parkinson had another law, the Law of Triviality, which holds that members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Might I suggest that this applies to individuals, too.

For writers this might mean that when you sit down to write you first check your social media or email, or rearrange your desk, or finish that Sudoku you’ve been working on.

Indeed, there even seems to be a new corollary at work today: the amount of available triviality on the internet exponentially expands our desire to experience it.

Which leads to another law: Every “peep of steam through [your social media] whistle — Listen to me! Listen to me! — [reduces] the boiler pressure … needed to write another novel.”

Solution: Practice digital minimalism, set your own strict time limits when you work, and write!

Does Parkinson’s Law resonate with you? Do you find yourself filling up all the time you have for completing things?

40 thoughts on “Get More Done By Giving Yourself Less Time

  1. I worry about this: what if I research just one more idea…

    Triviality leaches into a manuscript when you expand your flight time to explore the clouds instead of landing the darn plane.

    At the Writers Police Academy last weekend, I met a woman whose publisher set her deadline at one Amish Romance every 3 months. I didn’t even know that was a thing, but she’s had lucrative success for over a year. Talk about task compression.

  2. My deadlines vary, depending on my editor’s schedule. Since I’m my own publisher, I can set a productivity goal of 2 new books a year, which allows me the “luxury” of goofing around and getting trivial, but my routine is pretty much the same regardless of where I am in the process. Social media, email and blogs over coffee, then personal stuff like breakfast, showering, etc. before opening the WIP. From there, I’m word count driven, so how much time for the rest of life depends on how well the words are flowing.

    • I try to hammer out 250-350 before anything else (save coffee). Makes the rest of the writing day easier. But I do find myself easily diverted to my Feedly…

      • I’ve found I can’t type a coherent sentence first thing, so I wait until fingers and brain are more in sync before attempting any “serious” writing.

  3. I can relate. Being an indie author I can write as I choose. I also don’t depend on writing for income, so that also allows me to procrastinate. If I approached my writing schedule like I would a deadline on my full-time job, I’d get a lot more done. I remember my mother once said she got more housework done in less time before she retired. That’s because she knew she had a certain amount of time to dedicate to the task.

    Another great post, James.

    • And Joan, there were some writers in the past (e.g., John Cheever) who would shower, shave, and dress in suit and tie, then go to a place to write. Like they had a job in corporate America. When I left a big law firm to go out on my own, it was easy to come to the office in jeans and Hawaiian shirt (if I wasn’t meeting a client). One day it hit me that I needed to do the suit and tie again, and I found myself more efficient and effective.

  4. Great post, Jim.

    Interesting background information. And I thought I was original when I compared time (spent on certain tasks, specifically providing services to other people) to the physics definition of gas (not gasoline) – a substance that expands to fill the container in which it is placed.

    Always having more tasks than there is time to accomplish them, I have to prioritize, knowing that some things will never get done. Since I am still working full time, I have three “days off.” I reserve half of each day for writing, and I do the writing first.

    Thanks for the post.

    I enjoyed Tough Guy, your latest Patreon story. I hope you are enjoying the writing the short stories.

    • I like your gas analogy, Steve. I often heard that comparison when I was practicing law.

      I do enjoy the discipline, but also the joy, of the Patreon stories. Thanks for being on the train!

  5. This does resonate with me. I seem to major on minors during my writing time, instead of majoring on the only thing I should be doing…writing! Thanks for putting it into perspective succinctly. Sitting my keister down now…

  6. This is a much better approach then my saying “somehow carve out 30 minutes today to work on your novel.” I carve out the 30 minutes, but I might not use the 30 minutes wisely. Instead of word count, I might think of some side research item I need to look up, etc. Then sure enough, that 30 minutes is filled up but I really didn’t get anywhere.

  7. So true, Jim! Also loved Steve’s gas analogy.

    Self-imposed deadlines have always been hard for me.

    But give me an OID (other-imposed deadline) and I’ll move mountains to meet it. Must write 20 new pages to submit to my critique group next week; must stay up past midnight to finish editing another author’s book b/c THEY’RE racing to meet THEIR deadline; must finish new TKZ post by Tuesday, etc.

    I’ve learned to trick my brain into reframing SIDs into OIDs and that works better. I don’t need to finish this draft b/c I (self) need to but b/c readers (others) are asking when the next book comes out.

    What crazy mind games we writers play, sheesh!

  8. Parkinson’s Law does resonate with me, but only in relation to writing my own work. When I worked full time as a research librarian, I had writing and editing responsibilities that I always completed on or before schedule. Not so with my novel writing–it took me four years since my first novel to publish my second novel (last week). However, I started my third novel yesterday and have set deadlines to slash the time to publication. I know from experience I can meet these deadlines if I don’t fool around. I will post this article on the bulletin board over my computer desk.

    • Excellent, Truant. I constantly have to remind myself not to “fool around.” I try to set little rewards (social media, a game) for completing a word count.

  9. I hate being pressured and so never procrastinate any important task, preferring to complete it before doing anything else. I do bounce between my art projects (I have several requested paintings I am working to complete) and my writing. I strive for a minimum of 500 words a day regardless whether the Muse is on fire or not, more if the words are really flowing, and two hours of painting. Sometimes life gets in the way of my plans, but I’ve learned not to stress over it, and just pick the pace back up when things slow down.

    My biggest problem is pacing myself so I don’t burn out whether it is writing, painting, or household tasks. Now that I’m in the (ahem, cough) later years, stamina is a big factor. But that is the benefit of retirement from the day job. I have the luxury of pacing, if I’ll just do it. Admitting I can’t do it all in one day is hard, but I’m working on it.

    Love your posts, James. They are always thought provoking and informative.

  10. And then there’s Coach’s Law: A purse’s size will expand so as to hold the junk available.

    Seriously, good and timely post. I can’t work without a deadline. Thanks for the reminder. Back to work, even on Sunday.

  11. It’s so true, Jim. When I was writing and still working full time at the day job (which was really the night job, given I worked the graveyard shift most of the time) I knew I had limited writing time. So I’d get to bed about 9AM, up about 2PM (obviously what fell by the wayside was sleep) and write–and only write–until time to get ready for work again at 9PM. Did both for six years, and the latest I was ever early was two weeks before deadline. Now, I can fritter away hours down the research rabbit hole, or think “I can catch up next week…” I always do, but boy, that stress…

  12. Such great truth here!

    Occasionally (okay, rarely), when I would pop out of bed earlier than necessary on a workday, I would rejoice in the fact that I had so much more time to prepare for the day. And then I’d be late for work.

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